India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
May 19, 2011

Urban Constructions

Text by Sohiny Das

The boys came prepared. They arrived with a plan and set to execute it with determination. Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra stepped under the Indian runway scanners for the first time in 2001. Ten years have passed. They are still there, standing strong. And not boys anymore, but seasoned men of the game. Verve visits the dynamic duo not to embark upon a retrospective, but to observe their assertive process of expanding their empire – one retail point at a time

Ten is not exactly a grand landmark; it does not have the same ring to it as a 50, or even a 25, but in the relatively young and unpredictable arena that is Indian fashion, the arrival at a two-digit figure is an indication of solid ground and a reliable establishment. The fledgling stages and shaky days are behind; a decade old company is serious business, even the ripened couture houses would have to start taking note. But rather than cutting a cake, taking a breather and venturing into a mini flashback with nostalgia, brothers and designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil Mehra are more active than ever. And unassuming about the decade – “It’s only 10,” they say. They are right. Not a big deal in the larger scheme of things.

Their main design quarters in Noida are spread over three floors, more rugged (yet urban) in aesthetic than their plush stores in the country’s swankiest luxury malls. Metal staircases, brick walls and the dominance of grey give out a New York loft apartment vibe. Black and yellow lines – very ‘crime scene’ – add a ghetto edge. There is a youthful energy and dynamism about the place, and the feeling gets a visual connect when I see the young company employees – kids, really – moving about, getting their part of the job done. They are the cogs of a rapidly expanding empire.

The setting is broken in places; I catch a glimpse of a crystal-laden couture lehnga in the making and the contrast between the outfit and its surroundings inevitably raises a momentary question – which is the real Shantanu & Nikhil aesthetic? The cool urban or the extreme decadent? Both, maybe, though it is hard to find a connect between the two. There is also the fact that this is not a retail point; those are chandeliered, mood-lit, opulent looking zones which would ring truer to the hangers. This is just the thinking space.

The brothers arrive in succession, casual yet crisp. They have always been well-dressed individuals favouring elegant minimalism in their personal attires, rather than trying to portray any ‘edgy alternative arty’ personas. They are what we call ‘normal’ – both in look and talk.  And very tuned to reality, despite the glittering fantasies that they project in their couture lines.

“Just because we’re designers, it’s not required for us to speak or dress in a certain way to be perceived as ‘creative’. If we’re tagged as too ‘normal’, that’s fine. We’d rather be comfortable,” Shantanu Mehra says with a smile. It is a confident smile; he knows where he and his brother stand in the industry. No larger than life avatar or fashion parade required for any extra attention or media adulation. The flashes already follow them, wherever they go.

Holder of an MBA, Shantanu is the business half of the house and provider of one part of the brand’s two-pronged strategy. Since the very beginning, the Shantanu & Nikhil house focused on backing art with solid marketability. Therefore, Shantanu concentrated on cementing the brand’s retail presence in the country, while his older brother Nikhil Mehra, trained and equipped with a fashion degree from Los Angeles, set the brand aesthetic and took up the creative reins. Even before the first label of the house was launched, the boys did their homework, thoroughly studying the domestic high-fashion market and the manufacturing areas, and only then planning out a brand strategy. “It’s still a largely disorganised industry,” Shantanu observes. “We started with the idea of having a very organised, integrated setup. It’s a brand vision, and we’re a modern, forward thinking company. It’s important to invest in proper infrastructure, plan things out and work systematically. And maintain the creative-business balance. We’ve had that complete approach since day one.”

“We are also very clear about our target consumers,” adds Nikhil. “There are separate audiences for the different labels under our brand name. We sort by age groups, which are also sometimes indicative of incomes. These help us plan our ranges and price points accordingly.” But when opinions vary, who takes the final call? “It’s a joint decision,” Nikhil says. “Technically, we have separate roles within the brand. But we keep each other in the loop regarding every process. If required, one can step into the other’s shoes. It’s never ‘yours’ or ‘mine’, but the company’s decision.”

At any given time, the house is working on as many as five different lines – Shantanu & Nikhil women’s and men’s couture, S&N Drape (the luxury prêt label for women and men), S&N Co. – a recently launched men’s accessory line and the Shantanu & Nikhil for Adidas label – a favourite project of the duo, for which they have already created collections for three seasons. In addition, there are bespoke pieces – including trousseau – for their very elite set of clients. They intend to have a piece of every pie.

“We aim at being a complete house,” Shantanu explains. “We are mainly a luxury brand, but it gives us pleasure to be able to connect with a younger audience and introduce the brand name at an earlier stage, at affordable prices. That’s why, we love doing the Adidas ranges. And we know that for the customers of this line, there’s a ‘designer’ tag, along with the sportswear brand’s name. That’s value addition.”

It is a prestigious association. The likes of Yohji Yamamoto and Stella McCartney are their global predecessors; both have created critically acclaimed and commercially successful ranges for Adidas, and the duo had a bar to perform up to. “We’re very happy that the first collection was greatly received,” Nikhil says. “It worked very well commercially too. Our design team comprises young individuals, who know the mindset and the pulse of the youth. They guide us regarding what’s cool and what’ll work. They’re part of the target audience themselves.”

Runway regulars until a couple of years ago, the duo has not been showcasing at the fashion weeks every season of late. “Fashion weeks are supposed to be trade events,” Shantanu says. “It’s all about business there. The buyer list hasn’t been great for the last few years, particularly because of the recession that passed. And we are also aware that it is the domestic market that is the most lucrative; this is where the maximum returns come from. So we’d rather showcase selectively and maybe directly to our customers at our stores. Our stores allow us to test products and get direct customer feedback. That’s our way to go.”

With the earlier, and somewhat rigid, Delhi/ Mumbai showcasing demarcations somewhat dissolving and multiple fashion events cropping up across the country, they look forward to expanding their audience bases. “But the platform matters,” Shantanu notes. “The association with the right organiser is important. Something like an Amby Valley Bridal Couture Week is good for presenting our high end line. We are hoping that the event shapes into an arena for creative trousseau presentations – beyond the bridalwear that we are used to seeing.” A bridal trend forecast zone? Seems difficult in this country, but why not.

A loyal fan base comprises much glitterati from tinsel town, particularly after their costume stint with Acid Factory (which unfortunately bombed). “No we’re not looking at another film project at the moment,” Nikhil says. “They require a lot of time, and currently we’ve got a lot going on in terms of expansion plans.” But ruling the red carpet continues, with many a dazzling screen diva turning up at awards’ ceremonies dressed in their creations. (Last heard, they created something for the revered Michelle Obama too.) “Yes, we like glamour in design,” Shantanu states. “We represent modern Indian luxury. The handcraft techniques are there, but we are not about simply sticking to traditions. We give them our own twists. They are classics made contemporary.”

With multiple standalone stores in New Delhi and Mumbai (a Hyderabad one is coming up and more are on the cards) and their Adidas lines available in all major cities – their presence in the market is strong. They have located the pulse of the Indian customer. Clearly they want to assert a nationwide empire and direct retail is the modus operandi. At this rate, it seems that the S&N logo will dot the country soon. The flipside of all this dynamism? “The travelling – we have to be constantly on the go. We have a very efficient team, but we still have to oversee everything, including this main office,” Nikhil says. “It’s only possible because there are two of us.  We can literally be in two places at the same time!”

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