It has been three decades since the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) was established. The fashion industry itself has changed dramatically since then. It's now an era of brands and m-commerce, and an ever-growing industry needs quality human resources to provide a backbone. Subir Ghosh looks at the problems and prospects of the fashion education system in India.

 

Sometime in the late-1990s, just months after Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai won two major International beauty pageants, a fashion consciousness started taking shape. For the uninitiated as also for common people, this was reckoned to be the turning point for Indian fashion. But the more discerning and the more aware know for certain that none of this would have been possible had the fertile ground not been laid another ten years earlier through a rather low-key initiative of the Indian government: the establishment of a seemingly nondescript institute called the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT).

The foundation stone for modern Indian fashion was laid by this venture of the ministry of textiles, a move that neither created a flutter nor caused a buzz anywhere. Thirty years later, the establishment of NIFT is acknowledged as the point of reference in all discourse on the Indian fashion world. Putting it differently: it all started with education, with that one course for fashion design at the NIFT campus in New Delhi.

 

The world since has metamorphosed markedly. Do leave international developments aside for a moment, and see what all has undergone transformation in India alone. After all, there were many other developments that had happened in parallel. In that ten-year-gap between the setting up of NIFT and the two beauty pageants, the seeds of liberalisation had already been sown. International brands trooped in one after the other, and retail exploded. Gradually, fashion became business, and the business became big.

 

Nevertheless, as one remarked, the world is not the same today as it was thirty years ago. The fashion landscape has transmuted and much ground has shifted, not just in India but the world over-it is a more exacting and decidedly more ruthless world now, and competitiveness decides survival. For the Indian fashion industry to not just expand beyond its shores but even to sustain there is a need for quality human resources: from designers and karigars to managers and strategists. No one questions this elementary truth: that the fashion ecosystem is all about its people. The question whence arises: do we have enough people? Do we have enough 'quality' people? NIFT may have been ahead of its times at one point; but has it stayed in tune with the changing times? Very broadly, are we rock solid as far as fashion education is concerned?

 

The premise for this debate is laid by Darlie Koshy, currently director general and chief executive officer of the Gurgaon-headquartered Apparel Training & Design Centre (ATDC). His pioneering contributions to fashion and design education over the last three decades have been well acknowledged by stakeholders. Koshy elaborates on the paradox, "The world over, various segments of the textiles-apparel industry do not see themselves as just 'raw materials' of fashion, but as an 'integrated global fashion system' in which cotton growers/man-made fibre producers, fabric manufacturers, designers, fashion-related media-all work towards promoting the current or forthcoming fashions for garments, home-furnishings, lifestyle products and accessories, so as to ensure better retail sales in keeping the industry moving on a self-sustained basis.

 

"Unfortunately in India, this cycle has not been established so far. Turf protection by each segment, and not having a holistic view (of the subject at hand) have created serious impediments in the growth of the textiles-apparel industry. The most unfortunate part is that there is hardly any dialogue between each other and also among one another. Only an 'integrated fashion' system that collectively moves towards creating consumer pull and demand for products can effectively create global leadership. Only then can the education system be productively interwoven and used." Education surely cannot have a standalone existence (See full interview: Pg 50: Institutes need to focus on the business of fashion).

 

The question of meeting requirements accordingly, the litmus test for the current fashion education system in India lies in ascertaining whether it is able to meet industry requirements. Here, institutes by and large believe that they are able to do so.

 

Dr. Vandana Narang, campus director of NIFT Delhi, asserts, "We at the NIFT are definitely able to meet the requirements of the industry; rather, we have set the bars and benchmarks for the fashion industry. Even during the recession of 2009-2010, when people were not hiring, design students were being picked up (from NIFT) and hired. I would say, yes, we are able to meet the requirements. But, as you asked that since the industry is ever-growing, are we providing quality education in everything? No, I don't think so." (See full interview: Pg 64: NIFT made all the difference)

 

Fashion institutes across the board profess that they are doing all in their limits to ensure that the curricula stay updated and they produce graduates who are well equipped for the future. For instance, at the Noida-based Amity School of Fashion Technology (ASFT), programmes are conceptualised on basis of requirements of the textiles and apparel industry. "These are benchmarked with renowned fashion institutions of the world. We have area advisory boards which comprise experts from relevant disciplines i.e. fashion design, fashion technology, fashion management, etc-who are involved when course outlines or programme structures are being framed or any changes proposed," says Pradeep Joshi, director-general. These boards include alumni, who also provide inputs on the needs and requirements of the industry. "Hence, a holistic approach consisting of academic as well as industry feedback is being taken for structuring course outlines, as well as programme structures of the various programmes being offered by us."

