Shwetambari Mody is an Indian-born, international fashion designer and branding expert living in New York City, best known for her classic, vibrant, high fashion neck scarves. A design graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, USA, with an MBA in luxury brand management from ESSEC Business School in Paris, France, Ms. Mody has worked extensively and internationally on both, the design and the business sides of the fashion industry. In addition to holding a position in textile research and development with a famous brand she is not allowed to talk about, Ms. Mody is currently developing her own Indian Luxury brand, with an accessory collection that marries the spirit of her native Indian culture with a global aesthetic and a modern pace of life.
Where do you work and what is your role?
I am currently working in fabric research and development, but I am not legally allowed to disclose the company I work for. Secrecy is key in this business.
What is involved in fabric R&D?
Let’s face it, fabric is the backbone of the fashion industry. Before the season even begins, we are conceptualizing the fabrics first. We assemble with our color and concept boards and think up ideas, which the design team sketches out on the fabrics we show them. Then, we get different artists to design a variety of prints for us. All colors must be sent to New York for approval, to make sure, for instance, that the correct intensity of “fuchsia” is being used. Print approval is done with “print strike-offs”: we focus on a small piece (instead of the whole roll), for a close-up of how the pattern, the colors and the engraving actually look on that particular fabric. Then, before you get any orders, you have to set up “showroom samples”. The buyers come to our brand and our showrooms to see the entire collection and decide what they wish to buy. And only then we go into bulk production.
How long is the process of creating a new collection, from the beginning to end?
From concept to bulk, it is a three-to-four-month window. We work a year-and-a-half in advance, which is how brands typically operate in the U.S. Right now, we are getting bulk orders from stores for the Spring 2017 collection. At the same time, we are conceptualizing the Spring 2018 collection, anticipating what kinds of fabrics people will be buying and wearing in 2018. This is the tricky part, which is why we enlist big agencies like Premier Vision for help as well as regularly attend shows and check in with Paris to see what the top designers are doing.
Who are your customers?
We are in the contemporary “bridge market”. We are not the designer range but we are also not mass market. We are in-between, which is where most American brands lie and where the majority of the dollars come in.
And the “mass market”?
It takes a while for fashion trends to trickle down into the mass market. Those cropped pants and all the velvet that you see all over New York now — that happened in high-end fashion shows at least two seasons ago. Mass market consumers simply do not take as many risks as those in high fashion. But, then again, high-end fashion is not where the money is. So, we have to balance it: bring in as many trends as possible, but also even out the price.
As a fashion designer, why did you decide to additionally earn an MBA in luxury brand management?
Everybody thinks that creative types do not need to know the business part of it. And even where I work now, sometimes the designers get carried away designing and the production comes in and it’s “Oh my god, we can’t do it at this price!”. I am an artist and I feel the constant urge to design and make things, but when I start my own Indian luxury brand in the near future, I will not be one of those people who is totally oblivious to finance. You have to be pragmatic. Let’s not forget that fashion is a business. It’s beautiful, it’s making stunning garments and accessories, but it is a business.
What would you say are the biggest rewards of working in the fashion industry?
If I curate a particular fabric for a season, and I see women buying, wearing and enjoying it, that is the best feeling. Fashion is everywhere. Going out for dinner or on a fancy date, the first thing we think is, “what am I going to wear?” Even for people who say they don’t care about fashion — clothing themselves is still a choice they have to make every day. So, if they are going to pick something I have contributed to, it’s a huge reward, don’t you think? Another source of satisfaction is working with like-minded professionals. Of course, there is always some difference of opinion — and every good company should have that. I got very lucky with my team: our aesthetics are in sync, we love to create, we love to please, we love to produce amazing garments. And, as a woman, I can tell you: a man may make you feel beautiful — but what a gorgeous dress can do for you, nobody else can do.
What are the challenges of building a career in fashion?
The industry is full of creative egos and the back-and-forth can become “too much” at times. And there are companies that might not value and encourage camaraderie and cooperation among colleagues. Also, now that we are making everything overseas, we must learn the nuances of working with other cultures in the global economy. It is all about understanding how “they” function, how we function and identifying the differences in work styles. Some of our foreign colleagues, for example, accept and do what they are told without question. In New York, we are not like that at all — we try to challenge what we can.
What is particular or peculiar about working in fashion design?
It is almost like being in a secret society. You know, but you don’t know, you know? We are not allowed to talk about our collection or what we are conceptualizing for the next season, even though we really, really want to! We all sign non-disclosure agreements. Nobody wants their work leaked out for others to copy. Also, people in the fashion industry are insanely hard-working and take fashion very seriously. It is just clothes, at the end of the day. Sometimes it is important to put things into perspective but, as insiders, we just don’t, myself included.
Are there any myths about the fashion industry you can dispel for us?
Everyone thinks it is so glamorous. No, it is not! It is very hard work, especially when you start at the bottom of the food chain. Expect a lot of late nights, running errands and picking through endless details.
What advice do you have for Millennials considering careers in fashion design?
Do internships in the first couple of years of school and do not be disheartened by all the grunt work. It is all about networking. And do not get into this industry if you think you are going to be shopping for a living! Do it only if you are obsessively passionate about fashion design. And if you believe this to be your calling, do not give up, no matter what.
Finally, what would you caution against as the Number One Career Suicide Move in fashion?
Never, ever burn bridges. Never badmouth people. This is a very small industry. Everyone knows each other and, sooner or later, works together. Tables turn fast: your intern can become your boss, especially at the rate Millennials are opening up new businesses. If you don’t get along with somebody, find a way to coexist with respect. This is the only rule to never break. Otherwise, fashion is all about breaking the rules!