Inspirational tales are everywhere, yet few have the power to make a path that others can realistically follow. Every so often, though, a story surfaces that begins with the most ordinary of circumstances and then blossoms into a career that both fulfills and inspires. Fashion Designer Poonam Bhagat seems to be someone with such a story.
Her journey makes me think of the untold number of people with hidden talents that remain just that—hidden, but for an opportunity. An opportunity that would have turned their ordinary life into extraordinary.
Read on to find what drives Poonam’s innovative clothing designs and how she manages to run the show.
In this article I will cover:
- How did you become a fashion designer? What sparked your transition from being a housewife to embracing the world of fashion design?
- What is your background – do you have an educational background in fashion or is it just your passion driving you?
- How do you design your dresses—can you describe your process? Can you talk about your inspirations? Any special tool that you would recommend?
- How did you get started establishing your brand? Did you work for other designers, or did you right away start your own line?
- What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting your business, and how did you overcome them? And can you tell me what you consider as triumphs?
- How did you develop your design aesthetic and brand identity, and what are you doing to set your brand apart from others in the industry?
- How do you source your materials? Any particular material that you always use and why did you choose those particular ones?
- How do you balance creativity with practicality when designing and producing your collections? How do you merge your designs with customer preferences?
- Can you describe one of your favorite creations – how did you design it? Any personal story behind it?
How did you become a fashion designer? What sparked your transition from being a housewife to embracing the world of fashion design?
I was always interested in fashion. In my teens, I would drool over fashion magazines if they came my way, which were few and far between in the 70s, and draw sketches of models wearing Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, etc.
Fast forward to one cold winter morning in January 1991, my mother-in-law had some sort of an epiphany and suggested, out of the blue, that I make clothes and have an exhibition. Having never designed for anyone besides myself until then, I worked tirelessly for four months and put together seventy ensembles and had an exhibition, which to my utter surprise, sold out on the very first day. There was no looking back after that….
What is your background – do you have an educational background in fashion or is it just your passion driving you?
I majored in psychology as I was fascinated by the machinations of the mind. Wanted to become a psychiatrist. Anatomy and physiology were my first love. Paired with psychology they made a deadly combo. Somehow my life took a different trajectory and I stumbled upon design by accident, not by design!
How do you design your dresses—can you describe your process? Can you talk about your inspirations? Any special tool that you would recommend?
I design them in my head first, depending on the season, and then source the fabric and colors accordingly. I take my inspiration from art and nature. It could be a painting by Juan Miro or a rain-drenched leaf. Inspiration is everywhere, you just need to be aware.
I am usually quite unaware of what the other designers are creating as I do not spend time surfing the net so my “go-to-tool” is usually a piece of artwork that I see or a flower that suddenly blooms. It could be a safari I went on, It could be the jungle, It could be a bird ……….. anything and everything can be your ‘go-to tool” if you’re conscious of it.
Then like ripples on a lake, a shape takes form and leads to another and another. It is really quite simple. Poppies, Sunflowers, Lotuses, Carnations, Orchids, tulips, and all kinds of leaves take on an abstract and esoteric shape and they glitter and shine like burnished gold on silhouettes designed for them. One of my favorites is the banana leaf. It is amazing that something as banal and ubiquitous can turn into something quite so beautiful.
Besides Miro, I have also been inspired by Picasso’s lesser-known sketches of the constellations, by Abstract Expressionistic Art that took wing in NewYork Post World War 2, by the Bauhaus Design Movement out of Berlin, and many others. I am the happiest when surrounded by art or nature.
I love the Japanese aesthetics and the ZEN behind their design. I like to follow those principles in my design philosophy too:
Kanso: Simplicity or Elimination of clutter
Fukinsei: Asymmetry or Irregularity
Shibu: Beautiful by being understated
Datsuzoku: Transcending the convention
How did you get started establishing your brand? Did you work for other designers, or did you right away start your own line?
