"We're not perfect yet, but we're a work in progress," says designer Rajesh Pratap Singh about his efforts at recontextualising the venerated but formerly antiquated brand Satya Paul. Back in the '80s, Satya Paul claimed its space in the country for contemporising the saree. With big, bold prints and masterful play of colours and graphics as its raison d'etre, the brand had soon established its niche. "I think what happened over the years is that there were too many voices. So we have to go with one clear voice," observes the creative director who, in less than a year, has given the brand a much-needed facelift. His first collection for Satya Paul, 'The Valley of Flowers' brought to the fore the existing potential of the brand, even after 36 years. Edited excerpts from a phone conversation with the designer on what it takes to transform a brand's identity to make it relevant and contemporary.
It'll soon be a year since you joined Satya Paul as the creative director. If you had to take a glance back, what would you say were the major milestones in this time?
The first thing we did was to go back to the original DNA of Satya Paul, which was colourful and bold. The idea was to make it more contemporary and also to streamline and have a more unified voice for Satya Paul, and then we started on various collections. We introduced menswear, and also resumed the woven saris that were missing for a while. We then picked up a few clusters where the hand-weaving is done and started a new line for brocades, jamdani, etc. And with all the collections we are doing, we are looking at a much younger clientele whom we had lost for some time. The idea was to get the discerning client back whom Mr Paul was catering to back in the day.
Before joining Satya Paul, what was your impression of the brand?
I have known the brand for a while; I'd known Mr Paul since I was a student. For me, it was a beautiful brand in the '80s and '90s. But there was a disconnect since I didn't follow the brand for a while. So the first thing I did after I joined was to go back to the archives to get the real essence back, which I thought was important and missing.
Right at the outset, what goals did you set out to achieve for the brand? What was your vision when you had started and what changes did you want to bring about?
You have to know where you come from, and then you have to see how it is relevant today. It's not that you're reproducing what happened in history, you have to see what good work was done, what was the soul of the brand and how is that relevant to the present client. When a brand starts, there is a very strong point of view, but if it gets diluted along the way, you just go back to try and understand what was the reason for the brand to exist at one point of time and what was the vision of the person who started the brand. How did they connect and who did they connect with, how did they represent and how can you do it now. For example, if a certain kind of artwork was done then, it may not be relevant today, but the emotion of it can be interpreted.
How did you manage to align the team and the production with your vision during the pandemic?
I became part of the team before the lockdown started. At the time, production concerns had to be answered. We're not essentially a ready-to-wear brand so we had to make an infrastructure for that and set a new manufacturing space. And when the lockdown happened, things were relatively easier because the Satya Paul team is pretty good. But it was clockwork, it was very difficult. Almost for three months we didn't know if we were going to pull it off, but the team was very meticulous and they made it look very easy.
Satya Paul Collection
How would you say you have changed the Satya Paul aesthetic and what aspects of the brand's legacy in design did you want to preserve?
There is this play of colour and bold prints that had to be preserved, but the kind of prints and their treatment had to change. The printing processes have drastically changed over the years " what was interesting at that time is not true today, what was regarded as too traditional has a different interpretation today for the discerning client. Mr Paul used to do a lot of wovens, but they were discontinued in between. And for a certain kind of client, woven saris are still important. So, how do you do it? Do you use the same motifs of a traditional sari or play with them, or do you play with contemporary motifs? Also, what is the capability of your production, who are our partners, who are the master weavers that Mr Paul worked with in the past that we can still go back to work with? All these questions had to be answered.
How did you go about rethinking the visual image of the brand?
The visual identity of the brand is bold, it's beautiful, it's a lot of play of colours¦even if we play with black and white, the graphic is stark. And I keep saying that we need to address what we started out with complete precision. Plus, it has to be one language. I think what happened over the years is that there were too many voices. So we have to go with one clear voice, even in different collections. If you remember, saris were a very traditional garment, which was beautiful. But he had a different point of view and a distinct visual vocabulary even when he used traditional techniques of weaving, printing. So we're going back to what Mr Paul started with.
How are you approaching sustainability at Satya Paul?
That is a big concern, so we are trying to tackle it in various levels, not just in production but also packaging. From the yarns we are using, who we are working with, down to when it reaches the customers. We're not perfect yet, but we're a work in progress. I don't want to say we are a sustainable brand, and honestly, I don't know brands which are completely sustainable because it's a big endeavour, but there's no two ways about it. It has to be done over time.
