Q & A with a Fashion Designer

Menaka Bapuji is a fashion designer and owns the custom-design studio, Varnuyathe, in Chennai. She is passionate about design and focuses on creating made-to-order ethnic wear for men, women and children. Varnuyathe is just seven months old and has already become a popular name among Chennaiites. In this post, Menaka talks more about her studio and the training needed to become a fashion designer. Menaka is available as a mentor with Careers Infinite and her business page, Varnuyathe, can be found on Facebook. 

Let’s start with your training. Can you tell us about the coursework that’s involved?

I was trained in apparel design from NIFT, a central government institution. It is a 4-year Bachelor’s course. It covers the basic and important elements of fashion designing, knitwear design, textile design (basic weaving lessons), dyeing, entrepreneurship alongwith footwear design, accessories design and photography as electives. The course taught me how to make a garment from scratch: right from weaving the fabric to choosing the color and designing the garment as well as adding the embroidery. Initially, the course covers basics of art, such as working with different media including plaster of paris, metal, acrylic, etc, and using different tools like charcoal and paint. It also trains us to transform our designs on to a flat fabric. By the fourth year, one is well-versed in all the core and allied courses. In the final semester, we are asked to make a set of 6 to 8 garments in a chosen theme; we first work on the design, and then on the fabric, dyes, pattern and embroidery.

What other course options are available at NIFT?

There are about 16 centers of NIFT all over India and some courses are specifically offered only in some centers. In addition to apparel design, there are separate courses on knitwear design, textile design, leather design and fashion communication. Since the time I finished, more courses have come up. So, specializing in a particular area is also possible. In my opinion, an undergraduate degree that has a broad focus is better. And for those who want more serious specialization, a 2-year postgraduate course is also offered. PhD is available for those who are interested in researching dyes or fabrics or weaves. However, it is not offered through NIFT. One would have to look at other institutions. I think people choose to do a PhD more out of a personal interest rather than a commercial one.

You had previously mentioned that the course teaches the basics of art. Is it important for one to be good at art to do well in fashion designing?

Well, you have to be good at and interested in art for this course to be interesting for you. There is an entrance exam that has to be cleared to get admitted to NIFT. After the entrance, there’s a counselling session at New Delhi. Fashion and knitwear design get filled very fast, mostly in the first day itself. So, in case your interest lies in these courses, you have to aim to get in the first sixty ranks.

Initially, they check your drawing skills and how good you are in putting the design in your mind on paper. The first round in the entrance exam tests general knowledge, logical and analytical thinking, and mathematics. The second round tests your creativity. I remember that one of my questions was to design a T-shirt for a sports event. I was asked to design the logo, choose the fabric (for a particular day in the year) and explain why. The third round tests crafts skills. You’re given some materials that seem to be random picks and you are asked to come up with something creative with them. So, it is important to have some basic skills in and an aptitude for art.

For those who are not sure, coaching for the entrance exam is available. Also, it is possible to choose fashion designing as major in 11th and 12th in school.

Well, that brings us to the next question: what about students who chose other majors in school? Will they be able to handle fashion designing? 

They can certainly try their hand at it if they’re really strong in their art and highly motivated. However, it’s always better to take some basic coaching.

Are there coaching centers available in city?

When I was finishing school, a number of individual designers and alumni of NIFT offered training for students who wished to get into design courses. Mr. D. V. Solomon, an architect and guest faculty at NIFT, offers coaching in the Alwarpet area, for architecture NID and NIFT aspirants. Several other small centers offer crash courses. It should be easy to find them online.

What are the centers other than NIFT that offer these courses?

National Institute of design (NID), in Ahmedabad, offers a course in fashion designing. It is one of the best in Asia. Only a few seats are available and it is highly competitive to get admitted in NID. There are a whole lot of other universities across India that offer B.Des courses. The University of Madras offers a B.Sc in Textile Design; however, that’s not considered a professional degree. NID and NIFT are the most reputed.

So, what options are available for students after the degree?

There’s campus placement through NIFT. Most students get into design or merchandizing houses. The projects and internship offered through the course gives students the opportunity to work with top designers and get absorbed into brand stores. Soon after college, I worked for Evolve clothing, a multi-brand store. These days, more and more brands keep coming up. So, there’s always opportunity. There’s also the option of starting a line on your own. In that case, your initial investment is low. You can work at home, design on the computer, stitch and sell your products online. This also offers enough time to build a network and a reputation for yourself. 