As I said, Taika, my label, was born on a cold winter day in January 1991. It just started on a whim and grew to become the brand it is, purely out of luck and hard work. One successful exhibition after the other and I suddenly realized I was standing on solid ground and not on shifting sands. From then on I learned on the job as I went along.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting your business, and how did you overcome them? And can you tell me what you consider as triumphs?
Life was much simpler then, there were merely a handful of designers and a handful of stores pan India selling their wares. If one had the creativity and talent it was easy to wriggle your way in. There was no stress, no social media, no competition. There was no Google, no Pinterest to rely on either. Fashion magazines were hard to come by, so all the designing was done in your head with zero external stimuli. We sketched on paper, made our own embroidery and appliqué patterns, doodled on paper again, and voila a collection was born. This in itself was a triumph.
These days designers have too much arsenal at their disposal and the fashion churned out has become repetitive and unoriginal. Those who think out of the box are the true designers.
Having said that, I think one of my greatest moments was designing for the entire ensemble cast of the French opera company, Opera Lafayette, for Lallah Roukh which was performed at the Kennedy Cente in Washington DC and the Lincoln Center in New York garnering a lot of accolades.
How did you develop your design aesthetic and brand identity, and what are you doing to set your brand apart from others in the industry?
Design aesthetics aren’t developed, they are inborn and you just hone into them and exploit them to their potential. I think I try to keep my individual style alive and I keep it simple. My clothes transcend age and boundaries. At least that’s how I perceive them.
How do you source your materials? Any particular material that you always use and why did you choose those particular ones?
Over the years I have sourced my fabrics from Chanderi and Benaras. I stick to the same suppliers so I can get the same quality I want. We use a lot of chanderi, cotton silks and silks. Linen is another staple of ours which we source only from Linen Club vendors.
How do you balance creativity with practicality when designing and producing your collections? How do you merge your designs with customer preferences?
I keep my silhouettes easy and relaxed so my clients of any size or age can wear them and feel good in them, as long as they like my aesthetics.
How do you market your products? How do you connect with your customers?
I make my lookbooks and send them out to stores. I’ve also participated in many fashion weeks ever since 2002. My individual client base has built over the years simply through word of mouth. Now, of course, I have also succumbed to the power of Instagram and Facebook. We have a website, www.taikabypoonambhagat.net , which we keep updating with photos of every collection. Ramp shows have also helped garner media attention.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in starting their own fashion business?
Keep it simple and be your own, don’t simply follow others, carve your own niche and stick to it. In the words of Oscar Wilde – be yourself, everyone else is already taken.
What’s next for you—any upcoming projects or collections we should know about?
I am right now busy churning out for Autumn/Winter 2023. We have had back-to-back Exhibitions from Dubai to Singapore and in between, last month 5 one after the other. Now it’s time for me to sit still and start designing for Spring Summer 24.
How do you manage your workers as well as the creative process?
I have a good production manager who manages the workers and me for that reason. My only desire would be to not get involved in the day-to-day admin of my factory and have time instead only to create, but that is easier said than done.
Can you describe one of your favorite creations – how did you design it? Any personal story behind it?
One of my most cherished collections, SS 10, was inspired by Joan Miro , a world-renowned Spanish artist, and was showcased on the ramp at Fashion Week in October 2009. Miro’s art is characterized by brilliant colors combined with simplified forms, playful and naive yet retaining a seriousness about them. They were unabashedly childlike and full of joy. I so enjoyed bringing them to life on my own egg-white canvas of linens and cotton silks appliqued and embroidered in bold primary colors. They were hugely appreciated although 14 years ago they were a little too avant-garde in design for consumers.
A few months later. Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia of Spain (Now the King and Queen ) came visiting and I had the honor of not only meeting them but also presenting two of my Miro-inspired outfits, straight off the ramp, to the gorgeous and model-like Princess.
It is to Poonam’s credit that she established her business when there were not many marketing avenues like the ones available to those starting today. Imagine what can be achieved if you were to start your clothing or sewing business today… The main things you need are a willingness to begin and the dedication to work hard.