NEW DELHI (AFP) ― “Made in India” clothing is often seen as the product of sweatshop labour, but fashion designer Saloni Lodha, whose fans include film stars Naomi Watts and Emma Watson, wants to give it a luxury tag.
“I have great faith in the made-in-India idea, and wanted to see an Indian, Made-in-India brand in the world’s best stores,” she told AFP while on a visit to Mumbai to source fabrics.
British-based Lodha launched her label, Saloni, in 2007 with just 10 designs on offer.
Today, her flirty, feminine dresses are stocked at some of the world’s leading boutiques and worn by socialites and stars alike.
A precocious success in a competitive, often cutthroat industry, the 30-year-old designer has expanded her business to include jewellery and handbags, all the while trumpeting her brand’s Indian origins as a selling point.
Everything in the collection is manufactured in India in collaboration with traditional weavers, tailors and embroiderers.
Lodha maintains a studio in London, where she designs textiles and drapes her dresses, and says her work is built on “a constant dialogue between India and London.”
Her career rise has coincided with a growing interest in India among foreign fashion houses, both as a source of inspiration and fine workmanship.
French luxury goods maker Hermes launched a limited edition sari range in October 2011, and fashion legend Karl Lagerfeld presented an ode to the country’s royal heritage in a recent collection for Chanel.
From Valentino to Armani, several of the world’s top designers have turned to India to commission elaborate embroideries for their lavishly-beaded gowns.
But few have discussed manufacturing clothing in India as extensively or as openly as Lodha, out of fear that consumers might refuse to pay top dollar for “made in India” items.
Lodha shrugs off such concerns.
“India has incredible craftsmanship, there are skills here you just can’t replicate. Made-in-India is a luxury on so many levels,” she said.
She works with artisans across the country, from Kashmiri families who weave Saloni’s wafer-thin cashmere and silk scarves to a women’s knitting cooperative nestled in the Himalayas along the Indo-Tibetan border.
Raised in a traditional family in the Indian town of Nasik, Lodha said she was a very visual child with a particular fondness for indigenous textiles and the heavy silk saris favoured by her great-grandmother.
“My eye was always drawn to colours and prints when I was a kid,” she said.
After studying graphic design in Mumbai, she married and moved to Hong Kong at the age of 20.
“That’s when I started to think about fashion. All you could find there were these big luxury brands, so I thought I could make my own dresses and sell them to clients in a more personal way.”
She set up tiny temporary ‘pop-up’ shops to sell her dresses made of Indian brocade, silk and cotton.
This was followed by a three-year stint at a London fashion consultancy and a short course at the city’s famed fashion school Central St Martins.
Finally, in September 2007, she pooled her savings and launched the Saloni label during London fashion week.
The line was immediately snapped up by top London department store Harvey Nichols and other buyers followed suit.
Despite India’s wealth of craftsmanship and centuries-old textile tradition, few Indian designers have made it big overseas, with the exception of Delhi’s Ritu Beri, formerly with French fashion house Jean-Louis Scherrer, and Manish Arora who currently heads Paco Rabanne.
The rest have preferred to target India’s own growing market instead, as Lodha is beginning to do now.
“I have never really sold in India before, but I was recently approached by Le Mill (a Mumbai boutique). We started selling there in Spring/Summer 2011 and the response has been terrific.”
And while she admitted it was “incredibly exciting” to see her clothes on Hollywood stars, she now has a new customer in mind.
“Oh my god I love Bollywood! I probably watch more Bollywood films than friends who live in India,” she exclaimed.
“I love Frieda Pinto, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor,” she said, rattling off the names of Indian actresses. “I would love to see my clothes on them.”
In the months to come, Lodha plans to launch her own online store and eventually, a bricks and mortar retail outlet.
“I don’t really feel like I have made it,” she said. “There’s a long way to go and I feel like I am learning how to do it every step of the way.”