Anamika Khanna: ready for a reunion
FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week join forces after 15 years, while Khanna returns to the runway after a hiatus of over two years
There is no doubt that Anamika Khanna is one of India’s most talented and well-regarded fashion designers. With no formal fashion training, she has built her brand’s signature on hybrid silhouettes that work for women of all shapes, and painstaking surface embellishments that balance traditional embroideries with modern application. On the hanger, her clothes look like cherished heirlooms, yet wear like red carpet entrances. To anyone, she would be the ideal designer to open the newly-reunited FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week; the first time the twain have met since their split in 2006.
Even so, she has had to face comments like ‘Why Anamika? She’s a Calcutta designer!’, the source of which she chooses not to share. “Why would anyone say something like this? I’m an Indian designer; I could be from anywhere in the country!” she tells The Hindu Weekend. This only goes to show the deep chasm that the Great Fashion Week Split created when it happened. Over the years, it grew into a rivalry — the pre-existing Delhi-Mumbai Divide helped — that manifested in real business outcomes for designers based in Delhi and Mumbai, as well as elsewhere.
Quiet isn’t always bad
At 49, Khanna is one of the few designers to have shown at both fashion weeks over her 16 years in the business, so I ask her if this merger became possible because the platforms have recently gone digital due to Covid-19. “I think going digital just sped up the inevitable,” she says. “The coming together of these two giant platforms unifies the entire fashion industry. When you go to France, you don’t have 10 different fashion weeks, do you? This is a good move, and I’m excited to be part of this historic event.”
But will this partnership survive when physical shows come back? “That’s just a detail,” she says. “Shows can happen anywhere. All over the world, the media travels to the host cities. As a designer based in Kolkata, I’ve always packed up my collection and my team, and gone to wherever the shows are being held. So I hope this merger continues to go strong.”
Khanna’s last show happened in Mumbai at Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) in January 2018 (the finale; Kareena Kapoor walked the ramp). Since then, the high points — at least from a brand and marketing perspective — have been few and far between. She hasn’t launched any major collections on Instagram as is the norm today, and her twin sons’ label, AK-OK — an athleisure line launched in 2019 — has not perceptibly broken any ground on social media yet (with just over 6k followers at the time of going to press). But she gently disagrees.
“We’ve launched the Mumbai flagship store [at Kala Ghoda] recently,” Khanna says over a Zoom call. “And AK-OK has found its online retail presence where the collections have started rolling out. We’ve launched our men’s line, too. So a lot has been happening, even though we’ve been doing everything quietly.” She had even planned to launch a home line before the lockdown, but that took a back seat due to the pandemic. “But it has worked in our favour. We’ve always been a quiet brand, and we’re hitting higher numbers,” she adds. “India is a land of celebrations and weddings, and that never stops.” Had she felt the need to create more social media and marketing buzz, she would have, she says. “I just don’t want to go crazy and do things just because I have to.”
Flip side of fashion
The timeline of her fashion shows, for both the FDCI and Lakmé-led fashion weeks, attests to this. Famously inconsistent, she hasn’t held fashion shows season after season as expected, and prefers to pick her moments. “Everyone forgets that I’m a mother first,” she says. “I’ve brought up two boys who’ve gone through school, exams, activities, sports, illnesses, vaccines, and a number of other things. So there have been challenging times that I’ve had to navigate.” She adds that there is a part of her that needs to be 100% convinced to take anything on — and a fashion show by any standards is a big undertaking — otherwise she simply doesn’t do it. “Besides, being from Kolkata, I’m away from the daily hullabaloo of fashion.”
I ask her if this physical remove keeps her sane. “Probably. There is a lot of pressure that designers face. Pressure that you have to create collections and sell them, that you have to be present on social media… otherwise you’ll be lost in the crowd; it’s extremely challenging,” she says. “It’s like you’re at a party for just a second, but you take a picture and post it. Or you’re designing a garment and you begin with thinking which colour would look best for an Instagram post. Or you stand next to a stranger’s car and take a selfie. How am I going to create anything if all I’m thinking about is how it’ll look like on social media? I cannot live like that.” Her tone at this point is earnest, and exhausted even from thinking about the topic.
The right priorities
Two years ago, Khanna went through what her friend Sonam Kapoor described on social media as a “terrible illness” that spun off into an online debate. In our conversation, she hints that one of the reasons her health suffered was work-related stress. “I had a major health episode two years ago… and that happened because I was going mad!” Once she was back on her feet, she started taking things more slowly, and allowed herself to enjoy the process. “Today, I don’t want to see Instagram. I’m totally ignorant about what other people are doing. I want to be able to create beautiful things and push my creativity to the next level, to wake up and be excited for my work,” she says. “This collection has been put together in a short time, but I’ve loved every minute of designing and making it. I’ve grown with it,” she adds, while refusing to even hint at what to expect.
There is one last question that I put to her as delicately as I can, for Khanna has done multiple ‘opening’ and ‘finale’ fashion shows — a phenomenon unique to Indian fashion weeks. I ask if celebrating fashion shows because of their scheduling creates a sense of the theatrical, and if that takes away from the business and economic role the industry plays. “What bothers me more is that it creates a narrative that some designers are better than others because they are opening or closing the event,” she says, adding that she doesn’t think it affects business as much as it does the perception of the designers in the market.
Not having ever worried about perception herself, Anamika Khanna may just be the exception that proves the rule.
Anamika Khanna’s show for the FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week is scheduled on March 16, and will stream live on both the FDCI and LFW Instagram handles.
The writer is a fashion commentator and brand consultant.