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NIFT: Birthplace of Indian Fashion

Rathi Vinay Jha Email Rathi Vinay Jha
October 2009
NIFT: Birthplace of Indian Fashion

A pioneer in the field of fashion technology, NIFT started its first course in fashion design in 1987. Since then, this alma mater of fashion has been creating waves worldwide.

India is a treasure house of textiles and crafts skills that embellish the beauty of fashion apparel and accessories. India had for centuries exported silks and spices to the far shores of the world. The festivals of India that were held in the early 1980s in New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Japan, etc. showcased our heritage, our culture, our crafts, and contemporary strides in the fields of science and technology. These festivals reaffirmed our pride in our products and skills and brought in world acclaim.

The apparel export industry was at this time in its nascent stage and making inroads into world markets. The need for professionally trained managers and designers for a fast growing export industry was envisioned. The need to go forward in the global market place was a priority objective for India. In 1986, the Government of India decided to set up the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) to train professionals in fashion design, technology and marketing. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, founded in 1944, collaborated in setting up NIFT. The first Indian industry course in fashion design commenced in early 1987. This was followed the same year with the introduction of its first professional two-year Diploma Programme. The Institute introduced diploma courses in other disciplines in the years thereafter, addressing the entire gamut of design disciplines such as Apparel, Accessories, Knitwear, Leather and Textiles, and courses in Fashion Management and Fashion Communications. Apart from the usual teething problems of setting up a national-level institution to impart training to aspirants to the fashion business, the most challenging task was to get the concept of fashion education accepted. The Indian economy was still working its way towards the phenomenal growth we have had in recent years. The liberalization reforms that spurred economic growth were about to be introduced in the early 1990s. Fashion was seen as an elitist concept and not relevant to a socialist economy. Time and the establishment of a successful fashion industry generating employment took care of these concerns.

The setting up of NIFT was, therefore, a pioneering exercise. The vision and the initiatives taken across all these years have established NIFT as the premier Institute of Design, Management and Technology in our fashion industry. Early into the years of its establishment, NIFT was recognized internationally and nationally as a center of excellence in fashion education. Across two decades from the time the first graduates emerged out of the portals of the institute, there are a dozen NIFT centers of learning in Fashion Technology and Management across India. NIFT today is a byword for excellent professional education and training in Fashion.

May of 1989 – a summer evening of excitement saw the debut of the first batch of professional designers. The mood was electric, the designs presented on the ramp were highly acclaimed, and the audience applauded the birth of India’s fashion designers.

Some of India’s best designers known worldwide are NIFT alumni. Their creativity and skills have been fine honed to perfection to be able to compete at an international level. More than 2000 designers trained in NIFT are working in India and abroad. Some of these alumni have evolved as successful brands. Their creations have been showcased on the ramps in Paris, Milan, London, New York and many other venues where Fashion Weeks are held. Some of them have chosen to tread new paths within the larger definition of the fashion industry in photography, media, films, lifestyle design, graphic design and choreography. These designers have made an impact and acted as change agents.

India has cherished its heritage of textiles and crafts, its woven and printed fabrics and the many embellishment techniques that celebrate color and creativity. India always had a fashion statement but the idiom was different. The wearing styles of the stitched and unstitched garments have adorned the pages of the history and evolution of fashion across the world. And it is this comparative advantage that designers had as a foundation to build on.

The fashion design industry has contributed immensely to sustain the traditional textile and accessory crafts. The designers have imbibed the ability and creativity to innovate on traditional design and techniques to offer products that are contemporary and relevant to a constantly changing fashion world. NIFT had factored in the need to sensitize the designers with knowledge and empathy for the traditional crafts. The curriculum aims to provide a thorough understanding of lives and skills of craftpersons. It inculcates in the students a sense of respect for craftpersons and the rural environment. This understanding process includes the experience of living in craft villages and participating in development programs of craft clusters.

Our designers have played an important role in innovating and rendering traditional skills and techniques to bring Indian design to the best shops in London, Paris and New York. Whether it is the home market which appreciates highly embellished apparel or it is the international buyer who looks for finesse and subtlety of design, our products are special and unique. Today organic, natural, handcrafted are the buzzwords of high value fashion and luxury. Designers have understood the importance of conserving and promoting such concepts in their creative fields.

The principles of managing fashion and marketing imparted by NIFT have helped designers. They have a diverse home market and an equally competitive international market to cater to. They relate to fashion trends, color forecasts, buyers expectations and market demands. More than 80% of the fashion business comes from the domestic market, while a substantial share of the international market is in the Middle East or for the Indian Diaspora.

A modest beginning in the late 1980s in terms of multidesigner outlets such as Ensemble, Ogaan and FFolio offered designers space to showcase their creations in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Across time, business has opened up with the presence of designers in exclusive boutiques and retail shopping malls. The market place on the ramp has grown from individual and group designer shows to Fashion Weeks. India today hosts events in Delhi and Mumbai to market fashion products. The best known of these is the India Fashion Week hosted by the apex national level industry promotion organization called the Fashion Design Council of India. Leading designers who participate in the India Fashion Week such as Ashish Soni, Ranna Gill, Rina Dhaka, J J Vallaya and many others are NIFT alumni.

Since Indian designers aspire to showcase their creations and market them abroad, it is imperative to be present in international Fashion Weeks, and renowned designers Rajesh Pratap, Ashish Soni, Manish Arora, Varun Behl and many others who have showcased abroad at such events have had their initial training in NIFT. Paris—considered the Mecca of fashion—invited two leading designers Rajesh Pratap and Manish Arora to showcase at the Paris Fashion Week. This has been considered a great honor to India and to NIFT.

NIFT has indeed played an important role in capacity building and skill development for the fashion industry. It has introduced concepts that are of importance to carry forward the business of fashion in India and abroad. The foundation of competitive skills and fine honing of creativity achieved in the curriculum makes good designers who are able to compete with the best in the world.

[Reprinted with permission from India Perspectives. Rathi Vinay Jha retired as Union Secretary to the Government of India, and was Founder Director of the National Institute of Fashion Technology. She has served as the Director General, Fashion Design Council of India and is currently the Secretary General, World Trade & Tourism Council India Initiative.

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