Most people think fashion designers party non-stop, bathe in wine every other night, never sleep before 4 am and design bizarre clothes no one can really wear.
Most people probably haven’t met David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore, the men behind the A&T label, which boasts of shockingly wearable clothes (sorry, no crystal-studded lehngas). To shatter the image further, Abraham is a teetotaler, and Thakore has an unnerving habit of arriving punctually for parties. Their career has also followed a different path from most of their contemporaries – they first made their reputation abroad, selling in upmarket London stores like The Conran Shop and then moving into retail back home. And they have never done a fashion show in their 18-year career.
Well, that at least is about to change. For the first time ever, A&T will be doing a show for the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in Delhi (7 pm, 27 March). “We thought – let’s try it,” says Abraham. “We have so much presence here now, we have a wider audience and the business is only going to grow. You could look at it as a marketing exercise.”
Subtle and elegant
We are sitting in the three-storey A&T studio-cum-factory in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, chatting over steaming cups of coffee (no wine, alas). The road outside is teeming with hawkers selling fish and vegetables in the flickering light of lanterns. Inside, in the cool air-conditioned studio, subtle clothes in mostly neutral colours like black and white, hang in neat, elegant rows.
Is there a signature A&T garment? Abraham thinks for a moment and says there probably is: a well-cut tunic which can be teamed with skinny pants and a scarf. “It’s like a salwar kameez but it isn’t really,” he points out. “It’s much more contemporary.” A&T prefer natural fabrics such as cotton and silk but now they’re incorporating some man-made fabrics as well. Geometric patterns and subtle floral motifs recur. You might find the same flower on many of their garments – in some cases, it will be woven, or it may be embroidered or beaded. Saris and home furnishings also form part of the A&T repertoire. But at the heart of every single creation is the weave.
This emphasis on weaving dates back to their years at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. Abraham says he always knew he wanted to design clothes. His father, a doctor, was not wildly enthusiastic when David announced his decision to join NID. “But he was a pragmatic, civilised man and he respected my ability to take decisions.” Perhaps that came from the interesting life David’s father had led – he’d joined the Indian National Army (INA) and moved to Singapore where he married a Chinese woman. (“I still have plenty of Chinese cousins in Singapore and Malaysia who I visit very often”). David’s mother died when he was just eight but by then his parents had moved back to India and settled in Bangalore. That’s where David went to school (Bishop Cotton), till he joined NID.
The journey to Ahmedabad was no less interesting. His father was born in Nairobi (his grandfather had migrated to Kenya) and ended up running a 4,000 acre mixed farm in Tanzania – which is where Thakore grew up.
“The film Hatari was shot there,” he remembers. “There were cows, pigs, poultry, sheep and other animals. And we grew plenty of flowers, fruits and vegetables.” But eventually Thakore was sent to school in Mumbai, where he stayed with his maternal grandparents. From there he went on to study in Scindia School in Gwalior. “I’d see my father once every four years,” he recalls. “It was very tough. But my mother would visit regularly.” It was his mother who suggested that he might want to join NID, since she had figured, in the intuitive way mothers have, that he was creatively inclined.
Those five-and-a-half years in Ahmedabad, both say in unison, were among the most wonderful years of their lives. They were two out of just six people in the Textile Design class. Each student had a loom and had to weave every day. (Thakore still has a durrie he wove while he was at NID). There were no exams, no grading. Students were evaluated on projects. One day they would be given cameras and told to go into the city and take photographs. Another day, they would watch world cinema, back to back, from morning to night. Both Abraham and Thakore made friends for life (including each other) while at NID. “Prasad (Bidapa) who also studied there, is still my closest friend,” smiles Abraham.
After NID, both went their separate ways. Abraham began working for an American buying house, designing clothes for them. “The clothes were successful but very commercial,” he recalls. “They were meant for the American mass market. But they taught me an important lesson -- what not to do.” After a few years, despite the glamorous trips to New York and the generous salary, he became restless. He wanted to start his own label.
Meanwhile, Thakore had done a lot of interesting work for the Festivals of India. By the early Nineties though, both were at a loose end. That’s when they decided to get together and start their own company. “I had no idea of how to run a business,” laughs Abraham. “I regret nothing but if I’d known what running your own label entailed, I might never have got into the whole thing!”
Their first office was Abraham’s living room in his Defence Colony house; then they moved to Khirkee Village in south Delhi. Their first order was for a collection of scarves and kimonos for The Conran Shop in London. The buying director of the store was introduced to them by John Bissell of Fab India. The order came with a caveat – A&T garments would be sold at the store, but not under the A&T label. “We said a firm no,” says Abraham. “If our clothes were going to sell in any store, they had to sell with our own label on them.” The buyer relented.
Making a mark
Thakore recalls how they would take samples in suitcases to London, and try to get orders from buyers. Slowly, A&T home furnishings and fashion garments began finding a place in top stores in London. “Our sensibility was clean, understated and contemporary,” says Thakore. Adds Abraham, “It’s about respecting the material. For instance, handloom can’t be made into drainpipe jeans. You have to understand the fabric.” Meanwhile, they had been joined by Kevin Nigli, who had studied at the National Institute of Fashion technology (NIFT). Nigli now looks after marketing.
A&T label began selling in India only in the late Nineties, first in Ensemble in Bombay (“Tarun Tahiliani’s sister literally forced us,” says Abraham). The clothes sold well and gradually, over the next ten years, they opened stores in Delhi (currently at the Emporio mall), Mumbai and Bangalore.
A&T garments have a loyal clientele – even though they’re not exactly cheap (a tunic set could set you back by Rs 10,000). For women who can’t afford to spend several thousand rupees on just one outfit, there are A&T’s annual sales to look forward to. But lest you think A&T clients can only be rich socialites, Abraham hastens to point out that the bulk of their customers are senior professional working women. “They don’t want to wear saris for fear that they might look like aunties. Salwar kameezes are not an option. Western-style skirt suits can make you look like an airhostess. That’s why many professional women find that our clothes work for them. We are more interested in style, less interested in fads.” But both Abraham and Thakore promise that there will be many surprises on March 27 when they finally have their show. We’re holding our breath.
Coming up next
For their first-ever fashion show on March 27, Abraham and Thakore plan to spring a few surprises. The ten-minute show will feature winter clothes for Delhi. “They are inspired by our Indian clothing traditions,” says Abraham. And that’s about all he’s willing to reveal.
A&T is all set to penetrate second rung towns like Pune and Ahmedabad. The expansion strategy is interesting. They have tied up with three other designers (Rajesh Pratap Singh, Manish Arora, Neeru Kumar) and operate as a team. They have opened stores together in Mumbai and Bangalore. As Thakore explains, “It’s easier to sell yourself as a group than a single brand.”
Is there any chance that the A&T label might become more affordable than it is presently? Abraham justifes the high prices: “It’s all about economies of scale. If you dye, say, 15 metres of fabric, it might cost you up to Rs 200 a metre. But if you dye 1000 metres, it could cost you just ten rupees. At the moment we’re not interested in becoming a Mango or Zara. We’re not business people, we’re happy doing what we’re doing.”