 

The course module at the Mumbai based BD Somani Institute of Art & Fashion Technology (BDSIAFT) "focuses on professional skills and thus it always thrives on updated industrial scenarios. We primarily focus on constructing a strong foundation, which anchors the core institution of design concepts that are universal and essential. We try and inculcate an intense course structure which helps the pupil in deriving knowledge from the traditional quintessential Indian techniques and utilise them in projecting a new global vision that is as unique as its inception." The words come from Raju Bhatia, the head of department for fashion, who goes on to add, "Our portfolios are dovetailed with industrial assignments, which allow and demand the student to interact with the industry, practically analyse and study the current scenario, and come up with real life design solutions. Our forte always has been one of creating designers who are strong in aesthetics, but also have a great understanding of both domestic and international markets."

 

At Lovely Professional University (LPU), which came up in Punjab almost 20 years after NIFT, students of the School of Fashion Design are encouraged to undertake assignments and project works from the industry, and work towards finding solutions to integrate their practical knowledge with industrial practices. Programmes are designed to combine students' creativity with managerial skills. "If a student can excel with colours, designs and shapes, he/she just needs professional skills to pursue a successful career in fashion designing and technology. Keeping these in mind, our programmes are designed and delivered with the objective of wholesome development of students," claims Aman Mittal, deputy director at LPU.

 

At Amity, faculty members keep on updating their understanding and requirements of industry, while students have industry mentors as well as they do ample amount of field work under non-teaching credit courses (NTCC) i.e. summer assignments, internships and dissertations. LPU too has associations with top designers of both national and international repute. For this, regular evaluation and feedback from designers and industry experts are sought, regular design workshops conducted, and periodic educational trips and industry visits organised. Interactive guest lectures by head designers from big brands are arranged as well. BD Somani Institute enjoys support from industrial bodies like the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India (CMAI), who provide them with opportunities in order to make the courses more vocational and primarily suitable for real-time fashion scenarios.

 

Besides, Amity has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Apparel Made-ups and Home Furnishing Sector Skill Council (AMHSSC) for various job roles, and is engaged in skill development for the industry. "We are organising national conferences, seminars, talk shows with designers, among others, for enabling students to interact with industry veterans. Recently, Amity School of Fashion Technology organised the National Conference on Fashion, Apparel & Textile 2016 (NCFAT'16)," says Joshi.

 

So, how enabled do students feel after completing the studies? Do they feel industry-ready after the course? Or do they fumble in the dark initially? Says Kunal Anil Tanna, "I graduated from NIFT Mumbai. The course by itself was extremely meticulous and the enthusiastic faculty helped us intensely to develop the required skills and techniques. As a freshly graduated designer I remember being confident, but of course working in the industry is a completely different ball game. Thankfully, I was placed with one of the best fashion houses and my boss, an eminent fashion and costume designer, was a great mentor."

 

The subject of meeting industry requirements can also be turned on its head if one accepts the argument that thirty years ago there was hardly any industry worth the name. Narang, in the context, does a throwback in time, "When we started, most were all family-managed businesses. The father or the husband would manage the business, the wife would design, and the children or the brother in- law would do the marketing. It was thought that anyone could be a designer-people thought I will take this colour, this fabric, and that trim, and it would be design. But that's hardly design. That is where NIFT made all the difference. We have transformed the mom-and-pop culture into a professionally-managed system."

 

Skewed in favour of design and communications

Then again, requirements would have changed since industry itself has transformed into an altogether different entity. If it's a question of meeting the current as also future specifications of the industry as a whole, the fashion education ecosystem needs to cater to each and every segment of the industry. This is possibly the gap that appears all too glaring. Rahul Mehta, president of the CMAI, therefore hits the nail on its head, "I do not think our fashion institutes lack in their quality of education. The problem is in their total focus on designing, while completely neglecting the other areas of fashion education-such as marketing, production, business of management, etc." Mehta, who has earlier been on the board of governors of NIFT, continues, "Many institutes do have these programmes, but even in their own systems, students of these verticals (the latter) are somehow looked upon as the poorer cousins of the design students. This is the inadequacy of our education."

 

Aspirants nevertheless make a beeline for the fashion design course, and if that slips by, fashion communication comes next. Says Joshi, "Fashion design has always been most attractive option for the candidates aspiring for a career in this field. Certainly, industry needs a good number of professionals in fashion technology and other areas too; but the number of applicants in those fields is relatively less."

