Archana Rao has managed to put Hyderabad on India’s fashion map in a way no other designer from here has. She won the Vogue India Fashion Fund Award and her label Frou Frou is making waves. Archana also designs bags and shoes which are equally popular. MInal Khona talks to this young designer to find out more.
The first thing that strikes you about Archana Rao are her large, limpid eyes and her beautiful coffee-coloured glowing complexion. Dressed in a smart jacket with jeggings and trendy shoes, she looks every inch the designer. Besides, she wears the mantle of winning the Vogue India Fashion Fund Award fairly lightly. She goes down memory lane to recall the beginning of her journey that led to the award – her shining moment.
Given the Andhra obsession with engineering, Archana was lucky she had supportive parents who encouraged her creative spirit. She says, “I used to paint even as a child and I actually liked illustration more than design. When I decided to explore a career in fine arts, I was inclined more towards architecture than towards fashion. And when I applied for the NIFT entrance exam ten years ago, there were not many people from Hyderabad who were interested. I really liked the way the NIFT exam was conducted as it challenged our creative and analytical skills. I got admission at NIFT Delhi and Hyderabad but chose this city as it is home.”
The creative side to Archana was well nourished at NIFT as she enjoyed everything she learnt there. Then her stint at Parsons Institute in New York where she got an Associate’s degree followed. She says, “I took a conscious decision to do this degree and not my post graduation because I wanted to hone the skills I had learnt at NIFT more than anything else. After the course which lasted 18 months, I stayed back and interned with Kaufman Franco and TSC – both fashion houses. I didn’t want to join the established fashion houses as one gets little scope to learn there. I chose these upcoming labels and they were huge learning experiences. The exposure I got in terms of my technical skills was phenomenal – especially in garment construction, panel-making, finishing etc. The attention to detail and the high standards of quality are something I now bring to my label. I imbibed all these important aspects and met many interesting and established people from the industry.”
After 18 months of internship, Archana returned home to Hyderabad. She worked for a year with an export house that manufactured menswear. Her training at TSC also included menswear since they designed predominantly unisex garments. Looking back, she is grateful for this exposure as one of her strengths is the structure of the clothes she designs. She used to pour her salary into her own designing ventures and got her first big break with the Lakme India Fashion Week 2012 for the Spring Summer season in the Gen Next category. “I think it was a good launch for any upcoming designer because you get instant exposure to the market.” She was among the handful chosen from 150 hopeful applicants.
She quit her job to launch her label Frou Frou for the fashion week. The collection was called Prologue and it was inspired by menswear. She says, “Though androgyny was a huge fashion trend at that time, I wanted to make my collection simple with a touch of femininity rather than just a structured one.” Another unique touch Archana gave her collection was the sense of completion by designing the bags and shoes herself. “I used opposing materials of wood and cloth for the accessories. I gave my garments a structure but with a touch of embroidery or lace I gave them a feminine touch.” Regarding the unusual name she says, “I’ve always loved the term ‘frou frou’. It’s the noise fabric makes when it rubs against itself,” when I quiz her about it.
She also created the accessories for her second collection for Lakme India Fashion Week Spring Summer 2013 titled A Nostalgia Shop. This collection had a lot of lace and old world embroideries. She scoured thrift shops – something she loved doing even in New York – and incorporated themes from upholstery, old petticoats, wicker work etc. The shoes and bags have since then all sold out and incredibly, Archana doesn’t have time to create anything for herself – neither bags nor shoes.
Priced from ` 5000 onwards, the use of wood, the wicker netting of chairs, lace and other embellishments make a unique statement that is bound to get a conversation started. She says, “I love old things and I am tremendously inspired by them. They have a story to tell and things that have aged beautifully and been passed on to the next generation are elements I tried to incorporate into my collection. Though my work replicated these old themes, I distressed things to give them a used look in a nice way.” The collection used lots of sheer organza, layered and embroidered then dyed over to give the fabric a textured look.
