Varun Sardana’s journey into fashion started with his work as head designer for Varun Bahl, a leading Indian designer, while he was still in college. He also got engaged with freelance projects during his college days. After passing out from National Institute of Fashion Technology in 2003, Varun continued working with Varun Bahl for a year. He went on to establish his own personal brand “Varun Sardana” in 2007. He received "Bijenkorf Fashion Design Award 2004" in Amsterdam in 2004, which was perhaps the start of his upswing in career. The British Council has played a crucial role in taking his brand international. Varun was invited by the British Council to participate in the Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre in London in May 2010. Based on his show there, he was signed up by Blow PR, one of U.K.’s best fashion PR companies to represent his international press.
Varun Sardana was chosen as one of the finalist of British Council's Fashion Entrepreneur Award – for more details on Young Fashion Entrepreneur award click here
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Launched in 2007-08 in Delhi, at the Wills India Fashion Week, "Varun Sardana" has established itself as one of the most innovative brands in India in a very short period of time. The brand was picked up by French Agents MC2 Diffusion only in its second season and has been showing its collection to international buyers at the MC2 Showroom, during Paris Fashion Week, for the last five seasons. The brand has a strong focus on using age-old couture techniques in new and innovative ways for a diffusion line, thereby making it more accessible. The label seeks to marry the wealth of hand-skills from the east with fabrics and technology from the west to create a truly unique and new age brand. Varun Sardana is stocked in about 30 established niche stores in Europe, Middle East, South East Asia, America, and India.
In his candid talk with chief evangelist of YourStory Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, Varun Sardana shared his experiences as a designer, frustrations as an entrepreneur with no ecosystem support, and a creative artist whose efforts do not pay off always. The journey is filled with enthusiasm, excitement, and ecstasy and at the same moment dark clouds do pass over when every six months new collections have to be created and showcased and if those collections do not translate into real business profits.
Personal journey into design
During his stint with Varun Bahl, Varun Sardana worked on international assignments with a large focus on Western wear. In 2004, Varun was chosen to represent Indian fashion in Amsterdam among only three designers for Bijenkorf Fashion Design Award 2004. He won the award. All the three designers have to craft a collection and set up a ramp show. Bijenkorf is a departmental store with 14 outlets in Netherlands. As part of the competition, Varun produced a collection for Bijenkorf for a season. Varun went on to establish his own studio with an initial investment of Rs. 50,000, which he got as prize money, when he was required to produce 600 pieces for the store. Simultaneously he worked on freelance projects, independent projects, and on his own label. During this time, he was trying to study the market in India.
In 2006, Varun tested waters in India with a retail store project in South Delhi in Greater Kailash Market. He established the store with a film maker friend of his along with a photographer. His idea behind the store was to provide platform for young creative entrepreneurial talent not necessarily with design background to showcase their work. The store worked on a range of products like books and magazines design, clothing, fashion accessories, household accessories, and others. After one-and-half years, the store was closed due to various reasons.
In 2007, Varun Sardana brand was displayed at the Wills Fashion Show, which was a big hit and set up a platform for Varun to launch himself into an international brand. With some interesting projects in between, Varun Sardana is trying to establish its presence in the Indian market with a unique marketing and PR strategy independent of the mainstream PR.
In India, Varun feels, a lot of ground work needs to be done to establish the brand as the structure is not in place. Sustaining a small upcoming brand is a challenge. When you start with setting up a brand, you end up doing lot other things, which does not involve activities necessarily as a designer. The system like in the West where investors are available does not exist in India. The designer also takes care of admin, factory, and marketing and PR in India whereas an ecosystem facilitates the designer only to concentrate on his creative work in the West. The design industry is still nascent in India. Varun feels proud of his achievements in three years despite such bottlenecks.
During Paris fashion week, in which Varun is participating for the last five seasons, the brand gets attention from many geographies like the Middle East, America, and Europe where the buyers show a lot of interest and place orders. Further, the market is not seasonal in India as in the West. Signing up with Blow PR in London has helped building and positioning the brand after his participation in the Alchemy festival organized by the British Council in May 2010.