Bhatia looks at the reasons for this fascination. "They are just too caught up with the initial infatuation of glamour, but along the way they learn that it's only 10 per cent of the runway glamour which exists only for few seconds. Talking about the new mainstream, image styling and fashion communications are booming as extended fashion careers. In a Bollywood-driven nation, celebrity styling, movie styling will never die. Also, because of television addiction, fashion and costume stylists are in demand."

 

Mittal disagrees partially on this count. "Without any doubt, each and every stream is equally important. Fashion design and fashion communication are also the most sought-after streams for students as per their talent, liking and passion. We don't think students are caught up too much with glamour so as to not understand the value of other streams. In fact, students should always be let free while opting for their programmes. A science-oriented student cannot justify himself/ herself in the field of arts, and similarly a fashion student can never be good with pharmaceuticals or engineering."

 

Not surprisingly, fashion design and fashion communication seats fill up fast at NIFT too. As Narang explains, "Other courses are material specific. Textile design is doing well. On the other hand, the leather industry is not so huge, so we have fewer numbers there. But we are doing a very good job in providing quality education. Knitwear again is a material-specific course and coming up in a big way. But yes, students prefer design and communication; there is no dearth of human resources. NIFT keeps these things in mind, and we evolve the number of seats. Today, our total number of seats for Bachelor's in design is 3,000+."

 

As someone who could be recruiting many of these students once they graduate, Mehta sums it up succinctly, "What the industry lacks today is the next generation production manager, the marketing genius who understands both marketing principles as well as fashion." Period. What Mehta keeps emphasising on is happening, but probably not at the pace required. ASFT, for instance, now offers an MBA in fashion management besides a two-year MA in fashion retail management as well as an MA in fashion and textile merchandising. All these programmes are specifically designed to cater to the requirements of management professionals for the fashion industry.

 

"Understanding that the bottom line of the fashion industry is retail; our school of fashion design lays emphasis on marketing, sales and advertising as well. It has its own self-sustained fashion store at the university mall that retails products made by the students of the school. This provides students ample opportunity to learn about sales and marketing even before graduating. Students are also given various live projects during the programme to create commercially viable designs. Many of the students have their own brands in the university market," points out Mittal.

 

This arguably is where the future lies. Koshy points out, "The fashion design institutes are not being still trusted for producing rounded managers, especially because they lack qualitative and analytical strengths. However, the original apparel marketing and merchandising programme at NIFT that later converted to a fashion management programme certainly has proven that it can produce top class managers as well. As the fashion industry moves to e-commerce and m-commerce, the new aspirants require understanding of fashion with 'business fundamentals' to become successful. Certainly, therefore, the 'business of fashion' should be a clear focus of fashion institutes to succeed in this business in the long run."?

 

People behind the people

While there may be differences of opinion on whether the education bloc is able to meet industry needs, what everyone is agreed upon is the contention that there is a shortage of faculty members.

 

Narang concurs readily, "There is a dearth of faculty across the education sector. The Indian Institutes of Technology have 40 per cent less faculty members than what they should have. At the very senior level, NIFT has a shortage of about 20 per cent. You can't just create professors; they have to develop over time. At the mid-level, we are more or less in place. We do regular recruitments, but on a need basis. We have a systematic way of inducting faculty. We appoint faculty who have a certain amount of experience in industry/education, besides qualifications. After that we have orientation programmes where they get to know the institute. Besides that, we have training programmes for trainers. We have very senior people training the trainers. We bring international faculty too for that purpose. Then we invite NIFT staffers from all over to participate in those courses. If needed, there is handholding too."

 

Joshi, who is himself a fellow and alumnus of the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) New York, echoes, "There is definitely a shortage of qualified faculty members in this field. We recruit faculty members as per University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines, and we notice that there is a shortage of faculty members with adequate qualifications in the design field. We engage experts as visiting faculty members from the relevant domains." Besides, ASFT has got state-of-art infrastructure that it leverages for students. "Our garment construction lab, textile lab and information technology (IT) lab are equipped with latest equipment and softwares," says Joshi, who had been associated with NIFT in the past, and is also author of Apparel & Textile Exports: Strategies for WTO Era (2006). Likewise, SFD-LPU looks for that perfect balance between in-house staff and visiting faculty. "The SFD-LPU is fortunate as 80 per cent of its faculty members are from NIFT and other top fashion schools. Moreover, the visiting faculty members too hail from the top institutions," says Mittal.

 

At BDSIAFT, Bhatia believes it is her responsibility to delegate task and departments among the staff considering their strengths and passion for the subject. "I have many of my alumni now teaching as visiting faculty. They help to provide fresh industrial insights, as also understanding the backdrop of the college's curriculum. One needs to be more respectful about every teacher."

