A journey that started in England when she was only 17, creative diplomat, Caroline Young, has lived and worked in London, Brussels, Italy, Japan, France and now calls India home. Over the years, she has worked with some of the most prolific names in the Creative industry, like Condé Nast, Arte TV, Peter Saville, Peter Lindbergh, Fabrizio Ferri, Bharat Sikka, Joyce Ma, Brian Eno, Hermès, Giorgio Armani, Balenciaga and Lecoanet Hemant to name a few. She has been living in India since 2005 and has played a vital role in nurturing many of India’s emerging talent in the field of fashion and art.
After living in several different places, was it an easy decision to move to India?
People often ask me, “Caroline, after Paris, why India?” But I wanted to move to India since the very first time I visited in 1995. I have this very vivid memory of having the sensation that I was home, as the plane doors opened just after the plane touched the runway in Kolkata and my feet had not even touched Indian soil. That particular day also coincided Holi, and I was slightly perplexed because there were neon pink-coloured cows on the runway; I was baffled by why everyone was so colourful. Once I got out of the plane, the airport attendant came up to me and said, “Madam, we don’t normally look like this. It’s Holi,” it was extraordinary. I had always been fascinated about India; my grandfather was here in the 1920s. He lived in Mumbai and worked for the Bank of India, so there was a subconscious sort of connection to this country. After a year of commuting from Europe to Calcutta I returned to Paris and told my friends that I was going to live in India, and sure it took ten years, but I have lived here since 2005.
The only advice my mother gave me about India was, it might be quite hot, so it would be wise to do everything in slow motion. Which indeed echoes somehow, in regards to the ways of navigating through the system, or just life in India. Things happen here in slow motion, and I say this with affection and humour. I always tell people that whenever they travel to India, they need to arrive without any preconceptions, pack a piece of elastic, because you need to be very flexible, and keep your sense of humour or if you don’t have one, develop one before arriving. There is laughter every day, no matter what, an amalgamation of the absurdity, and the vibrant colours here is intoxicating
So, in answer to your question, it seemed normal. I kept being pulled back to India because every time I went back to Paris, colleagues and clients kept saying we need you to do a shoot, to art direct this, to consult on this, and so it made sense, even logistically to be here. It didn’t feel odd or strange; it was more like “Oh, this is the right time.”
Things happen here in slow motion, and I say this with affection and humour. I always tell people that whenever they travel to India, they need to arrive without any preconceptions, pack a piece of elastic, because you need to be very flexible, and keep your sense of humour or if you don’t have one, develop one before arriving.
You’ve been here for quite a while now, did you, at any point, experience any kind of cultural shock?
Nothing really shocked me. People were very welcoming, and because I had come from Paris, which was tough, I was amazed by the generosity and the kindness of people here. However I did find it initially difficult to find a flat because I was not married. My private life was and is no one’s business;
I found the attitude towards women rather complex. I meet very brilliant, astute and articulate women, and the lack of respect for them in some areas is disheartening. Sometimes it was difficult to see that women were not taken seriously for their work and were treated differently, or always being asked, why aren’t you married? Why do you not have children? It wasn’t a thing to adjust to, but it baffled me that in the 21st century, the marital status of women was still an issue.
You did say that everything happened by chance, but at what point did you know that creative direction was the path for you?
The thing is, “Creative Director” straddles several things. Sometimes I do the styling, or sometimes I am the executive producer and art director. I have always had a passion for anything visual. I have been doing this from a very early age. I’ve been in this business for 40 nearly years! And if anything, I would say, I describe myself more as a creative diplomat in India because I often find extraordinary creative talent in India and connect them with international clients.
But if you say at what point, I think it would be very early on when I was in Florence studying History of Art, studying paintings and sculpture. It’s always appealed to me, anything that’s creatively stimulating or visual to look at. So, it wasn’t one day I woke and said I’m a creative director because I don’t really feel it is necessary to be boxed into a particular category — there wasn’t an exact moment, but the creative journey just dovetailed through encounters and travelling.
I describe myself more as a creative diplomat in India because I often find extraordinary creative talent in India and connect them with international clients.
I understand that every brand has its own identity, but as creative, what inspires you and influences you?