Talking of this design, he says his collections are not intended for the mainstream Indian market. His designs are influential and probably could compare with the West. So marketing and finding stores for a niche product like his requires a different PR strategy.
Marrying creativity and business
“When you are engaged in creative designs, you borrow a lot from the environment. My brand is new, fresh, different, and avant grade to an extent. My designs are therefore not meant for everyone,” says Varun talking about his creative focus. As a creative person, Varun does not intend to cater to every segment of the population. He feels his brand will get its recognition in time as his ideas are futuristic. His intention is to create greater awareness about his work and philosophy. “It should fit into the culture and thought processes of the people at that point in time,” he feels. He wants to create a directional brand rather than the one that reacts to the demands of the market. Right now, his design connects more with people in Paris rather than in India.
Coming from an urban background and with influences from the family, Varun likes experimenting with the form of the fabric. His style is not necessarily traditional. The techniques are quite different from the usual. Varun says “Indian designers don’t focus on form.” Stitched garments are still not widely the norm. So it is necessary for young designers to capture the imagination of people. So Varun has made his design a still more nicher. His brand requires a budget for indulgence. It is not an everyday wear. With the buying pattern of consumers changing with wardrobes getting refurbished every six months as opposed to occasion-based shopping in yesteryears, Varun says his focus is on product that works in India as well as the West. His “contemporarizing” of clothing would appeal to both India and the West.
Communicating on the ideology of branding is important, according to Varun. Creativity should be visible in all activities including marketing. This becomes all the more relevant when you build new ways of doing things. “There is still scope for experimentation in India,” he says.
Varun Sardana’s brand is niche. The price points are higher, say ranging from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 50,000. Obviously, it is not a common brand. “When choosing your clientele, the size of your product is crucial,” avers Varun. Upper middle class, middle class with fashion sense, and upper strata of the society are Varun’s three target sectors. Varun’s brand need not be earmarked only for mega events like wedding. You could also think of parties, family get together, and any function you are attention to drape yourself. The buyers should be slightly “evolved” in fashion and understand his creation. “I am targeting a little fashionably aware kind of a clientele,” says Varun. When someone walks into the store, it is not the collection that matters. They would want to associate with the brand. So, according to Varun, the brand should have a philosophy that should be easily spotted and applied to the product. Positioning as an individual in the society would mean more people getting to know your philosophy and associating themselves with your brand.
Varun feels that he did not identify any celebrity who can connect with his brand and its philosophy. “But I would like to associate with creative celebrities who would like to have your level of madness as well,” he quips. Celebrity endorsement is not a simple brand building exercise where an actress comes and just flaunts the Varun Sardana brand. At times, Varun is not comfortable with celebrity endorsements for the same reasons that the celebrity should be able to connect to his brand on a personal level. Despite many offers, he has taken note of anything yet seriously. Varun’s final take is, “I haven’t not come across a proposal yet that will benefit both the parties yet.”
Living with uncertainty in the creative business
Varun feels lucky in his brand getting early recognition. But importantly he talks about an environment that is unable to sustain talent. Although opportunities are available aplenty, there is no financial backup for a creative person to explore the opportunities. As a result, many designers commercialize fast and sell out. This means one cannot hold on to the creative philosophy for long. “Doing a show costs a lot of money and at times it does not make business sense to do them,” he says. The show would not translate into real business and the designers would not reap benefits from investment. That’s the reality in this creative design business. Organizers, sponsors, and product companies make a good amount of money on fashion shows but the creative designer ends up high and dry. Varun feels that there should a way for designers to convert their imagination into real cash. Varun obtained a lot of moral support and other forms of support but that should get better, according to him. Had the government or fashion design companies provided him support, his life would have been much more simpler. That would encourage young designers in his opinion.
