Design in India, make for the world

Dr. Darlie Koshy’s pioneering contributions to fashion and design education over the last quarter of a century has been well acknowledged by academia, industry and policymakers alike. A Doctorate in Management from IIT Delhi and an MBA from CUSAT, Koshy has been also trained at FIT New York in Fashion Marketing & Merchandising. As Founding Chairperson of Fashion Management Studies at NIFT, New Delhi after the successful stint of a decade as a top manager in the textiles-handloom sector, Koshy built a strong industry interface and thought leadership for NIFT from 1988 till 2000, when he was appointed Director of National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmadabad. As a researcher and academic leader, Koshy’s pioneering books on international marketing of apparel are highly regarded by the textiles industry and academia. His ‘Indian Design Edge’ traces the evolution of Indian design while arguing for a design-enabled India. Here he builds a case for “design in India”.

The ‘apparel’, ‘clothing’, ‘garment’, ‘fashion’ and ‘lifestyle’ industries have undergone two significant changes since the beginning of the new century. With the dismantling of quotas since 2005, exporters of apparel are free from restrictions of quotas and only competitiveness through ‘scale’, ‘quality’ and ‘innovation’ matter now. The other change that happened around the same time was the rapid growth of the domestic fashion retail industry with recent exponential expansion of e-tailing/m-commerce/omni-channels, etc. Building competitiveness of the apparel industry is the biggest challenge in the context of immense competition from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc. The local domestic garment industry has a CAGR of 15-18 per cent per annum and the apparel exports around 8-10 per cent. The fashion/design education curricula, therefore, need to be industry-led and capable of “leading industry” as well.

The curricula for fashion need to turn to focused attention on “fashion business” from just extreme focus only on ‘design’. World over the word ‘management’ is giving way to the more old-fashioned ‘business’ with focus on individual ‘entrepreneurship’ made possible through advancement in digital/ sensor technologies. As Western management experts say, everything will revolve around ‘algorithm, digitisation, sensors’ and ‘customer connect through social and other media’ with “more one-to-one” than mass-marketing”. Fashion is becoming like pizzas with base of fabrics, 3D patterns, silhouettes with select ‘topping’ of what changes often round the year, colours, styling details, fashion features, etc. The ‘Zarafication’ of fashion and ‘instant gratification’ through m-commerce is delivering fashion like pizzas at your doorstep often in less than 6-8 hours. Big data analytics, numeric and fashion need to be now combined in the new age curricula for “business of fashion”.

The education system and the loopholes therein

The All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE)’s pre-conditions and norms for niche institutions in de novo and creativity focused areas like fashion and lifestyle, including for ‘design’ related programmes, are obsolete and need to be recast. The Ministry of Textiles in its 12th Five Year Plan Sub-Committee report had said that AICTE and the University Grant’s Commission (UGC) have not paid any attention to envisage and nurture ‘fashion’ related education programmes both at UG/ PG levels and, therefore, recommended the setting up of a ‘Fashion & Textile Education Council’ to take care of all fashion institutes and their programmes. Despite the 12th FYP already being in its last two years, there has been no progress on the part of ministry in this regard.
The UGC has not cared to even update their obsolete 2003 guidelines for private universities which are really the new engines of growth for skilling and ‘Make in India’. For example, as of now according to the UGC, a private university cannot partner with a technical or sectoral institution outside the jurisdiction of the state to offer students better employability. Is it really a tenable guideline as universities have to partner with sectoral institutions which are located in respective geographical clusters wherever they are to increase employability in leather or apparel or jewellery for their rural/mofussil students?
Certainly, the higher and vocational (skill) education need to be given lot more attention to come out with more realistic guidelines by statutory bodies who seem to be in deep slumber in their comfort zones. They need to reinvent themselves in line with the ‘Skilling India’ motto of our country in the completely changed context. Context is everything for decisions and contemporary law-making. The entire higher education and vocational education is crying for reforms. I do hope the government pays attention. There is not enough effort to converge the ‘mainstream’ with ‘vocational system’ through contemporary regulations except paying lip service, even now.

Foreign universities also need to come into India at some point, but before that the widespread usage of ‘twinning’ programmes, meaningful academic collaborations through dynamic arrangements, need to be absorbed into the system in a more conducive legal and statutory environment by contemporary regulations. The ‘validity of degrees’, ‘equivalence of credits’ and course work/research work integration, etc, need to be worked out for creating a more robust system. Just like FDI in the retail sector, FDI through foreign universities need to have a phased entry so that the Indian education system suddenly is not destabilised with core limited faculty resources pulled out by better salaries or higher fees putting upward pressure on fee structure.

