Ranvir Nayar reports from Paris on the first Indian to join the haute couture club.

“I still remember it. I was three years old and we lived in New Delhi and my mom had all these parties where many western women would come dressed in all kinds of clothes. And I just used to keep looking at them. I was attracted by all those dresses – colours, patterns, designs. Even my sister’s Barbie doll attracted me, due to her colourful dress.’’

This is how Hemant Sagar’s story begins. A story that has led him to be part of the world’s most elite club – the club of Haute Couture designers, while still in his mid-forties. And Sagar is the only Indian – in fact, the only Asian – in this club of 16 labels that is populated almost entirely by Europeans.

What began as a childhood fantasy developed into a serious passion by the time Sagar stepped into college. Saving up his pocket money while he was yet a child, Sagar would buy Vogue, Elle and other fashion magazines that were still rare in Indian bookstalls.

At the age of 15, Sagar’s family moved to Germany, but Sagar’s overwhelming attraction to the fashion industry prevented him from finishing his studies. Sagar then took up odd jobs in order to gain enough money to take up a cutting and pattern-making course in Berlin. In 1978, he moved to a small town in West Germany where he joined a blouse manufacturing factory. It was here that he got his first hands-on experience of all aspects of the textile industry, from design conception, cutting and switching, to sales and marketing. A year later, Sagar moved to Paris — perhaps the turning point of his life. In Paris, Sagar joined the world’s only official haute couture school – L’Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. But like all his previous attempts at education, Sagar did not complete his tenure.

Instead, he launched his own business. At the school itself, Sagar met Didier LeCoanet. They soon launched their own brand – LeCoanet Hemant.

Their first move was to establish an outlet in Faubourg St Honore, a prestigious address in the heart of Paris. “The shop was meant to gain prestige for our brand. You need an address like that when you are starting in the business of haute couture,’’ observes Sagar.

At the age of 15, Sagar’s family moved to Germany, but Sagar’s overwhelming attraction to the fashion industry prevented him from finishing his studies. Sagar then took up odd jobs in order to gain enough money to take up a cutting and pattern-making course in Berlin.

The next obvious step to establish the LeCoanet Hemant label was to seek admission in perhaps the most exclusive club in the world – the Haute Couture club which has only 16 members. But getting membership to a club that includes Yves St Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Gucci, Versace, Chanel, etc. is not easy. It requires investments and setting up manufacturing processes that conform to the standards of the Syndicat, requiring additional investments in manpower and quality. “For a new label that is trying to establish itself, being part of the haute couture Syndicat is crucial as it builds up your profile,’’ says Sagar. And it has worked.

One of the best advantages of being part of the Syndicat is that it allows the brand to participate in the world famous “Le Semaine de la Haute Couture’’ or the Week of High Fashion, a half yearly event where all the top labels in the fashion world from all over the globe gather in Paris to display their latest collections. For an aspiring brand, being part of this event gives unparalleled media coverage and publicity and also grants access to the innermost circles of the fashion world.

LeCoanet Hemant participated in this event for three years before it was admitted to the Syndicat as a member. Since then, LeCoanet Hemant has been an integral part of the haute couture world.

His style is influenced by his Indian origins, even though his designs are Western. As Claudine Hesse, fashion reviewer of the influential newspaper Le Figaro puts it, “It is an ethnic collection, with a happy mix of textiles from various exotic countries, readapted to European cuts. Keeping loyal to their principles, LeCoanet Hemant have revealed their soul … in their latest collection.” 

BEING HAUTE | The Rise Of Hemant Sagar, The Only Indian Haute Couturier In Paris, MW archives

Over the years, Sagar has established his own clientele for his line. A group of princesses from Saudi Arabia are his most regular clients, buying every year. Sagar says he has 60 clients who buy occasionally from him. He was also able to expand into the Japanese market through franchisees for accessories carrying his label.