I then ask her about her biggest moment in her 28 years thus far – the Vogue India Fashion Fund Award and how she came to be the winner. There was undoubtedly a lot of effort that went into her prep work for it and it paid off. She recalls, “It is a long process and I had to send a compilation of pictures of my work in February 2013. In June I got to know that I was among the top 20 out of the 100 odd applicants. There was a round of interviews where I had to present one piece from my old collection, one from the present and one from the future. I decided to drop out of the LIFW Fall collection to concentrate on the Fashion Fund. The jury consisted of Sabyasachi Mukherji, Anaita Shroff Adajania, Priya Tanna, Gaurav Mahajan the CEO of Westside, Suneet Varma and Sunil Sethi of FDCI. We had to make a presentation of our business plan and how we would recover our costs. It was an analytical one and I learnt a lot about running a business.”
Archana admits that numbers and analyses are not her strong point and her father’s friend helped her with the presentation. She even admits that she found this stringent interview refreshing and challenging. Another two months later Archana was informed that she was among the top five designers chosen. For her collection she worked on carpets and petticoats and used elements from carpets and the delicate vintage petticoats in voile with scalloped hemlines. Another source of inspiration was Picasso’s painting ‘Boy with the pipe’. She says, “I loved the colours used and along with the texture of carpets and the embroidery of the petticoats, I worked on my collection.”
She had to create three looks – one look was for Tigre Blanc, a high-end vodka brand who was also one of the sponsors. She took the colours of the brand – black, white and gold – and created a simple black and white dress with a hint of gold and bags and shoes to match. For Westside, another sponsor, she had to present sketches of probable designs for their affordable prêt line called Bombay Paisley. She used old photographic prints and old folklore for inspiration and repeated motifs with tessellations. The third creation was for a phone cover for Micromax, the other sponsor. She says, “I used the design of the inside of a phone as a blueprint with the signature orange of the company on the side. The second cover I made was a woollen knit one with the logo on one side.”
On the big day of the awards, October 25, Archana attended the award function alone in Delhi. “Seeing all the big names in the world of fashion was exciting but everyone was very informal. I knew one thing – I was very happy with all the effort I had put in towards making the creations. I told myself that if I won the award, it would be the icing on the cake but even if I didn’t, I was satisfied with my work. That was important for me – giving my best. Then they announced the first and second runners up. I was telling myself it was okay and then they announced my name. I was shocked. Other than saying thank you on stage, I don’t remember anything. Later it sunk in and it felt really good.”
The award entails a year-long business mentorship with an industry professional, a cash prize of ` 25 lakhs, a retail partnership with Westside, a chance to show at Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, editorial and marketing support from Vogue India and a fashion shoot in the magazine. Archana is looking forward to the mentorship as a learning curve. Her clothes are retailed at Pernia’s Pop Up Shop (an online store), Collage in Chennai, Kitaro in Kolkata and at Anahita’s in Hyderabad.
Currently, she is designing Indian and mostly western wear with pastels and nudes dominating with khakis, whites, ochre and olive green. Some garments and sarees of the pre-pleated variety are in bright colours but with most garments, the synergy between the structured silhouette and a touch of the feminine cannot be missed.
An introvert as a person, Archana remains so, largely untouched by her success. She is very attached to her parents and her younger siblings. She plans to start a unisex label this year and finds designing for people who are not very fashion centric a challenge. “I like to see the personality of the wearer come through whatever they are wearing – whether or not it is a designer label.”
Well, for this designer whose clothes appeal to 15-year-olds as well as 50-year-olds, life it seems can’t gets any better. We can only hope that her creative energies continue to flow into her label.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury to me means comfort.
What is one luxury you cannot live without?
Well-maintained bed linen.
What is the one holiday destination you would love to revisit anytime?
New York City
What luxury brands are you a fan of?
Prada, Stella McCartney, Chloe among many
Which item of luxury do you think is a colossal waste of money?
I think in today’s generation, cell phones.
How would you define “the good life”? And what aspects do you need to come together for you to have a good life?
To me the good life is enjoying what you do for a living, being fulfilled in your personal life not having to worry about too many material things. In general living, loving and laughing.
What is the one secret indulgence you haven’t told too many people about?
Lately I have developed a sweet tooth and I love indulging in doughnuts
What inheritance / legacy would you like to leave for the future generation?
It’s too soon to tell, I’m still growing as a person and a designer.
Suppose you’re going on a minimalist trip. What are the three things you would carry along?
I am known to over pack but if I must choose, I would take along a handbag, (with contents intact) cell phone and an extra pair of clothes.