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The Son Shines
Text by Sohiny Das
Published: Volume 18, Issue 8, August, 2010
The house of Satya Paul celebrates its silver jubilee in Indian fashion this year. But more than reminiscing, creative director Puneet Nanda is looking forward. Sohiny Das takes an up-close-and-personal tour of the veteran brand’s design space, and discusses the confluence of craft and corporate, and the founder’s original vision of technology befriending tradition

Every fashion house aspires to create its own iconic product – a piece that is immediately synonymous with its brand name. An investment that transcends seasonal trends; a wardrobe classic that every fashion collector treasures for years, if not decades; the perennial ‘it’ item that the society ladies ‘simply must have’. Once you have created that, you have nailed it.

Satya Paul instantly conjures Technicolor visions of vivid drapes. The art sari campaigns, over the years, have left an indelible impact, almost revolutionising apparel printing in the country. Paintings, calligraphy, multicultural traditional motifs, symbols, digital graphics, graffiti – name it, and they have done it. Investing in state-of-the-art print facilities and constantly updating their manufacturing technologies, the house has identified its niche and maintained its position as a pioneer, among the multitude of emulators who have cropped up over time. You still know a Satya Paul when you see one.

But creative director Puneet Nanda is not satisfied with the ‘printer’ tag that has been attached in the process. “Yes, I’m glad that the individuality has been recognised,” he says. “But there’s more to us than graphics. Look at what we started with, and therein lies our essence.” Nanda’s father, Satya Paul, was one of the first in the country with a luxury ‘designer’ vision, when he started the eponymous label in 1985. Prior to this, in the ’70s, business revolved around textile, with two successful stores called Heritage and L’Affaire retailing weaves sourced from various states. Paul himself worked with craftsmen in villages, exporting yardages to the West and creating a market internationally for Indian handloom products. When the label was launched in New Delhi (its first address), the focus was on saris, scarves and ties (the ties, currently, are also marketed abroad under the label Tie Rack), where the fabric was the hero.

The fabric still is the hero. “Go beyond the artwork; you will see specially developed weaves on the base. Few recognise quality fabric – silk is silk and cotton is cotton; they forget about gradations caused by spin, thread count, twist, weight – but those who know, understand that our tag is justified by our costing,” Nanda explains in detail. The tag also has other factors – at least three (sometimes more) different techniques of texturing, in addition to the minutely detailed prints, are employed to create a single piece, making the surface layered and expensive to imitate. With a limited number of productions per design, the ‘exclusivity’ factor is retained.

While staying rooted to craft, Paul’s efforts of blending tradition with technology (the company went digital as early as 1992) steered a forward-thinking venture. Handloom fused with power mills, manual surface treatments received mechanised assistance The aim was to create a vertically integrated concept-to-customer process. After the torch was passed on in the early 2000s, Nanda, with a keen sense of ‘cutting-edge’, gave the brand a modern makeover. He instilled a new signature aesthetic – wearable art on a strong, sexy, contemporary woman – which we are all familiar with today. “I’ve been a jack of all trades,” he says. Without any formal fashion training, he dabbled in photography (which he still passionately pursues), graphic design and numerous other arenas, before finally taking on the reins at Satya Paul. “I now look into every aspect of design, realisation and retail. I guess my team feels that I’m a control freak – meddling way more than I should.” Under the self-confessed “techno junkie”, digital precision planning has become the order of the day. “I’ve tried to corporatise craft,” he says. “I like everything to be recorded, organised and archived, for us to be a self-sufficient unit.”

The backbone of the company is an integrated computer network system that is used to store every detail – managerial, organisational and creative. “Even the janitor’s cleaning times are recorded,” Nanda tells me. “No matter how small the error, at whatever level, we are able to track it down.” Sort of like big brother watching? He smiles, “Well, the upside is that we can very accurately estimate how much material would be required at what time for what quantity of sampling or production. It gives us time to procure, and minimises wastage.” Every part of a garment (whether sari or stitched apparel) is planned out digitally, though automated markers and pattern-cutting are not yet employed due to limited quantities.

The company has diversified its product range, with ethnic and dressy prêt, bags and even trousseau – customised or ready. “We’re a bit all over the place actually.” This applies to locations, too, with multiple stand-alone stores in various Indian cities, as well as prominent sections in multi-brand outlets. There are separate spaces for apparel and accessories, with various levels of pricing. “Satya by Satya Paul is our lower priced label, but people still aren’t able to distinguish between the two,” Nanda observes. “The collections shown on the runways are very broad; we then create depth with design variations – minor things like lengths, colour ways, tweaking prints, changing the material. These add up to roughly 40 mini collections a year!”

True to Paul senior’s “inspirations from life”, the brand has reflected current affairs and relative topics through collections over the years – ‘a strong connect with the world we live in’, as the website tells us. The very memorable cricket collection, which brought actress and sports commentator Mandira Bedi (remember the noodle straps?) into the forefront as the face of the brand, created a stir. More recently, another range has focused on endangered wildlife species. Serious to humorous (one collection was even named ‘Madonna meets Sita’), design has perpetually encouraged talk. “I always keep a sense of humour running through,” Nanda says with a smile. “It’s my personal amusement. Our surfaces are so layered, that they’re illusive, even to the ‘fashion pundits’ who claim to know it all. It’s fun to hear their theories.”

Not one to be jaded or bored, Nanda has regularly taken up challenges and new ventures. Uniforms for the hospitality and aviation sectors, costumes for the once mega-popular television series Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin (the Jassi range at stores had women racing to the rails) and even dressing up the cast of Saas, Bahu Aur Sensex (a non-memorable Bollywood potboiler) have been parts of Satya Paul’s extensive portfolio. But rather than delving into nostalgia, the brand, in its 25th year, continues to focus on the future. The 2010 runway shows did not line up a retrospective, but displayed new ranges, particularly prêt pieces. “I want to concentrate on these, drive home the point that we now do a lot more than saris. Our latest collection, named Tarot and inspired by the same, will have great depth,” Nanda says. “We are also looking to strengthen the position of our trousseau; I want us to be a prime force there.”

One of the rare Indian designer houses to have transcended a generation and maintained a strong hold, Satya Paul has seen a father breathe easy and proud after passing on the responsibilities. Paul senior is no longer actively involved with the house, though he pays an occasional visit. It is now Nanda’s vision all the way. To him, 25 is a small number. “What goes into making clothes, or what label it is – all that’s not so important,” he sums up. “What matters most is a woman wears us, and someone says – you look beautiful. I don’t have to be there to hear it, but then it’s a job well done.”

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