It is also imperative that our indigenous institutions’ quality of education programmes and research are brought up to a sufficient level to allow a level-playing field. Meanwhile, the educational technology of overseas universities need to be certainly absorbed through quality assurance arrangements as IAM has done with Wolverhampton University and NID, Ahmadabad (where I was director from 2000 to 2009) earlier with BIAD in UK.

Our country needs ‘job providers’ instead of ‘only job seekers’. There is a priority need for promoting entrepreneurship through incubation. I am glad that the Prime Minister has set up a Ministry for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, which is a highly laudable step.

India’s rapidly growing economy is getting integrated into the global economy; new opportunities emerge every day. However, the students’ skills and competencies should match with opportunities. You have to keep the worm warm to catch the fish in cold climes as the story says. Earlier, companies were looking towards having people with 80 per cent knowledge and 20 per cent skills. Now, companies look to have 80 per cent skills and 20 per cent knowledge in the candidates they seek out. Students have to make considerable attitudinal change and actually demonstrate the skills, whether in information technology or in fashion. So the next folds are matching skills and competencies for employability by the youth being the fourth point, and matching opportunities with talent and focusing on demonstrable skills being the fifth and sixth in the to-do list. The ability to accept change as the new normal and embracing new technologies is the seventh, so to say.

The hierarchy of design in a corporate structure

The words ‘design’ and ‘fashion’ are magnetic, and they both bring magic to the products or services which they choose to touch or transform. However, the power of design and fashion has not been used sufficiently in our country which is high on creativity. I had pioneered and formulated the National Design Policy which was approved by the government of India in 2007. However, follow-up action to realise the action plan, including the India Design Council, has not only been tardy but been without passion and drive too. We had coined the slogans ‘Design enabled India’ and ‘Designed in India, Made for the World’. Those have not been carried forward either by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion or by the institutes.

I had advocated in my book of 1994 that instead of becoming a factory to the world like China, India should become a “creative manufacturer” or “creative supplier of fashion or apparel” to the world. Nobody paid enough attention. The core of a successful brand is design. However, innovation has encroached a lot from the territory of design, being linked to technology and therefore more acceptable to the higher echelons of management. Design is associated with skills and therefore clubbed with lower functional categories. There is a need to change this hierarchy in the corporate structure. The Chief Designer or Chief Emotion (Design) Officer (CEO/CDO) are equally important as CEO or COO. As I had evangelised in my book ‘Indian Design Edge’ (Roli Books, 2008), India needs to make “Designed in India, Made for the World” a priority along with the ‘Make in India’ initiative of the Prime Minister to get a well-deserved place for India in the global arena.

Administrators in the Ministry of Textiles had a surprisingly wonderful idea in 1985-86 to visit the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York, and to emulate the institute by setting up a fashion school in India in 1986-87. The idea was really ahead of its times. FIT which is a part of New York State University even now has only one campus in one location. Of course, it has set up collaborative ventures in Italy and also initiated the NIFT in New Delhi. The idea was to create world class designers from a specialised high quality campus with high quality faculty members to create Indian fashion brands and designers for the world.

As it happens only in India, the idea was diluted by successive governments from 1994 for the setting up of several NIFTs in the country. Every state wanted one NIFT as it is a feather in their cap, irrespective of whether the state understood the concept or not, or whether the right environment existed there or not.

The institutes have been run mostly by bureaucrats, ensuring that the founding faculty members of NIFT are made to feel uncomfortable and that they leave the Institute, which they did. In a way, the setting up of 17 NIFTs has democratised fashion but as far as creating world class designers is concerned, the effort has fallen way below expectations. Moreover, the Indian domestic apparel industry and the exports industry were not often willing to bet on creativity and design, and chose to focus on manufacturing technology and costs to match customer expectations.

The government has not appreciated enough for the value of creativity, innovation and design towards developing a long-term strategy and therefore there is very little action on the ground. It will take many more years before we see a star brand from designers or otherwise. If India could take world by storm through International Yoga Day on June 21, 2015, the day is not far when an Indian fashion brand will also take the world by storm, if imagination is backed by resources and if mediocrity does not pull down institutions like NIFT and NID.

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