Ragini Ahuja is an NIFT graduate from New Delhi and made her big foray on the Indian fashion scene with a showcase at the Lakme Fashion Week 2013. The word Ikai means One in Hindi and Ragini strives to include the traditional Indian skills into a predominantly contemporary collection.
Let’s begin at the beginning, by which I don’t mean when you graduated from (National Institute of Fashion Technology.) Share with us your childhood leanings and/or inspirations towards an offbeat, unconventional and cool career such as fashion.
I’ve been sketching for as long as I can remember. I was making fashion croquis even before I knew what they were – women in skirts, kurtas, and sarees, basically whatever I knew of fashion.
I wouldn’t say I was a very fashionable kid, I had no idea of what was in vogue. All I could sense was that I knew I was dressing up very differently. Truth be told, this was mostly because I was really conscious of my body.
I thought it was important to fit into the expectations of a certain body structure, but then I felt I was too broad and too big. So, I started dressing in my father’s clothes. Maybe that was the foundation of my inclination towards a certain androgynous sense of styling, whereby I could imagine a shirt to only fall straight and never cinched in at the waist.
I was dressing like that all the time for every aspect of my daily life. It wasn’t until the later years of schooling, when you’re expected to wear sarees for important events; that I realised, okay, you can wear clothes that show more waist, but even these can be styled androgynously.
Also, during my formative years, I was engulfed by the significance of clothing and of different materials and textiles. My father has always been into garments. He had a dyeing mill first and then a denim washes factory. There was always surplus fabric in our house! There were rolls of scrap denim that were doubling up in their utility on and for household objects and furniture (smiles).
My mother had specialised in the Home Sciences, so she had been very creative with this extra fabric. I have two other siblings and we were always dressed up in similar clothing that had been stitched and knitted by her.
So interestingly, I grew up with this idea that clothes were important, but fashion necessarily wasn’t. This probably gave birth to the core of my aesthetic – very basic and clean, functional, no-nonsense practicality.
So how is it that this creative fountainhead burst forth in the direction of fashion design and not any other branch of the creative or performance arts?
I realised I had a flair for illustrations and graphics in school itself; and I guess I played to my strengths when I joined fashion school later on.I learned this about myself, that I could draw free hand geometric shapes and figures. Even if they didn’t turn out perfectly, they would be steady and attractive in their appearance. I especially changed my school to take up engineering drawing.
After school, I sat for both architecture and fashion design entrance exams. So, it was going to be either one of them for me. In my head, even fashion was being treated from a garment technology perspective, rather than the creative, aesthetic one.
I got through NIFT in the end with a pretty decent ranking. Even during my time at NIFT, I recall I was rather moody about which aspects excited me more than others. I preferred tasks involving the choosing of artwork or doing placements; over those involving stitching or anything tedious in that sense… basically everything that had to do with conceptualisation.
In your experience, what is the best part about going to design school or taking a formal qualification before you enter into such a field?
See, just because you grow up with creative inclinations, it doesn’t guarantee your ability to channelise them systematically into something constructive. You learn the nuances of the whole process, from conceptualisation to execution in a more directed, disciplined way. Having said this, it’s an open-ended process. What you get depends on what you decide to take from it and how you absorb your surroundings. If for example, there are 35 people in the classroom and everyone has to come up with a classic white shirt; there will be 35 different perspectives on this classic. But, if you’re too busy doing your own thing and not learning from what’s around you, then I think you end up losing out on a really well-rounded, wholesome learning experience.
What happened after NIFT?
I graduated in 2010 and then worked for approximately a year with Pratibha Syntex. They’re one of the biggest vertically integrated plants in the country. From the sourcing of the fibre to the final garment, everything happens in-house. Such an exposure really adds to your learning curve if you belong to the garment production industry, to see an end-to-end process taking place under one roof.
We worked with organic cotton and created socio-environmentally conscious projects for Tesco, Bershka and M&S; also doing our best to create a zero-waste collection. It has taught me to take a zero-waste approach to the best possible extent with my own work also. I work with a lot of leather and there are innumerable appliques being cut for my clothes. We use the leather scraps to make tassles, which are then used to make, say, lables and zip pullers. We also use leftover fabric to make pouches for seasonal giveaways, gifts, party favours and the like.
After this, I realised I wanted to design a collection of my own. So, I applied for Lakmé Fashion Week through GenNext, towards the end of 2010 (for Spring/Summer 2011). But I didn’t get through. I was really frustrated because I didn’t have a back-up plan at that point. However, I also knew I needed market exposure, knowledge and experience and a fine-tuning of my ability to execute my ideas and concepts. That’s when a job with designer Abhishek Gupta happened, after I went through a booklet I got from Lakmé and emailed designers for an opportunity to work for them.
When you decided to go independent and start your own line, it could not have been easy to want to present such a distinct and niche fashion identity and consistently stick to it…
Yes. I would say, the most essential qualities required for anyone wanting to enter this industry is a strong sense of self-belief, faith in one’s product and the genuine desire to be always open to learning something. I’ve always faced a conflict. I had a strong aesthetic and instinct when it came to my trademark silhouette, because I had grown up with it. But when you look at the market, you realise it isn’t that easy a shape to sell.
The first confirmed reassurance or sense of drive to stick to what I was doing came after my debut show Brute in 2013. I don’t have a commercial export or retail aesthetic per se, but there is an aura of edgy glamour, even though the clothes are simplified and toned down. My clothes are chic and edgy in a way that perhaps only strong women who have a history, an experience of their own, can relate to.