 

There would be gaps. It's, after all, an educational framework that is just thirty years old. As Narang recollects, "When NIFT was launched, the government took the support of Nottingham Trent University as well as FIT New York, with the latter as mentor campus, while faculty members from the former were requested to contribute. They started with a very open mind about what fashion education in India should be. All faculty members at NIFT for the first ten years used to be sent abroad for training, which would range from six months to one year. Later, that was brought down to two months. The support came both from the Government of India as well as a project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). NIFT itself was one of the biggest success stories of UNDP. It all started with that one course (on fashion design) in 1986. Today, we have seven Bachelor's programmes and three Master's programmes."

 

Naturally, people like Tanna swear by the institute. As he says, "There is a reason why NIFT is the pioneer. With extensive resource centres, elaborate facilities, encouraging international exchange programmes, ever-growing skill-oriented courses, efficient and experienced faculty, it has only become better. The only thing I can say is that NIFT should maintain its standards in selection and curb admissions to preserve standards and exclusivity of graduates. I do feel that the curriculum at NIFT encompassed the required subjects. However, the options of industry opportunities are comparatively more varied abroad."

 

Koshy, however, is not taken in too much by the NIFT factor. This is in spite the fact that it was Koshy himself who had established the fashion management department at NIFT Delhi, and had served as a senior professor and chairperson for thirteen long years. "Look at the world over," he argues, "whether at Institut Francais de la Mode, Paris or at FIT New York or London College of Fashion or even any of the top fashion schools-they are all led by a group of professionals who focus on the quality of education. It is a sad story that the NIFT somewhere has lost the way, and it seems to be on a downward spiral. I don't see any research papers being published by the faculty members or any papers presented at international or even Indian seminars, and they are not even seen in the fashion shows organised by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) in Delhi or the Lakme-IMG Fashion Week in Mumbai. There has been no international activity to promote fashion in the entire last decade. NIFT is now like any other government university or college which produces degrees, but fails to promote the fashion ecosystem for the country."

 

Producing a Jimmy Choo or Issey Miyake

If all is well, as many still feel, then why doesn't India have its own Jimmy Choo or Issey Miyake?

 

On this too, Mehta steps back a bit, and helps one look at the bigger picture, "This is partly (because of the reasons) I have already mentioned earlier. In addition, is the lack of stature of India as a fashion source. Countries have a penchant for developing an image, and it is difficult for individuals to break out of this typeset. India's image is that of a producer of not-very-expensive and not-top-class-quality garments- not the creator of fashion. So, while individually some of our designers may be more than a match for any international name, it is not easy to be recognised as such. Of course, there are outstanding exceptions such as Ritu Beri, Manish Arora and more recently Rahul Mishra-but these are few and far between."

 

Somewhere, the entire education system is a culprit too because of a lopsided orientation. Unfortunately, designers in India seem to be making money only with wedding trousseaus and ethnic dresses. Hence, this becomes the goal of every student graduating from fashion institutes. So, whether one likes it or not, students, faculty and curriculum-all focus on turning out the next Rohit Bal, the next Sabyasachi. Becoming a global designer becomes difficult in such circumstances," decodes Mehta.

 

Bhatia, however, thinks these are early days yet, and stresses on the need for a strong Indian identity. "India has been a string support system in the overall global scheme of things. We are the innate backbone for many multinational brands in terms of manufacturing support. Our country is able to produce original visionaries like Manish Arora and Sabyasachi. Yes, we are in a nascent stage of fashion evolution. Things are flourishing, and talent is booming, but what is lacking is the right outlook change among consumers. Amidst the mass retail revolution, one needs to support the 'Made in India' tag and establish a new age fashion revolution. It's time to be fashion swadeshi all over again."

 

Mittal is optimistic, and believes it is just a matter of time before someone hits it big time, "Many Indian students might be on the verge of becoming famous like UK-based Malaysian designer Choo or Japanese designer and fragrance connoisseur Miyake. However, it is a constantly changing industry and also a demanding career. Fashion designers need to combine their creativity with managerial skills to sustain themselves and progress in this industry. It is certain that on being especially creative with colours, shapes and designs, one can undoubtedly have a successful career in the alluring world of fashion designing. As such, India too will soon have ace fashion designers like Choo or Miyake."?

 

How do things portend for the future? More optimism comes from Joshi, "The Indian fashion industry has evolved over the last 25 years or so, and has got a presence in the leading international markets. Today, Indian designers are being retailed globally and participating at the international fashion shows. There are number of fashion weeks which are offering platforms to the budding design professionals (from our country). With all this, the future looks bright for Indian fashion professionals-both within India as well as globally." But to do that, fashion education institutes will have to remain on their toes, and think on their feet.