It’s a mixture of many elements, an aesthetic, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be fashion. However, it has to have a sense of musicality to it—a melody in a visual. In that sense, a piece of music can inspire me also. Often, I get very inspired by landscapes, mostly by just being quiet and admiring the scenery around me or recalling the memory of specific panoramic view. It could a Temple garden in Kyoto, a field in Rajasthan or an anecdote by a writer. Whatever it is, it’s very visual. I get my ideas by looking but also listening.
And I do have muses, who have intriguing personalities and are not archetypal beauties.. including stylish women such as Betty Catroux and the late Tina Chow. I do not adhere to the traditional cliché of what is beautiful. There is beauty in flaws and I am not very pro-photoshop. I find, particularly fashion photography today per se rather pedestrian. It’s too perfect and polished. I like flaws, spontaneity, creative mishaps.
Several expat women who also work here have said that India is a man’s world. What are your views or experiences on this?
It depends on what discipline, though. There’s very much a hierarchy within different disciplines. Fortunately, in the fashion industry or the visual industry, particularly the art world, there are a lot of women. I do find that a strange dilemma raises its head with both men and women here. At times there is a reluctance to work as a team due to an unfounded fear of treading on someone else’s territory or unwarranted competitiveness within a group.
There’s very much a hierarchy within different disciplines. Fortunately, in the fashion industry or the visual industry, particularly the art world, there are a lot of women.
I have the wonderful privilege, and I don’t mean this in a monetary sense, but creatively, of being selective with the people I work with; hence I ensure that there is always a collaborative spirit. Nevertheless, it has been challenging in the past. I go through extraordinary lengths to make sure that everyone feels included. The only time when I get firm is about being on time, discipline, and work ethic. If I get up at 5 in the morning, I expect the models & the rest of the team to be up by 5 AM for their wake-up call. It’s about respecting each other.
In terms of work culture, how would you compare India with the other places you’ve worked at?
In Paris, you have to be very self-disciplined. It was very tough there. It was tougher for me to start in Paris. Parisians! They can be very judgmental but once you have gained their respect, creative collaborations can be exceptional. Italy was chaotic and also had its challenges but the working environment was much more inclusive and friendly. I learnt a tremendous amount from both studying and living in Italy and this enabled me many years later to navigate my journey living in India. The Japanese are meticulous about timekeeping and their very refined sense of aesthetics has always influenced and inspired my work
India is almost like a country of countries. I live in Delhi, but when I go to Mumbai, no one is concerned about where I live or who I work for. They’re just happy that you’re in India! When it comes to working, both cities have their positive attributes. It’s a difficult question to answer in comparison because they both have such a diverse landscape and characteristics.
Keeping time is an issue. It is imperative for me, particularly on a photoshoot, because outside lighting on a location shoot is an essential component to the image. If the photographer wants to catch the sunrise at 6:30 and the model oversleeps, or the make-up artist/stylist are late, then you have a very limited time frame, and can lose that crucial shot. So, I would say that that’s the biggest difference in the area of photography. However, I am very selective with the teams I work with now. Although individually they may be excellent in their domain, if they show up late and do not behave in a professional manner, it is not necessary for me to work with them again. I am very meticulous about attention to every detail on a shoot, and everybody on the team needs to be completely focused and not wander off. However these instances have been few and far between and I have enjoyed working with some great talent who have a great work ethic particularly from the Northeast, Kerala and Rajasthan.
What would you say are the best things and worst things about living in India?
I would never be negative, it’s bad karma, and India is my hostess. The best thing will be the beauty of the place, of the country. It’s so diversified— you go to Calcutta, you’re in Rajasthan, you’re in Kerala, you’re in the south, in Gokarna, every place is magical. However, for me, the further you go into the countryside, the villages are where you’ll find the real essence of India and where the spirit of generosity is prevalent.
The further you go into the countryside, the villages are where you’ll find the real essence of India and where the spirit of generosity is prevalent.
Do you have any advice for people who want a career in fashion or creative direction here?
With fashion, I would say, find some way to collaborate with the textile or embroidery industry, not fast fashion. I also think that if an expat is coming here, they should bring in their specialised knowledge, for example, pattern cutting, responsible business acumen, journalism, and put a spotlight on the artisans here. I also refer to these collaborators as creative diplomats.
India is one of the last places in the world that still has these exceptional artisanal techniques but they need a 21st-century dialogue to move forward. With regards to Creative Direction, endeavour to work on collaborative projects which celebrate the creative complexities and true essence of India and enhance it with an open mind and thoughtful vision.