A model in a Suneet Varma outfit at DIFW

A model displays a creation by HSY

Walid Atallah at his show in DIFW

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M i l l i o n a i r E PA S S I O N & P O W E R

Dubai International Fashion Week

of new clothes
Relinquishing the front row for a peek behind the scenes, Millionaire found itself in the thick of the business of fashion. We interacted with top designers – Walid Atallah, JJ Valaya, Suneet Varma, Hassan Sheheryar Yasin and Lecoanet & Hemant – to understand the empire of fashion from its emperors
text Shalini Seth photographs Mark Brown


Hemant at the end of Lecoanet & Hemant show at DIFW

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Suneet Varma prepares a model backstage

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aving tucked in the last pleat of the sari on a model unfamiliar with the garment, designer Suneet Varma, hair gelled and spiked, is getting ready for another 15 minutes of spotlight just before his show at Dubai international Fashion Week, the first such trade event for the city. “in 1986, when i returned after studying design, the then indian minister of Commerce said to me, ‘you have spent your parents’ money to become a tailor’. i tried telling him that i had a masters in Costume History, but it did not matter. Today, everyone understands fashion and everyone wants to be a part of it, including the ministry of Commerce,” Varma says.

Earlier in the day, Hamad mubarak Buamim, the Director General of Dubai’s Chamber of Commerce and industry, has officially endorsed the show, with some of the members of their Textile Traders Business Group turning up for the front rows of this event. in this region, fashion is serious business. The $167 billion luxury goods industry is ensuring a growth of 20 per cent

per year in retail sales in Dubai alone. Department stores such as Saks Fifth avenue and Harvey nichols, which stock fashion designers from all over the world, are expanding. Gucci has 13 stores in the middle East, including six in Dubai. Harvey nichols has a three-floor, 12,500-square-metre store in the mall of the Emirates in Dubai, its biggest store outside of london. its partner, the al Tayer Group of companies, manages a luxury business with sales of about $230 million. at DiFW, the designers – from the lebanon-born Dubai resident Walid atallah, JJ Valaya or Suneet Varma from india, autandil Tsruitinidze from Georgia, Hassan Sheheryar Yasin from Pakistan, Kaneyoshi Kondo from Japan, UaE-based mille rostock or indian Troy Costa – are not seen, of course. But backstage, they are everywhere. Valaya makes sure that the steam irons are in working order and that all the models reach the ramp with wraparound dark glasses as accessories. Just before his show, Varma is the link that is not missing when jewellers from Popley’s, their backs resolutely turned, are locked backstage with the models, keeping an eye on the jewellery they have agreed to loan the designer. once he has sent the last model on to the ramp, Varma searches frenetically for his own

bandhgala, buttoning it over a casual blue shirt, as he marches to take a bow with his collection. “You cannot take away glamour from fashion. You put a beautiful woman in sexy clothes, it immediately becomes glamorous. But glamour does not pay salaries. Gelling my hair and wearing black clothes is not going to make sure that the business works. There are 285 people in my company. i have to work hard at what i do. a lot of monies are involved. There is retail, there are overheads, production machinery, infrastructure…,” Varma says. at the end of the last financial year, a day before DiFW, his company reported its best year ever with a turnover of inr220 million.

The House of Valaya, with brothers JJ and TJ at its helm as managing Directors, has had similar results. JJ says: “Unfortunately, the glamour aspect of fashion is so overpowering that it tends to cloud the reality. The reality is that fashion is just like any other business. You have to make good clothes, they have to sell, and you have to deliver. You have to make a brand and eventually succeed. You can do an iPo [initial public offering] tomorrow or sell out. But it is as serious a business as anything else.” When a potential client hops backstage to ask if she can perhaps get the pick of his collection, JJ tells her the line will be available only in october. TJ, meanwhile, tells us: “in couture alone we are touching close to inr100 million in turnover. Couture is about 10 per cent of our business.” atallah, of course, is in a league of his own, being the first to have used diamond and precious stones as an integral part of his designs. one of his wedding dresses is estimated at $1.2 million. apart from counting hairpins, ensuring that the models’ earrings are in place, talking about the look and the inspiration behind a cut and a pleat, is there a sound business strategy? There is now, Varma says, listing his earlier mistakes. “i have lost a lot of good opportunities. For example, i would open a store because i loved a building. But, there would be no footfall

A model in a Suneet Varma outfit

because the location was not right. “For the past 10 years, i have had a team in place. i only design. i know my strengths. The company is handled by a CEo, with a production and design team in place.”