Satya Paul Collection
Did the pandemic have any impact on the design procedure/operations?
I think a new mode of communication within the team was really important. Normally, as a person I am minimal with digital interactions. You know, the world has changed. And we all need to reinterpret and reimagine and have a new language. Or at least change the tone of the voice. And hopefully we've learnt a lot of lessons from the challenges we faced as a brand and also individually as team members.
How did you align the label with the marketing trends over the last year?
We had to address who is the person we are talking to, who do we want to cater to? I remember in the '80s and early '90s, if it was Pheroze Gujral then, who was one of Satya Paul's muse " this really bright, intelligent girl " who is that person today, and what is important to them? So the whole marketing strategy will also focus on that. Is it just a traditional saree, is it the beautiful ethnic voice, or is it a modern interpretation? And obviously for Satya Paul, it is the latter. As for our imagery and campaign images, we try and question if it is just one pretty picture which everybody is looking at, or are you making them think? We can do the safe thing by being super commercial and make things which will sell, and follow trends which already exist in the sari market, but are you creating a new wave with that? But again, are we perfect? No. We are working at it.
Was a strong digital presence part of the overall revamp plan for the brand? And how did you approach it?
Even before the pandemic we were talking about it¦having a strong digital space is part of the strategy and the vision. It's something which is the future. The stores are going to be the cathedrals of experience which some people will still want to visit. But even if we've never shopped online, we did in the last year. A lot of us find that much more comfortable than actually going back to brick and mortar. And the speed and economy of it is quite interesting, even for brands. So, I think it's something which was inevitable, and we're very keen to focus on that now.
What was your vision for the 'Valley of Flowers' collection and its campaign shoot?
The 'Valley of Flowers' is not one collection. It's a longer collection that will drop in phases. We were working on the visuals and mood boards based on various kinds of retro floral motifs from the '60s and '70s. The RTW was more relaxed, even if we did jackets, they were completely printed. The structure was very soft and relaxed. There were a lot of print-on-print pieces. Some friends and I were going for a trek in this really beautiful place in Kashmir, that's where the idea to shoot it there came from. And we had a very good team to work with.
Can you share a bit about the ideation of the recent 'Break Into the New' campaign?
The pieces in this collection are an extension of the Valley of Flowers. So you will also find a lot of floral motifs and bold colour play.
There's a place called Dhauj on the Faridabad-Gurgaon road where I go climbing with some of my friends. It is very popular with the small community of rock climbers in the country. The idea was to have really interesting women from the community as part of this campaign. I spoke to one of the climbers, Prerna Dangi, who is part of the campaign and is one of young, interesting women who represent the new¦ who are breaking into the new. There are four girls in the campaign who were brave enough to say yes to the idea even though a lot of people thought we're going nuts. But, you have to take a risk.
How would you say the present Satya Paul differs from the one a year ago, and how does it speak to the contemporary clientele?
It's not for me to answer, honestly. And can I be really honest? I'm not looking back. I know the feeling and the emotion of the brand as well as Mr Paul, and that's what we are working towards preserving instead of going about it in a very mathematical and calculated manner.
Have you seen a shift in the demographic of the Satya Paul clientele in the last year?
Absolutely. And we're not negating our regular customers, we're just adding onto that vocabulary. We are now dressing a clientele that didn't consider us for a while.
What do you envision the Satya Paul helmed by you will come to stand for?
I will just try to take the vision forward. I won't make any big claims. Will I reinterpret the sari? I don't know. Do I claim that I can do it? I don't know. And we have a great team with people much younger and brighter. I'm just the catalyst, really. We are taking it one step at a time and hopefully, we'll be able to end up with some good results.
Lastly, what is your vision for the brand?
To be really honest, I'm not so well-planned. I just hope to have some kind of positive contribution here, which is important right now. The idea is to first regain lost ground. But as of this year, we have a new collection 'Vivadelic' going out, we're also excited about the new line of accessories we worked on, we are also looking at more RTW lines, we have discontinued a few of the pieces which were commercially successful but they were kind of damaging the brand and we're building on something that is much closer to the core of the brand now. You'll also see new drops for menswear.