You know Sumiran, I was pretty clueless when I started out. The response to my first show was next level. Fashion magazine representatives and the best buyers in the country were all at my stall.
Amongst them were buyers with whom I am working till date and they’re the best sellers of my product. In those initial days, they’d looked at the big leopard/fox motifs I’d done and suggested that I convert them into a print to cut costs; and make them smaller too, so that they’d be easier to process by a larger market. But I didn’t do this.
They called me after two weeks saying they were so glad I didn’t change anything, because things were moving so well.
I didn’t have market or financial research for the brand. My father set everything up for me, for which I can never be grateful enough.
I then basically started designing clothes that I thought I would like to wear (laughs.) As important as it’s to be that honest and truthful to your own aesthetic, you also have to accept that you want to be able to reach out to as big a market as you possibly can; dress as many people as you possibly can. I’m someone who has learned from her mistakes along the way.
It’s been over 2 years since I started out but I still feel so new. You’ve no idea what a process this is. Some days, you’re totally confident, you feel you know exactly what you’re doing. On other days, you wake up in the middle of the night, stressed out, because you feel like you hate everything you’ve done. I’ve to sometimes literally bring myself to my workspace, sit myself down, calm myself and prevent that inevitable trapping of second-guessing.
What does the name of your brand, Ikai, mean? Is it Japanese?
(Nods happily). This is the best question. Yes, it’s Japanese. I wanted a name that would be short and have recollection value. Also, I wanted it to ‘sound Indian,’ so people would find it easy to relate to as well. If you come to think of it, the word ikai in Hindi means ‘one.’ But, in Japanese, ‘ai’ means love. Blending both Hindi and Japanese, the name translates as ‘One Love.’
Even though I’ve never visited Japan – and would love to, soon, hopefully – I’ve always been influenced by the art and culture. I mean, how can you not? It’s a place where tradition and technology are surviving together and so strongly too.
In a country advancing so rapidly on the technological front, you’d think that people would give up on traditional craftsmanship eventually. But this isn’t the case with Japan. The survival of their traditions is a big source of creative inspiration and motivation for me.
Then if you had to describe the statement, or the message of your brand in one line, what would it be?
Practical and honest clothing (smiles.)
Brute, Asura, Metal, Tribe…Is it just me over thinking, or do I see a pattern of ‘toughness’ emerging amongst some of the names of your collections?
No, you’re not over thinking, it was a very conscious decision. You can see it in the choice of animal motifs too – there are no bunny rabbits there. Even with the Prof. Banerjee motif, if you give some thought to it, you’ll figure out that it’s a tribute to the self-made man, not the entitled one. He’s a stereotypical Calcutta professor, not a family business tycoon.
It’s all about power and strength. There’s a badassery element. The clothes are for those who celebrate honesty and transparency, but they’re not fools either. They can fight for what they believe in. And of course, power, strength and badassery can be androgynous qualities.
Is the need to constantly prove yourself – not just to your parents or to yourself, but also to the industry – somehow seeped into the way you have named your collections?
My parents are incredibly supportive, they’ve been from day one, and I know they always will be. I’m very lucky and blessed to have them behind me. They know I’m doing my best to make sure I do things right. But yes, of course, I always feel the need to prove myself in terms of cementing my footing in the industry.
I say that it’s easier to start up than it’s to sustain. With each new collection, you’ve to come up with something novel, fresh, and attractive. At the same time, I don’t want the unique signature of Ikai to get lost along the way, or start making only purely commercial products. Money isn’t the motivation for the creative process, it’s a force that runs my label, and empowers me in different ways.
Then what is the motivation?
Appreciation, from the right people. By now, I know there are some people whose reactions matter a lot to me. There are people who I’m close to – my friends, and people in the industry – who would honestly tell me, whether or not I’m headed in the right direction.
You looked breathtakingly stunning in the Vogue #Curve Confidence photo shoot. How did that come about?
I was first runner-up, Vogue Fashion Fund 2014. As part of this, we were all given business mentorship, for which we went to the Mumbai Vogue office. At the mentorship meeting, I was told I’d to be in Mumbai for this shoot. It was styled by Anaita Shroff Adajania and Priyanka Kapadia and they both’ve been very, very kind and supportive. It felt exhilarating to be counted in amongst the other celebrities chosen for this. I’ve never dressed myself the way I was dressed – and styled – and I felt like a million bucks during the shoot.
Do you feel more responsible towards your existing and potential clientele now?
It’s a huge and humbling responsibility and yes, I do feel it increasingly day by day. We all grow up with such strong experiences, that it’s difficult to get out of them and explore something outside of your comfort zone. When people come to buy my clothes, I make sure I do the best I can, to show them how amazing they can look in what they choose, whether they’re new to oversized androgyny or not.
Do you feel cracks are developing in fashion stereotyping in India?
Definitely. The market is constantly evolving. I think it’s indication of a new level of confidence; the way I see women experimenting with and investing in smart, versatile separates and putting different looks together. Especially when these separates are from different labels with potentially different design philosophies. My only gripe is that women still don’t seem to understand, accept and respect their body type.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’d of course love to open my own store, but as of now that’s still a twinkle in my eye. International expansion’s also part of my vision, in that I would like to see my products stocked overseas. Also, maybe an online retail space of my own; so it would be easier for people to get in touch with me directly.