Nigel Preston may not be a household name but the late British designer was known to fashion connoisseurs for his luxurious sheepskin, suede and leather coats and clothes, with their painterly techniques and detailed ornamentation. He died in 2008 but his wife, Brenda Knight, who designed garments for brands such as Jaeger and Burberry, has continued his brand – at her own factory in India.
Though for years the pair produced their collections mainly in the UK and then, as they needed greater capacity, in Italy, Ms Knight says that in India, “I have found the most amazing, reliable, hard-working team. The capability, the desire to achieve perfection is really fantastic. In Italy, we were creating a finished idea and it had to go through a third party. In India, we go into the factory and we work with them to create what we want to create.”
Initially her decision to relocate production raised eyebrows among clients in LA, Europe and Japan. But with her delivery times improving since shifting out of Europe, “I am happy to say loud and clear, ‘I manufacture in India’,” says Ms Knight.
In this, she may be an anomaly. Though India exported about $33bn of yarn, fabric, carpets and clothes during the last financial year, including $13bn of ready-made garments, and $237m of textile handicrafts, according to the textile ministry, many luxury companies still avoid talking publicly about their India connection, concerned that the country’s image as cheap manufacturing base will tarnish their brand cachet. However, as it becomes increasingly clear that certain skills exist only in India, they are beginning to come out into the open.
Prada, for example, has quietly embroidered garments in India since the mid-1990s but it was not until last year that the company launched a unique “Made in India” collection, with summery dresses decorated with delicate elaborate “Chikan” embroidery from Lucknow, and colourful woven leather handbags and shoes.
“By bringing India upfront . . . [we] testify that the best Indian craftsmanship can meet the highest and most stringent quality criteria at international standards,” Prada told the Financial Times, adding that it hoped India would regarded soon as “a valid provider for the fashion industry”.
Gianguido Tarabini, managing director of Blufin, which owns the Blumarine, Blugirl and Miss Blumarine labels, says Italian luxury companies have no choice but to turn to India for this art that has been passed from father to son, mostly in the Muslim community, since the Mogul empire. “This art is on its way to extinction in Italy,” he says.
Nita Shah, president of Aditiany, which has managed embroidery in India for western luxury brands since 1996, said mostly luxury houses send fabric pieces to India for decoration, and then the pieces are returned to Europe to be sewn on to garments. Few luxury houses try to make entire garments in India.
Indeed, Louis Vuitton opened a workshop in Pondicherry, in southern India, in 2007 to supply shoe components but sold it five years later after deciding to expand its shoe production in Italy. Industry participants say that succeeding in India requires finding reliable partners, and careful monitoring to control quality.
Dries Van Noten, the Belgian designer for whom embroidery is a part of his signature, has been working with the same family-owned business in Calcutta for the past 25 years. “A lot of people assume that if you are going to do embroidery in India, it’s ipso facto ethnic,” says Patrick Scallon, a spokesman for the designer. “But it’s a very respectful creative process. He has his designs, they have their views, and they both inform each other.”
Dries Van Noten’s relationship with the Indian embroiderers has been carefully nurtured, with one full-time member of his staff essentially splitting time between the workshop in India and the designer’s base in Antwerp, as choices are made about beads and fibres.
“It demands investment,” Mr Scallon said. “You can’t just phone it in. Maybe some companies send the work off through an agent but it is worth it to invest in this relationship.
Meanwhile, Ms Knight hopes to soon expand her Indian factory’s operations in order to produce sheepskin garments and leatherwear for other high-end fashion labels.
“People imagine it’s cheap in India – cheap with a ‘small c,’ and not good,” she says.
But, as Aditiany’s Ms Shah points out, high-end Indian craftsmanship is not such a bargain as it once was, especially once transport costs are taken into account.
“Wages have gone up,” says Ms Shah. “It’s expensive now.”
“They can do things nobody else can,” says Ms Knight.
Additional reporting by Alessandra Ilari