Fashion shows are done, say, every six months. So working on the show becomes a major part of the job. This is a big opportunity as you can identify your faults from your previous show and work on them. So every six months, an opportunity to renew the brand has sustained it and has made it possible to reach where it is today, according to Varun. More support systems in form of investors, collaborators would really help young, aspiring designers as a couple of lakhs are spent every six months on fashion shows.
On fashion shows not translating into real business
Varun likes to look at the proposition differently. He feels the opportunity presents itself to renew yourself every six months. Not many industries present you with that opportunity. We could do something like 150 pieces and out of that, one or two may be your favourite. “My expectation of business is from the whole show and not from a single piece,” according to Varun. Sometimes the shows don’t get the business because people attending the show may not be from fashion background, maybe friends who work in the call center have dropped in to see what is going on, maybe people from social sector. So it is important to move forward considering what did not work the previous time. “That way, fashion industry is very progressive. But it could be a bit taxing on you. But you should look at this positively,” points out Varun. Every fashion show is a great learning experience for Varun as he receives feedback on his work. The analysis then gets deep down even to the fabric level so that improvements can be thought of.
Delving further about fashion shows, Varun states quite romantically: “Each collection is like a lover I had for six months. It engages me everyday, reveals itself to me slowly….evolves and helps me evolve with it. It's like exploring a relationship. Falling in love with an idea is exactly like falling in love with a person…I love that period when love is fresh, young and naive…nothing brings more joy to the heart than being in love. I feel blessed that every six months I have a new affair, a new passionate engagement. Sometimes you leave some stories incomplete but in your heart you know that you will come back to them; sometimes the affair is passionate, fulfilling and burns you out completely and you just move on …looking for new lovers.”
High points in career
There have been a few but Varun, in his view, has not hit the high point that he really wanted. When Varun was picked up by the French design agency MC2 in the second season, that is truly a great moment for him. MC2 had picked up their youngest designer ever and the association is likely to catapult Varun Sardana to international levels. MC2 works with many leading designs across the world. So it was encouraging for Varun to be recognized by someone in the industry who know the turf very well. “My last show was fulfilling very creatively,” says Varun as he was able to do many things out of the box. This was the Wills Show. The same collection was taken to Alchemy festival on invitation from British Council. These are Varun’s milestones according to him.
Varun’s design philosophy
“My designs are not only meant to be put out on the hangar for people to buy,” feels Varun. He would like people to relate to the brand and take a story back with them. The design should evoke varied emotions in a person. It should connect with the buyer in some way or the other that it builds brand loyalty. “There should be a tactile feel to it,” as per Varun. You should want to keep it with you for lifetime!
He adds: “I always like to look for my ideas among everyday experiences and things that surround us all the time. I am really not fascinated by the bizarre or unworldly depths of the imagination. I like to pick on something mundane and everyday and transform it into something new, something different. I am obsessed with playing with detailing, whether it is multiple ways of using buttons or placing seams or mixing different fabrics together. It's the interplay of opposites that interests me and my garments always aspire to escape the definitions that bind them- whether it is the use of embellishment to transform relaxed silhouettes or the use of menswear detailing in feminine shapes. I am not very trend motivated, I feel my clothes should have a character that is inherent and not defined by either local aesthetic or global trends.”
- Elle India awarded him Elle Style Awards consecutively in 2008 and 2009.
- Timeout (Delhi) featured him in their list of their young creative achievers in India called "25 under 30" in 2009.
- Vogue (India) featured his SS10 as one of the best 10 collections of the season.
- Hindustan Times awarded him the title "the next big thing " in their designer category consecutively for 2010.
- Varun has been invited by the prestigious Parisian store Aux Laines Ecossaises to design a limited edition line of his menswear and home ,which will be launched at the store during Paris Fashion Week in October 2010.
Varun’s creative energies lend a persona that is powerful, evocative, and emotionally gentle. His design philosophy coupled with business sense for the niche audience positions him unenviably to explore and experiment. YourStory is awestruck by the young designer’s exploits on the fabric and wishes him all the very best.
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