The true business of fashion isn’t the gloss and glam we are subjected to daily and while it may be a
lifelong dream to enter that world, your dreams aren’t enough. The industry is a business before anything else and to survive it,
that’s the reality you have to accept. It’s not pretty. Metaphorically, your presence backstage needs to clock in more time than
your presence on-stage. This is the understanding that Shenali Sema
has and in years to come, I believe that that will be her “felix felicis” (Liquid Luck. Props to all Harry Potter fans who
understand the reference).
While you might be one of her lovable Instagram stalker
for which I am too (and I cannot fathom for the life of me why you
aren’t if you aren’t), I was first acquainted with Shenali when she was an intern for fashion designer Varun Sardana in 2008
and for what it’s worth, I take great pride that I can refer to her as my friend, Shen. After all, if you are familiar with her
name, you would understand my reasons. You also don’t just get one of the most influential fashion writer/blogger of our time,
Susanna (Susie) Lau of Style Bubble,
to mention you as one of
India’s new wave,
let alone her personal blog.
“With this purchase of the one and only Indian designer in my wardrobe, I clock in a
first of my own” - Susanna Lau .
There was much to be excited about when she was recently seen wearing
a Morphe crop top in her latest Instagram #OOTD post.
Much before Sonam Kapoor catapulted
dress as THE most iconic Morphe
designs (and still the most ordered item I am told) till date, Shen had a long and educative past in fashion before landing the job she is in
now. She spent four years at the National Institute of Design (NID) earning a graduate diploma in Textile Design. In 2007, her third year,
Shen resided in New York for four months interning for Anna Sui, a fashion icon of our time. During her time in New York, she worked in a
store called Bollywood Fashion to support her stay. They sold Indian movie costumes as well as pirated Indian movies and from time to time,
she would borrow and watch them to make her feel at home. I can vouch for that and safely say with experience that you can fight it all you
want but you can never take the Indian out of you.
The four years at NID proved to be essential for our young designer
and she calls it hers turning point. School-girl-Shen to design-school-Shen was a 360 degree change and it developed her into the woman she is.
At a young age, she was inspired by her mother who would stitch clothes for her and her sister. While the clothes fascinated her, her father was
pretty certain that his youngest daughter would want to become an actress thanks to her bold dancing moves and practicing speeches in front of
the mirror. This vibrant personality carried on to her school days but once she stepped into NID, “I got over myself” she said. It’s funny to
hear what a young Shen was like because present Shen is reserved and cautious. I will refrain from calling her ‘shy’ because she admits that
once she started the job, it was essential to break down those walls. Yet, the elements of fun and vibrancy is not lost because they explode
onto her designs for Creative Implex.
Morphe is housed under Creative
Implex, a garment export house and the parent company of which Shen is co-head designer alongside Rinzin Lama. Creative Implex works two seasons
ahead and designs for major fashion houses like Proenza Schouler, Kenzo, Chanel and Vanessa Bruno to name a few. They also design for Topshop.
With Creative Implex, Shen is allowed the creative burst because the clients are looking to be surprised. Designing for Creative Implex and
Morphe, she finds a balance and it is through this balance that she has a clear direction for Morphe.
Morphe to be exclusive” she says.
Shen is still shocked that it has been four years at Morphe (“four years!!”
she emphasises in a high pitch and wide eyes). She always knew that as a designer she needed to find an identity within the realm of her designs.
Here, she mentions her admiration for Phoebe Philo
who does just
that: A knack for reinventing the identity she had already formed. So much so that everything is a breath of fresh air (
anyone?). “I want to be making an informed choice as a designer” and
this is exactly what Shen sought out to do for her designs. In 2014, inspired by The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a print from the series
Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji
by 19th Century
Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, Morphe had found their identity in ‘the wave’.
