Careers in fashion: Payal Khandwala on switching careers

Careers in fashion: Payal Khandwala on switching careers

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Image: Mansi Sawant

Ever since she launched her eponymous label in 2012, Payal Khandwala has come to be known for her innovative use of colours and textures to craft layered silhouettes that made a statement while still flirting with minimalism. The nuanced attention to detailing and her focus on a refined sense of luxury were what lent Khandwala’s creations their dramatic flair, minus an ornate aesthetic.

In the years that followed since her fashion debut, Khandwala came to be preferred for her relaxed and free-spirited cuts, especially by the non-conformist connoisseur who did not wish to dress like one in a crowd. Her contribution to the conversation on the contemporary reimagination of the Benarasi weave for the millennial Indian woman also strengthened her standing in the industry.

And while Khandwala is a fashion design graduate from SNDT in Mumbai, was under the tutelage of Wendell Rodricks, and won ‘designer of the year’ in a nationwide competition held by ShoppersStop in 1994, she did not immediately dive into the industry. In fact, she went on to pursue a BFA in Fine Arts and Illustration from the Parsons School Of Design, New York. During this time, she also worked with designer Sandy Dalal, CFDA’s winner of the Perry Ellis Award for menswear in 1997. Khandwala also studied at Metafora, an international workshop for Contemporary Art in Barcelona, in 2005 and exhibited her artworks across Mumbai, Delhi, New York, London, Barcelona, Tokyo and Singapore before fashion came calling.

Despite having studied fashion before fine arts, Khandwala decided to explore the latter as she felt that she did not have a design point of view back then. “This is essential in my opinion. Do what you love and believe in it, irrespective of whether it will make you money or not, and do it well. And if you don’t have a voice that is unique, then wait till you find it. No point adding to the clutter,” feels Khandwala. “I only started making clothes when I thought there might be other women like myself out there, that might like to wear what I was creating. As long as they are around I’m happy to continue what I’m doing. Happy accidents along the way are always welcome.”

Vogue speaks to the designer on how to tread forward when your calling comes serendipitously knocking, on cultivating a distinct voice, and the importance (or lack thereof) of planning in the face of passion.

You have an educational background in both fine arts and fashion, and you chose to initially pursue a career in art. What is your advice to someone who wants to jump careers?
Oddly enough, I studied fashion before fine arts. But I was young and inexperienced, and would have struggled to decide what I would design and for whom. I had painted since I was a little girl. So I simply followed my instinct and my passion. I knew I would have more control and freedom. Moreover, I was always very comfortable with paint and pencils.

Almost two decades later, an opportunity arose to show at fashion week. But the jump for me was more a shift in canvas. However this time, my tryst with fashion was also very different, as I knew the woman I was designing for. I chose to make clothes that I could not find, clothes I wanted to wear, and clothes that represented a new India. This was something that was almost non-existent five years ago in our fashion landscape. So even though it was not strategic, this time around I had complete clarity.

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Payal Khandwala at Lakmé Fashion Week winter/festive 2016

How easy or difficult was it to make this choice?
I’m impulsive by nature and I trust my instincts. So I jumped right into it. I always enjoyed the process of making a garment, the draping, and the textiles… so I knew the journey, regardless of the outcome, would be fun. I was also grateful for the opportunity to launch the label this way and I didn’t want to miss it. So for me personally, because I didn’t approach it with some long-term plan, the choice was pretty straightforward.

As an ex-art student, what were some of your most important learnings during the initial years in the fashion business, given that the skill set required for both careers is starkly different?
I did a lot of learning on the job. I studied fashion in the ’90s; things—the technology, the Internet, and software programs—had changed so much since then. But I had studied pattern making, sewing, and draping; so that holds me in good stead even now. Most of what I learnt on the job was the business of fashion—the merchandising, stockists, branding, marketing, the excel sheets, data, and so on. For me, that was much harder than the creative part of the job. And I’m still learning.

Which skills acquired while working as an artist helped you along the way in the fashion industry? Which were the ones you had to unlearn?
It helps tremendously that I can draw. This goes a long way in trying to pen an idea when I design. My training in fine arts equips me robustly to play with colour theory and proportions, composition and line. These, in turn, I feel help give my design process depth and distinction.

What I had to unlearn is giving up control. Painting is an insular process, where I’m responsible for the end product because everything is created by me. In fashion, I had to learn to rely on others, to outsource, to train, to trust a team, and to try not to micromanage while still being responsible for my product. This is definitely still a work in progress for me.

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Payal Khandwala at Lakmé Fashion Week summer/resort 2016

How different is the Indian fashion industry from the art industry? In what ways are they similar?
I’ve always been on the periphery of both circles. I didn’t study art here so I didn’t know many of my contemporaries from my university days. Now that I’m in the fashion industry, I’m still a bit of an outsider because I started so late.

I think there are several similarities though. The business aspect of things is a big part of both art and fashion today. This implies small circles of influencers, critics, gallerists, politics and then, there is the commerce of it all. It’s not that different from any other industry. It’s just a product of the way the world works now. Talent and success are not always related, as marketing is a huge machinery in itself. The one noticeable difference is the trickle-down effect that the Indian film industry and the celebrities have on the fashion industry here. You can draw parallels between the art industry and the stock markets, but perhaps its still not as pervasive.

How can one use their learnings in a different industry to their advantage when switching careers?
Anything you learn, even when it is from a different discipline, is never in vain. No knowledge goes to waste. If you look at things from a prism that is different from the one you are accustomed to, then it gives you a unique perspective. And this can be your differentiator. Plus everything can inspire and inform you—travel, business, architecture, art, music, or dance. Elements from a different discipline can really enrich your experiences and end product, especially if you are in the creative field.

How does one strike a balance between spontaneity and planning when making a mammoth career switch?
I enjoy dichotomy in everything. Perhaps it’s because I’m a Gemini, but being spontaneous while also being organised comes very naturally to me. In fact, I thrive on it. I can be as impulsive as I can be meticulous. So this is not something I struggle with.

Switching to fashion was a huge change. All of a sudden I was working with a team. It was not an insular activity like painting alone in my studio—there were deadlines, it was harder to micromanage, and the hardest part was that I had to let go of control. But I am quite disciplined by nature, so it was easy for me to organise my time. I had to as I had a little daughter and I was a first-time mom when I made the switch. Prioritising my time really helped me, and I allowed myself to be spontaneous within that window.

I never had a plan when I started this label. It seemed like a fun project at the time. I wanted to make clothes that I would get to wear once the show was done. If other women liked them, I would have made some more. It was really that simple. But one thing led to another and we found a lot of support from the industry and our customers, so here I am. Moreover, it has grown so organically. I was quite content designing the line from my living room with two racks of samples and my three-year-old daughter hiding behind them!

Starting from scratch can never be easy. What advise would you give someone playing the waiting game to get their due in a new industry?
First and foremost, be realistic. Assess how good you are in an absolute way, but also in relation to your peers. It’s easy to study what others are up to these days. Are you relevant? Are you ahead of the curve? Are your ideas distinct? Are you ready for the hard work, the sweat, and the tears?

If you have clarity when it comes to your product, and it is a strong, wholesome product that the industry needs, then all you have to do is hang in there. It will find its audience. You just have to persevere.

[“Source-vogue”]