Why have women designers not scaled the heights that men have in India?

The irony is that India's earliest “designers” were enterprising housewives

Most of the western fashion world has had its knickers in a knot for the past couple of weeks, ever since Sarah Burton resigned as creative head of Alexander McQueen, where she worked for over two decades before taking over as creative head in 2011. Burton was replaced by Sean McGirr. Last month, three new male creative directors made their debut at the Milan Fashion Week—Sabato de Sarno for Gucci, Peter Hawkings for Tom Ford and Simone Bellotti for Bally.

The problem is that all of the above new hires are white men in an industry that makes products primarily for women. This homogeneity impacts an industry that claims to be inclusive and forward-thinking. McGirr’s appointment now means that all six of the fashion conglomerate Kering’s fashion brands are headed by white men. As we say in fashion, it’s not a good look.

I have to wonder how many years is India behind in its inclusivity index. It has been less than three years since Indian conglomerates like Reliance Brands and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited (ABFRL) have started picking up Indian designers as part of their bouquet of brands. Plus, all Indian fashion brands are still being headed by their founders. Is Indian fashion too young to ask for diversity?

Kareena Kapoor models Masaba Gupta’s latest bridal wear collection | Instagram@Masabagupta Kareena Kapoor models Masaba Gupta’s latest bridal wear collection | Instagram@Masabagupta

Not if you think of India’s most successful fashion labels. These would be Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Manish Malhotra and Tarun Tahiliani. (I imagine Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla would also be somewhere in this top drawer, but since most companies are privately owned, their annual turnover is not declared. Moreover, since Reliance Brands, which has invested or bought out some fashion labels, is also not publicly listed, they can choose whether or not to declare their net worth.) Close on their heels are Rahul Mishra and Gaurav Gupta.

All of the above are male. North Indian male, with the exception of Mukherjee, as much of India’s wedding business is centred around the north. South India, with the possible exception of Hyderabad, has smaller, more muted weddings.

The irony is that India’s earliest “designers” were young enterprising housewives who worked from home. India’s first famous fashion brand was also a woman, the indefatigable Ritu Kumar. Nearing 80 now, she is still creative head of her business, now partly owned by Reliance. Kumar is a real-life fashion hero.

But where are India’s amazing female designers? Why have they not scaled heights in the fashion business like their male counterparts. Masaba’s House of Masaba was acquired by Purple Style Labs and then by ABFRL for a 51 per cent stake, making her a lot of money. Anamika Khanna joined hands with Reliance for her diffusion label AK-OK for an undisclosed amount. But other than these two women, none of India’s current fashion greats are women. Anita Dongre is a giant where her apparel brands are concerned, but her eponymous fashion label is much smaller. Most fashion labels helmed by women have a net worth between Rs20 crore and Rs30 crore.

In an interview last year, I had asked Khanna, whose label turns 25 this year, why she only worked when she wanted to. “My relationship with my children and family are also important to me,” she said. “We are nothing without love, and that translates into my profession, too.” In another interview, designer Kanika Goyal tells me she applied to NIFT Delhi as that’s as far as her patriarchal Punjabi family in Chandigarh would allow her to go.

Does great success come to those who don’t have children? Don’t women-run businesses deserve a lot more love and profit?