But the business of haute couture is tough. The competition is intense and the market very small and prone to sharp plunges. “There are very few people all over the world who can afford to buy a haute couture dress, which often costs more than an upscale luxury car. And these are also concentrated in a few countries. So if there is any economic slowdown or setback in any of the principal regions, our business suffers, because haute couture is the first thing to be struck off the list when the times are not good,’’ says Sagar. Sagar’s business took a big hit on account of the recession in the Japanese market which saw most of his franchisees go out of business.

In order to avoid such massive downturns, Sagar is now branching out. He is on the verge of launching his own ready to wear label which, though targeted at the upper to middle range of the market, will still be far more affordable than his current products. He has appointed an agent for the West Asian market, but his future thrust will bring him back to India.

“Having firmly established the label in the fashion world, we are now looking for expansion. And India is an obvious market for us. But we are not looking just to sell our products in India, we will also use India as a sourcing point for our global sales.”

And the focus of his Indian venture will be the ready to wear range, in both Indian and western designs. Sagar believes the Indian market for high quality ready to wear dresses is vast and has set his sights upon this segment as being his main source of revenue from India. “In a sound business, the ideal contribution of haute couture to the total turnover should be about 5 per cent,’’ points out Sagar. And for his two-pronged strategy, Sagar plans to set up a workshop for production of his haute couture collections, which will be sold not just in India but also exported. Besides the workshop, Sagar will also open a retail outlet for ready to wear products. Sagar is currently looking for suitable properties in Mumbai for his Indian operations, which may require an investment of nearly 100 million rupees.

His style is influenced by his Indian origins, even though his designs are Western. As Claudine Hesse, fashion reviewer of the influential newspaper Le Figaro puts it, “It is an ethnic collection, with a happy mix of textiles from various exotic countries, readapted to European cuts. Keeping loyal to their principles, LeCoanet Hemant have revealed their soul … in their latest collection.” 

The pricing of the haute couture products in India will be in keeping with the market realities, says Sagar, and hence the Indian-made garments could be significantly lower priced than those that are currently being produced in Paris. To ensure that the Indian dresses are of the same quality as those produced in Paris, Sagar says the entire Indian team will first be trained, in order to familiarise them with the standards followed in Paris and later, the Indian production will be constantly supervised by a team of 3-4 experts who will be relocated from the Paris office to ensure that the quality is not compromised. “In order to ensure that the quality is maintained, nearly 80 per cent of the work on the haute couture will be done in India, but the remaining 20 per cent, which will involve the final touches and finishing, will be done in Paris. This will, at least initially, boost the confidence of our buyers about our products sourced from India,’’ says Sagar. But he hopes that someday his Indian workshop will be able to do the entire dress and carry the Made in India label.

Sagar is also working on another ambitious project – launching his own perfume. Almost all the big labels in the haute couture business have an entire range of accessories led by perfumes, which bring in sizeable revenues, besides high visibility. However, so far, the LeCoanet Hemant brand does not have any perfumes to boast of and hence the brand suffers in comparison with, say, YSL or Chanel, which have a large range of perfumes. Sagar admits that absence of perfumes has hampered the brand recognition, but says launching a perfume is a big investment. “Launching a perfume is a 10 million dollar business at least, and it requires a huge amount of build up. And every perfume launch is not successful. If we had launched a perfume much earlier and it had failed, it would have wiped us off the scene entirely. Now that our brand is established, we are looking at our own perfumes. I already have an idea of what it will be like and we are talking to potential investors,’’ says Sagar.

On the Indian fashion industry, Sagar has mixed feelings. He says some of the contemporary fashion designers in India have displayed good capabilities, but the industry has failed to move with the times. “The biggest drawback of the Indian fashion industry is its limited reach. The industry survives only because of, say, Delhi’s cocktail parties. Moreover, the Indian designers have failed to experiment. They stick to traditional Indian dresses — where they are very good — but they have not been bold. And haute couture is all about being innovative and bold,’’ says Sagar.

He says Indian society — at least in the metros — has changed drastically enough to justify these experiments and that is exactly what he intends to do as soon as he arrives on the Indian scene.

 

This article was first published in August 2000