It might surprise you to know
that Shen doesn’t like to sketch her designs. While studying a graduate diploma in fashion at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design,
London (or famously known as CSM), a talk with one of her tutors helped her enhance this realisation, that she didn’t necessarily have to put
pen to paper and make drawings of her designs and ideas. So how does she work? She simply takes the fabric and sits with her pattern maker at
the studio. With a dummy by their side, they fit the sample onto the dummy, working on several aspects of the garment (its drapes, its folds,
the fall etc.).
“I don’t like to sit and sketch. How else do you change the
silhouette unless you do it physically?”
I am told that Morphe is doing
well in terms of business and sales but Shen is not uncomfortable to reveal that her biggest competition isn’t other designers like her but
rather high street labels (Zara, Mango etc.). With H&M due to open in September
a discussion was held on how that meant it was another rival in the market, she says. Technically,
the question of tackling a high street label shouldn’t even arise but in truth, the vast majority of Indian customers and shoppers aren’t
ready to spend ‘X’ amount on an item just because it has exquisite workmanship. Even if they are ready, Morphe, which being categorised as
‘western wear’, still doesn’t fit into the usual mould of what the Indian customer is familiar with. It isn’t Dior or Prada, Gucci or D&G.
It isn’t Chanel. It isn’t even Victoria Beckham so customers aren’t willing to pay the price for this unknown anomaly in the market
(unless it’s that Sonam Kapoor dress). Morphe’s customer base is largely international but to keep up in India, they have recently begun
retailing an exclusive line to Bombay Electric
as well as an affordable line of
designs to jabong.com
her about customers from the North-east, she says there are none. They do, however, ask her if she makes wedding gowns. For Shen though, this
isn’t a let-down. The plan isn’t fast designs and fast sales (“I don’t want to be another China”). Rather, she wants Morphe to be a
clientele-based business. It is not to please. Rather it is a business in which the customers and buyers appreciate the quality of the
garment, the finishing of the piece and the technique that has gone into that piece of fabric. Hence, don’t expect to see her in any of the
fashion weeks because Morphe is a label that makes garments for all seasons. What you can look forward to is Morphe launching their own digital
space in the ‘interwebz’ or the internet if you are used to 2015 lingo.
“We want intelligent customers to cater to”.
Shen’s plans for the
future are remarkably grounded and admirable. We see her for the designer that she is but her mind is slowly but surely evolving towards a
sustainable business model. Whether she remains at Morphe for the next 10 years isn’t the issue. It’s what comes after that we should await.
“I am in a synthetic system” she says and in the near future, she wants to be in a more organic system, working with crafts. Craftsmen and
women from the North-east to be more specific. She wants to set up a system to not only document crafts but develop their skills and train
them as well, even hoping to set up a sampling unit. She sees the capability and the quality in the work and believes there is still so much
untapped talent in them. It is about creating a business model in which there is a symbiotic flow with both parties reaping the benefits.
She knows it will be challenging especially when it comes to the lack of work ethics but she is driven by her ambition of wanting and achieving
something on her own. In a profession that is so often judged as vain and shallow, Shen feels the need to prove it to herself that she is
capable of much more and for her, it is about setting up a system to give back and help society.
“I don’t want to be a pseudo. I want to figure out how to contribute. I have to figure it out”.
In these short years, Shen has seen India’s fashion industry up-close.
Close enough to know what not to do, she muses. Her on-going experiences are proving to be an invaluable lesson for her future plans.
The future, however, is something Shen worries about. Firstly, she is concerned about the human population taking the planet for granted and
questions passionately: how long till all our resources are depleted? How long till Mother Nature gives up on us?
Secondly, her trusty assistant, friend (and unofficial Instagram photographer if I may add) is soon set to leave her side to pursue further
For her first fear, seeing as scientists continue to contradict each other on our survival, I am quietly
confident that we will be here on earth long enough to see and laud what Shen achieves. As for her second concern, what can I say? It’s hard to find a like-minded
instagrammer. In this day and age, what are we without our Instagram buddy? We feel your pain (and the urge to keep her strapped by your side?
No?) but we hope you create another great wave with that.
Shenali Sema, Designer and Creative Director of Morphe