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The uncertain future of India’s fashion students

Recent graduates across the country are struggling to find even unpaid internships in the pandemic era, leaving them hopeless about building their professional career

While institutes across the country tried to train students about fashion design, knitwear and styling, many students believe digital learning couldn’t really equip them with skills required for their graduation project—the entry ticket to the industry. (Unsplash)

Dhvaen Bakrania is not sure what the future holds for him. He graduated last year from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Jodhpur as a textile design student and continues to be on the lookout for a paid internship after moving to Mumbai in search of job opportunities.

But given the way the pandemic has affected the fashion industry, it seems he will have to wait longer. “At this point, everything feels hopeless. My plan B is doing some random part-time job so that I don't depend on my parents,” says Bakrania.

Also read: Fashion has a bad habit: cultural appropriation

Lack of job opportunities across industries has been one of the biggest fallouts of the ongoing health crisis. In the small world of Indian fashion, where opportunities were always limited, it’s becoming even harder to navigate the job market. Recent graduates across the country say unpaid internships too are getting harder to land in the pandemic era, making it difficult for most to plan their future in an industry that is likely to take more time to rebuild itself.

Absence of opportunities is not the only problem. While institutes across the country tried to train students about fashion design, knitwear and styling, many students believe digital learning couldn’t really equip them with skills required for their graduation project—the entry ticket to the industry. “It’s not possible to understand flat knitting in online class; it has to be practical,” insists Khushi Karanseth, a knitwear graduate from NIFT Delhi. Some students were unable to complete their graduation project while others said they had to incur extra costs in styling and photographing the project they were half satisfied with. The absence of an impressive physical portfolio further makes prospects of internship/employment harder as “in fashion, people expect to have clothes or textiles in their portfolios when they are hiring interns or employees, and it is very scary to figure out what to put together when we have almost zero work to show for academic projects,” says Anwesha Mukherjee, a master’s student at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. “It’s ironic that we are expected to do things digitally but are also not favoured because we don’t have an offline experience,” adds Karanseth.

The faculty of NIFT Delhi, however, insists that most was done to make the learning experience seamless for students. “During the pandemic, both faculty and students have learned to handle the unexpected challenges that can come in their way. With an increased industry interface built into the curriculum, our students are better equipped to contribute to the industry. Special attention was given to students who could not connect online. There were special tutorials and feedback sessions with such students,” says Ruby Sood, a professor of textile design at NIFT Delhi. “It is indeed a challenging time for fresh graduates as recruitments are surely affected.”

Antonio Maurizio Grioli, dean of School of Fashion at the Pearl Academy, suggests that at present, “organizations are looking for talent who can multitask and fit various profiles, but students are finding a mismatch in work being demanded and salaries being offered. Most of the students went back to their hometowns during the lockdown and would prefer work from home option initially, but organizations want them to be physically present.”

Students who are managing to find a job or an internship are overcompensating for the lack of experience with extra work hours. "Placements weren't held and due to the lack of vacancies, I took freelance projects and internships, which were mostly unpaid. I am working for two different brands as an intern but working extra hours for very little pay, which pulls the morale down,” claims Prasad.

These difficulties are pushing students to be innovative. “I have been constantly networking virtually and building my base,” says Bryna Das, a fashion styling graduate from FAD International Academy, Mumbai. “I figured out that if I can’t meet people in person and network, I might as well use Instagram to the fullest to do that, and I did. I started making a list of brands and companies I really liked and wanted to collaborate/work with, and started reaching out to them.” Das later took up two unpaid internships with magazines, while simultaneously working as a creative designer and in-house stylist for a Kolkata -based marketing agency.

Experts suggest students must be open to new roles and acquiring multi-disciplinary skills to secure a job in the fashion industry at present. The chief operating officer of Mumbai’s Istituto Marangoni, Tarun Pandey, predicts: “Adaptability to new scenarios will be a key soft skill for the next future. Priorities and operations of companies might experience a shift and job opportunities could see a change from a narrow to a broad perspective. A more extended working from home experience will become more widespread and consultancy jobs will be offered rather than fixed-term contracts.” To adapt to the same, “the interplay of technology and fashion will be key going forward,” insists Grioli. “So, don’t restrict yourself to your core area of study and build on additional knowledge and skills. It will widen your avenues while seeking employment opportunities. Be flexible if you are not getting exactly the kind of profile you are looking for. Going for a slightly different profile can be a great chance to learn something new.”

Designer Arunima Sahni of contemporary womenswear label Ura insists that building a career in the present fashion industry is “very difficult”. “Fashion is a saturated market. So, as a young fashion graduate, you have to be very aware of that. When you want to provide and create, you really have to ensure you are providing something of value. Now more than ever, you are going to have to work harder to build your dream up from the ground. If you’ve been given an opportunity, grab it and work hard for it."

But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be offered a stipend. While footwear designer Aparajita Toor agrees increasing competition has made it difficult to secure a place for young professionals, she says it’s high-time brands started looking at offering “facilities on a par with other employees of the organization so as to make them feel that they are an integral part of the organization and the industry as a whole.”

Dhvaen Bakrania, like many other students, doesn’t believe the change will happen anytime soon. Having grown up with the dream to become a fashion designer, the present situation has left him broken. “My whole life I wanted to do this. Now I don’t know where to go?”

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