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Raghavendra Rathore: I want them to be a visionary, not just a pattern-master

Fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore tells us about his upcoming school of design in Jaipur

Raghavendra Rathore at St Regis, Mumbai. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint.
Raghavendra Rathore at St Regis, Mumbai. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint.

When German architect Walter Gropius set up the Bauhaus school in the 1920s—first in Weimar and then in Dessau and Berlin—the founding members and he perhaps had little idea of the impact the movement would have. As a school of thought that spread across the world, modernism originated at this school of design education.

Cut to the present day, and fashion designer Raghavendra Rathore—who has made the classic (patented) bandhgala a chic icon with his luxury menswear eponymous label—is busy putting together a school of fashion design in Jaipur. With The Gurukul School of Design (GSD), Rathore is set to explore what modern Indian design education should be: a blend of the business of fashion, of nurturing an innate creativity, within a holistic and rooted guru-shishya context. The GSD is scheduled to start a four-year course from August 2018, “though several details are still in process, and I’m sure that if I don’t get a certain calibre of students, I may defer the first semester", says Rathore. Sitting in the lobby of the St Regis in Mumbai, Rathore articulates this hybrid ideology. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did the idea of establishing a school come to you?

I think it came from wanting to give something back. When I was a student at Parsons (School of Design, New York, in 1994), I used to work after school to support myself. There was a person then who had helped me through that. It has stayed with me. The idea of the school also came from the foundation I had started about five years ago. It’s called the Raghavendra Rathore Foundation (RRF), and we are based in Jodhpur. We have a small factory where we prototype and experiment. We’ve done projects like a modified bullock cart, making desalinization equipment for a small community in Jodhpur. The school is an extension of that intent to give back.

An architectural rendition of the upcoming Gurukul School of Design.

The word ‘gurukul’ has a traditional connotation. Is that the essence of the school as well?

I’ve always thought of heritage as a value. I want to work with people who are reforming and taking design forward, but have some connect to the roots. Gurukul, I think, can be a strong brand identity. Just as Khadi—it’s still a rising graph—has become synonymous with Indian design. I’m not taking this presumptuous dive that education that comes out of India needs some definitive identity. But if you see, there are identities. There’s the Eastern way of teaching, something like pattern-making. Or the moment you say Italian design, you think shiny, slick products. Going forward, the idea of Gurukul could be India’s idea of education.

What is the idea of Gurukul?

It’s to create an ecosystem, something that is interconnected with a lot of other organizations. I don’t want to work in isolation. There has to be continuity and collaboration. I want to set up a consortium, have a methodology, be inclusive. Designers are confused when they come out of school. When you learn from an international school, apart from technical skill, there is a core value that is imparted, which is essential. Yet we’ve spoken to designers who’ve struggled because those schools are equipping you to work in New York or Milan, where there are processes in place and things are organized. We need to teach students how to work in our local context. At Gurukul, I want them to learn to be a visionary, not just a pattern-master, which they can choose to be of course, but being a visionary is important.

Tell us some specific ways in which you plan to achieve this.

I’m proposing to talk to luxury brands and bring them on as partners. Let’s say the students create a bag out of a local material, it would be great to have an endorsement from a global brand to produce it. That is the way of the future. Everybody wants to do a tie-up these days and grow in that way. When we had a chat with a few Italian designers—if they would be willing to host our students—each of them asked if they could come and stay in the school as well, and explore Jodhpur or Jaipur. Such reverse psychology is amazing.

I plan to have a special work contract for the students, much in the way business schools do worldwide. To give them some sort of guarantee of work. To get them to create teams and think tanks and take up projects. Apart from design skill, also teach them about legal issues, about the business of fashion, about budgeting. Students must know how to drop a price in the making of a garment and make that much of profit. In terms of technical skill, I want the pattern-master to be Japanese, perhaps somebody from Bunka (Fashion College, Tokyo) or someone who has worked at a studio like (Issey) Miyake, because in the pedigree of pattern-making, they’re amazing. I want to show them the value in sketching. If you can sketch, the world opens up. You must be able to capture your thoughts on a flat surface or in 3D, and then a masterji (tailor) would be able to interpret what you’re saying.

What challenges have you faced in setting up this school so far?

We get about 200 hits a day on our website. The portfolios we get are so weak that it finally trickles down to very few candidates. It’s really difficult to find young promising talent. For the future of design in India to be any good, education is the seed. Otherwise you’re going to have a very hollow system with 20 more Nifts (National Institutes of Fashion Technology) in the next 10 years generating voluminous amounts of mediocrity.

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