What motivated you to choose fashion designing?

My dad has a manufacturing unit that exports knitwears. From childhood, I have been interested in working with textiles. I wanted to design clothes that my dad could manufacture and export. I was very thrilled about the idea of my designs traveling the world.

Do you work for your dad these days?

No. Although, my idea for Varnuyathe was born when I was helping him out with an order. My dad got a request for wovens and silk. Since his focus was knitwear only, he asked me to work on that on my own. I realized then that I wanted to have my own studio in aligning with my interests and passion. Now, I am exporting wovens to the US. We have a buyer there, who makes garments with eco-friendly materials such as hemp, bamboo and modal. We make yoga pants and kurtas for them.

How many years does it take one to launch their career in fashion designing?

One can launch a career fresh out of college. After 4 years of Bachelors, you can start a line of your own. However, becoming well-known for your work in the field depends on your talent as well as marketing techniques.

That said, I’d like to mention that the 4-year NIFT course is a tough and rigorous one. I spent a lot more time in college than any of my engineering friends. So, prepare for that. If you manage to finish the course (there are usually a number of dropouts), you come out well-seasoned.

What, in your opinion, are three important skills needed for fashion designers, but are not taught in college?

The first is to do with creativity: one has to be bold in showcasing their creativity; some may appreciate and some may criticize, but it is important to stick up for yourself. Also, stick to your designs, because, eventually, they will create a name for you.

There’s the need for designers to always strike a balance between what they would like to do and what will sell.

Thirdly, it is important to be trained to do everything from scratch. This can help you get any of the work done the way you want. Keep updating yourself on the market trends, color and patterns in vogue.

 What are some of the challenges you face in this career, particularly, being a woman?

College training at NIFT and NID is fantastic. We get to work with great designers in their studio. It may not be the case in smaller college. However, the biggest challenge is getting into the course and completing it.

As an entrepreneur, the challenge is in competing with the huge number of brands in the market today and creating a name for oneself among them. It is important to decide what you want to do and focus on that, because the approach will be different depending on if you want to do retail or custom-designs or export. One shouldn’t put their fingers in too many pies.

Being a woman in this field is actually an advantage. Women spend more on average on upgrading their wardrobes and they are more often comfortable working with another woman.

Does your job offer a good work-life balance?

It depends on the kind of person you are. You have to draw the line where you have to. If you have employees to do the work, it can get done faster. But, if you are too much of a stickler, it may keep you at work longer.

Tell us more about your company, Varnuyathe.

It’s a small studio. I have an office space, a tailoring unit and a fitting room. I keep some pre-made sarees for sale and a rack with samples of designs and fabric that I keep updating constantly with what is in trend. This is only for clients to look at to get an idea and decide their order. Soon, I am planning to add an embroidery unit.

How is the market for custom-designed garments?

The market is growing. Currently, most of my clients are friends, contacts, and others who heard about my studio through word of mouth. There aren’t as many walk-ins as there would be at a retail outlet. Also, my studio is not visible in traffic, for people to just walk-in.

What are your plans for the future?

Right now, the focus is on sarees, blouses, kurtas anything on the ethnic side. We are planning to participate in exhibitions to meet more people and market my company. It’s also an opportunity to sell my pre-made garments. Sarees on display are designed completely by me. I put together the fabric, color, border and pallu. Since a custom-design studio does good business mostly during the wedding and festive seasons, summers are a bit sluggish. So, I use this time to work on a range and put it out on exhibition.

What is your advice to students of fashion designing?

Do it only if you are really passionate about fashion designing. People think that it is an easy and jolly course. Mostly, the thought is that “I didn’t get into any other professional degree program, so let me do fashion designing”. It does not work that way! Some others join fashion designing because they like clothes. Fashion designing is not about dressing up and looking nice. I have had a few people ask me about applying to the course just a couple of days before college starts. People think that it is an easy course and they can walk in in the last minute. They do not realize that the admission process starts almost one year ahead! So, decide if you are really interested in fashion designing and up for the ordeal. Aim for the top institutes and train well for it.