On the Road to Innovation - Shantanu and Nikhil

"Fashion, is being looked at as a fraternity of global impact and we have integrated this shift in our philosophy and are now envisaging a future focusing on art, creativity, sustainable development and collaborations,” says the designer duo Shantanu & Nikhil in a conversation with us. From launching their celebration-wear-brand- S&N to having recently launched their first ever house fragrance- Independence, the brand is on a journey of innovation and extension.

When we speak of change drivers in fashion industry, the term sustainability immediately crosses our mind and the label Shantanu & Nikhil is taking its baby steps towards becoming a more sustainable brand. Their first initiative towards incorporating circular design started with rethinking the business model to create a circular ecosystem with consumers through - The Buy Back –A programme that allows proud owners of Shantanu & Nikhil couture to exchange their old outfits for credit values that they can use on their next purchase. “This not only drives responsible consumerism but also ensures controlled production at our end,” the designers add.  Going forward, the brand is also embracing a more season less model of design. “This has reduced the pressure on us to constantly create and drop new pieces every season. We are pulling out some of our signatures that have been consumer favorites in the past and re-ideating, redesigning and re-launching them.”

How did both of you come together to put up a brand that is known for creating Indian aesthetic with contemporary sensibilities?
Both Nikhil and I (Shantanu) were pursuing our higher education in the US from 1995 to 1999. I had successfully completed my MBA from Ohio State University while Nikhil had done his masters in fashion from FDIM, Los Angeles. I began to understand Nikhil’s flair of contemporising Indian Crafts during his final graduation runway show in LA. Not only did he get a standing ovation for the collection, but he also triggered a spark in me to sell his unique concept in India. It was then, when I quit my job and decided to settle in India to give a structure to this business model. Once marginally set with some infrastructure, I called Nikhil after six months to join hands and nurture the brand with a keen sense of art and commerce in our minds. Hence, was born Shantanu & Nikhil in the year 2000.

Travesty, India’s history and the pre-independence era played afflatuses to our design journey. While still abroad we realised that Indian tradition was always looked at with awe and fascination but more often than not was also equally overpowering to wear. While this was the feeling in the West, even back in India people were looking to break-free from the shackles of extreme heritage or ‘Indianness’. We took this as an opportunity to create a unique brand that celebrates Indian heritage with a contemporary undercurrent.

In 2020 you launched ‘S&N by Shantanu and Nikhil’; what was the inspiration behind it and what sets it apart from label Shantanu and Nikhil?
2020 was a year of ardent emotions for us, more so as Maison Shantanu & Nikhil celebrated 20 years of its brand existence. Over the last four years we have restlessly toiled around the idea of a new world and have embarked on an emotional journey of being more progressive, egalitarian and gender fluid in our design ethos. With an intent to democratize fashion through functionality and accessibility, we launched our new bridge-to-luxury celebration-wear brand ‘S&N by Shantanu And Nikhil’. This philosophy was deep-seated at Maison Shantanu & Nikhil; we just gave it a new identity.

S&N as we believe is India’s brand for the world; it redefines Indian occasion wear with a millennial sensibility and the essence of celebratory India. Military influences renewed with a festive aesthetic; unique, sartorial design hued in decadent palettes; and a narrative where heritage meets spunk, S&N is a brand with a young vision for our Global Indians.

In an interview you spoke about India being considered to be a flavour for the international fashion scenario but not essentially Indian design aesthetic and trends being the muse for fashion designers globally. How would you say we can bridge that gap?
We feel we have been bridging this gap from the word go, in fact this gap was essentially our starting point. Over the years, our collections have drawn inspiration from many elements and emotions rooted in India. We have captured the essence of nostalgic India, taking things from our rich culture and making it relevant for today by way of our signature contemporary drapes, sartorial silhouettes and prolific storytelling.

On one hand digital showcases gave everyone a front row to look into intricate designs, but on the other the essence and magic of a live fashion show was missing. What was your experience like? Do you feel digital showcases could be the future?
Most definitely! With how excellently these were executed across the globe, digital runway may become the new normal in the near future. While ‘Digital’ has been used synonymously with ‘future’ for a long time now, a positive consequence of the pandemic was also this sudden press towards digitisation.

We don’t think it took the essence away really; it was definitely a challenge to overcome that gap but the fraternity as whole embraced this new normal and we feel it was a job well done. The digital showcase brought with it accessibility, a newer and much larger audience that we wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise. We made the most of the opportunity; we adapted quickly and ensured that the baton keeps rolling. The pandemic struck hard, but the show went on & that feeling was far superior than the essence that some would say was missing.

What are your views on the idea of androgyny?
We have been advocates of gender fluidity & androgyny and while this lends virtues to the couture side of the brand, it is the monad in the S&N design language. We strongly believe that both men and women have masculine and feminine energies and each of them use the respective energy when required. Being the signature Drape Kurta creators in India, we have added a rather fluid energy to the simply structured Indian Male Kurta. Similarly, through our structured gowns for women we add strength to feminine fluidity, thus validating our philosophy of “he is she, and she is he”.

Previous year, amid the entire social media chaos, we’ve seen a T-Shirt slogan go viral and it definitely sent out a powerful message. Do you feel designers can be more vocal with their work?
Definitely, we have always believed that the narrative and storytelling are truly the central pillars of a designer’s repertoire. It is so vital that your design thinking is contemporaneous with ‘now’, with current pressing issues and global debates of the industry.

What are your future plans?
We are on a journey of redefinition, reinterpretation and brand expansion at the moment. Today, we have a platform where SAP integrated data and technology talk to each other in our ongoing quest to bring consumers closer to the brand and its overall experience as an omni-channel network. We would continue to evolve around this vertical by further introducing Artificial Intelligence (AI) in order to make the consumer experience even more nuanced. Additionally, with three flagship stores for S&N by Shantanu & Nikhil now open across Delhi in prime locations like DLF Promenade, DLF Avenue and Pacific, we are opening doors to a new era of accessible luxury. -- as told to Srivalli