Every successful designer has had to have lessons in commerce. JJ, who started his career as a chartered accountant, says: “You can’t be overly creative. if you are, you get respect only from peers and you are [a king] only in the realms of history. You cannot be overly commercial. Because then you become another Johnny-come-lately who is trying to sell clothes. it is a balance achieved over a period of time.” Tough talk, but who lays the first stone of this foundation? Buyers, of course. “my first commercial line when i was just out of design school – and i was a star student in design school; i won every award and that kind of thing – was a total disaster. nothing sold. not a single outfit. That was my first reality check. after that, of course, you hone your skills and finally figure out how to balance these two very essential elements. an overdose >

“Glamour does not pay salaries. GellinG my hair and wearinG black clothes is not GoinG to make sure that the business works” – suneet Varma


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JJ Valaya backstage with models after his show

JJ’S RULES Had I studied my MBA, I would have rattled out a list of dos and don’ts to you. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we learnt all our lessons by being in the thick or thin of it. Rule number one: Never, never ever enter the rat race – which means compete against yourself forever. Half the time, people just get into this whole thing of what the other person is doing and transcend that. I don’t think that is the idea. The idea is to create credible fashion that people can relate to. And eventually, that will grow into a business. Rule number two: However big or popular you may be, there is always scope for improvement. A lot of people feel that I have arrived – that, like Bruce Almighty, I cannot be dislodged. Rule number three: Never, never limit your vision. If you are myopic, it will catch up with you. I am talking from the point of view of a creative business, not a motoring company. In a creative business, you cannot afford to draw lines around yourself and say this is what I will do and I don’t want to do anything else. It is important to experiment and do various things and try and make a success of as many of them as you can.

M i l l i o n a i r E PA S S I O N & P O W E R

“the reality is that fashion is just like any other business. you haVe to make Good clothes, they haVe to sell, and you haVe to deliVer. you haVe to make a brand and eVentually succeed” – jj Valaya

of either one could result in catastrophe,” JJ says. Business relationships, buyers say, are handled by the ones who are experts in business. Designers are known not only for their muses but also for their partners. Take Didier lecoanet and Hemant Sagar – the pair who constitute the fashion brand lecoanet & Hemant. They flew to miami Fashion Week immediately after DiFW and were crowned Designers of the Year. The pair met in 1978 and started a tiny workshop on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. This grew into a salon, then into a boutique, and finally into a fully fledged fashion house. Since 1984, lecoanet & Hemant have presented a haute couture and a ready-to-wear collection every season. in 1988, lecoanet & Hemant introduced a line of accessories in Japan; in 1991, the line acquired a new address at the Hotel d’argenson in the heart of Paris’s marais district. in 1994, they won the Golden Thimble, or De d’or. lecoanet is the creative one, even in his spare time. He wields his paint and brush when he is not designing exquisite clothing. Sagar, for his part, divides his time between managing the business and listening to music from around the world. Says lily amir arjomand, a general merchandise manager from Saks Fifth avenue: “We have a business relationship because we have agreements with them, contracts with them. We deal with them as business people. The designer is the creative director. They always have finance people, the operations people who are really masters in their work. They are very competent in doing the business side for them. a creative person is not really someone who would sit and do business.”

a fashion brand needs anything from eight to 15 years to really start going to the next level. The next level is a corporate house showing interest – and saying that ‘i see this brand as being a serious project to be taken on’. Visibility of your couture line takes you to that level. Then, either a conglomerate picks you up, or you go the ralph lauren way, which is a licensing model where you get into a brand extensions…” as fashion history goes, Polo ralph lauren has been a public company, traded on the new York Stock Exchange since the 1990s. >

Walid atallah, the Dubai-based designer with an international presence, says it is important to hire people with the right education. His golden rule when hiring people for his vast empire: “i am not a businessman. i am a designer. The person who works with me must be educated, smart and must understand me. He must be educated in marketing, if that is what he is doing for me.” The House of Valaya, your typical family-owned business, has its own philosophy of growth. Says TJ: “Typically,

TJ Valaya is the business head of the House of Valaya


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JJ and TJ together started the House of Valaya. Says JJ: “it most certainly is a family-owned business, at this point of time. as are most italian top brands even today. But ours is a familyowned business that is certainly looking at corporatising. We have managed to create a 45,000-square-foot establishment in an industrial area as our headquarters and factory. We have inked india’s first licensing agreement and launched the luxury flower business, which is another first. These are steps in establishing the brand as a player in the field of luxury lifestyle. We are now in the process of structuring the entire business – getting a CEo and a CFo – the pivotal people required to look after the business. We have been the first to open a fashion store outside india, in Dubai.” JJ says the brothers’ advantage was that they worked together from the start. But for the emperors, with empathetic partners,

the real work is still design, not business. JJ, who is the creative head, says: “The primary asset that a fashion designer should possess is being able to visualise. You are working eight to 10 months in advance. You are assuming that this is the look you want, that it will succeed. But it is based purely on what you visualise. So that is very important. That is DnD [do not disturb] and no one does.”

Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, the designer who has made his empire in Pakistan, says it is possible, even necessary, to combine creativity and business acumen. “You are crunching numbers while figuring out whether something will sell the next weekend. There are, in fact, even weekly changes in the ready-to-wear segment. if there are three large events over three weeks, people will hit our stores over the three weeks. and it is important that they come to the store and know that they will find new things each time, even if it is our ready-to-wear line,” Yasin says. TJ, the business head of the House of Valaya, says: “We already know what we are doing next season. The mood boards are made, everything is done. The first piece has to be sketched. and [JJ] always shows me the first sketch. i can go through it and decide if it will make commercial sense. “at the same time, i get him involved in business decisions. So, you might find a little bit of strategy and vision coming from him and you might find little bit of creativity coming from me – but just a tiny bit.” Varma agrees that a blend of strategy and design is necessary for success. “You have to learn to plan and grow with the market. When the market grew we decided to add prêt. Then we realised that the middle market has grown. We needed to add a third line. Today, our diffusion line sells better than anything else.” reviews, critics, shows, parties, glamour – all add to the bandwagon and make fashion newsworthy. Says Yasin: “Publicity

Hassan Sheheryar Yasin says it’s possible to mix creativity with business acumen

“if you don’t publicise it, people are not cominG to you. you are not a product that they need to stay aliVe. you are not a bottle of water” – hassan sheheryar yasin
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HASSAN SHEHERYAR YASIN They say each generation is 25 per cent smarter than the previous one. Hassan Sheheryar Yasin, arguably Pakistan’s most globally recognised fashion designer, is certainly smarter than his predecessors. Valaya was already showing the first signs of being house-proud by the time Yasin entered fashion school in 1996. “I started my business in 2000 with $50. Today, my company is 350 people strong and it is the largest-selling fashion house in Pakistan. Last year, our turnover was a little over PKR100 million,” Yasin says, visibly happy to talk business rather than fashion. HSY, the subcontinent’s answer to acronyms, is becoming a case study in establishing management mantras. “Management schools are doing studies on us and our way of working. We have a system that works. There is no precedent. We have gone to many management companies. No one can tell us what to do. The market is volatile at best. There is no set pattern to how a woman will spend.” Yasin says he is blessed with business acumen; he did not have to acquire it. While Valaya is studying brand identity and Varma is celebrating his best year ever, Yasin is busy putting together his own version of stock options and profit-sharing schemes for his employees. “Everyone gets a percentage. Someone with a salary of PKR15,000 can go back home with PKR150,000 for that month. How many units of clothing they can produce at the same level of quality will determine their share, which can be anywhere between two and 15 per cent. I am happy that I am not the only one going home with cash in his pocket,” Yasin says. And tomorrow, or the next year? “Mashaallah, I still enjoy what I do. By the end of the year, we will sell in 35 stores in Pakistan, 47 stores in the world – London, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, in other GCC countries, New York and New Delhi. “Starting with $50 and a dream, we have done quite okay!”

is even more important than your design. You can be a fantastic designer. But, as they say in Urdu, ‘jungle mein mor nacha kisne dekha?’ [Who noticed when the peacock danced in the forest?] You can spread your wings and be a beautiful bird but if no one has seen you, what is the point? “if you don’t publicise it, people are not coming to you. You are not a product that they need to stay alive. You are not a bottle of water.”

models notwithstanding, designers are often stars in their own shows. according to Valaya, his role in the House of Valaya

is about design and public relations. TJ hesitates to pose for a photo, even as JJ fields questions with years of experience. “i am my brand. The creative director or the designer is the name, the person whom people associate with the brand. So, Pr becomes an integral part of the role. it is expected and accepted. That is what fashion is. We are not making the rules. These rules were made years ago. movies and fashion thrive in the public eye. Separate the two and you will see that it does affect business to a large extent,” JJ says. To gel your hair, or to shave it; to grow a ponytail or wear a turban – these are choices that affect the brand. Varma says: “i am aware of myself as a brand. i am careful. i would endorse only BmW, for instance, not just any car. i would associate >


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A model displays a JJ Valaya outfit

A model displays a Walid Atallah outfit

A model displays an outfit by Lecoanet & Hemant

“i am not a businessman. i am a desiGner. the person who works with me... must understand me. he must be educated in marketinG, if that is what he is doinG for me” – walid atallah
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myself with Swarovski as opposed to, say, shoes. i would not be associated with just any brand of alcohol; it would have to be moët et Chandon.” From Pr to marketing is only a step. Yasin says: “People’s attention spans can be short. in two hours, 80 per cent of people would have forgotten your ad. That means we have to see you again. We have to invite you into our world the next day, and the day after that. So you feel that ‘i am a small part of this world because i bought that outfit’.” in the final analysis, it always comes down to business.

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