Born to a German mother and an Indian father, fashion designer, Hemant Sagar is deeply influenced by five different cultures, speaks six languages, and loves the millennial way of thinking and culture. He co-founded the label Lecoanet Hemant, in Paris, with Didier Lecoanet, in the early ’80s and have launched two other labels Genes LH and Ayurganic, ever since.
Why don’t you tell us something about yourself?
I always regard ourselves as a unique species because we are very international, and we come from varied backgrounds, which we made more diverse by living in different places and adapting very profoundly to all different kinds of cultures. I lived in India first, and then I moved to Germany, my mother’s German, my father was Indian, but Pakistani, so the traveling genes were in us, always. Then I moved from Germany to France, and back to India. I’m now planning a whole new life at a personal level in Thailand, so it’s like it’s all mixed up. And I speak six languages and enjoy finding cross-cultural rapports. The French I speak is said to be fluent, but I don’t express the French culture when I speak French. The same thing in Hindi, I can say things in Hindi, but I will not express the Indian culture when I talk in Hindi, I will be expressing myself in Hindi— it’s a very different thing. And the same thing applies in English or American, which for me are two different things, just like how Asian and Indian English is another thing. Everything has its different values, I might be speaking six languages, but culturally, it’s more.
So, I express the language that belongs to my personal culture, which belongs to millennials, in a certain way. I love the way millennial people know all these things, don’t really question them, leave them aside, and go ahead with their own business. I find that very applicable to daily life today.
Lecoanet Hemant was initially based in Paris, and when you decided to shift base, how did you narrow it down to India, and why?
Well, it was quite simple, because I am half Indian. I was born here, but it doesn’t mean I was part of the cultural entity. By the time I was nine, I was out of Indian schools. I was put into a German school, where I learned German at a daily level in an Indian international ambiance, in a school which had 17 or 19 different nationalities! So yeah, my best friends were Hungarian and Dutch, it was like a totally different scene. And so, in fact, narrowing it down to India wasn’t really narrowing it down, it was just like where can we realize this dream of ours, of setting up a factory, and manufacturing our own ready to wear? That doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. Hardly any designer has a factory of their own.
Was it difficult setting up here all over again?
I mean could have chosen an easier place, because as you know, to get into a certain situation, legally, in Indian means unbelievable efforts of organization, administration, bribing, standing in queues, all of that stuff. We never speak about it, but it’s true. I mean every expat who comes to India finds out that it’s a big deal to get a telephone line, that you have to wait for months, and you have to bribe people for that, and these kinds of things! For me, having lived in Europe, I come from a different place where you just pick up the phone and call the telephone agency, and you’ll have a line in the next few minutes.
Specifically, as designers, entrepreneurs, and expats, what are the things you came across in starting all over here?
I came across a very fixed cultural landscape in which everyone has a social order that they have to react to. I was very surprised to find that the artisans, who I thought you could simply ask to come an embroider things, had very high cultural thresholds they had to crossover before agreeing to make a certain embellishment because it was not taught to them by their grandparents. For example, if you go to an Indian designer who does classic work, makes new versions of designs, do all his merchandising, all his trend-searching in a traditional precinct, as I would call it. He will have classical tailors who will embroider one principle which he will have to execute, and if it’s in 20 different colors and 20 different materials, there will only be one guy who does it. That’s mind-boggling. The same thing applies to a cook. If a cook was trained in a particular region in India, he would only cook in that manner. And he will go into a family that employs him and teaches him “new recipes” which are old recipes, in which their grandmother or mother have taught them.
I came across a very fixed cultural landscape in which everyone has a social order that they have to react to. I was very surprised to find that the artisans, who I thought you could simply ask to come an embroider things, had very high cultural thresholds they had to crossover before agreeing to make a certain embellishment because it was not taught to them by their grandparents.
There is a notion here that you will dress this way, eat this way, get married this way, and have your family this way. Obviously, there was no space for these unbelievably cheeky intruders who dare come in and change the order. Obviously, they’re not interested at all! See, that is what it is about. It’s not about something static, it goes much further. It’s a way of life, it’s a way of thinking, of establishing a circuit around the way every aspect of life.
You have three different brands Lecoanet Hemant, Genes LH, and Ayurganic. Tell us how these brands came to be and the inspiration behind it.
Lecoanet Hemant is the original brand. It’s the brand under which we operated and founded it together in the early 80’s in Paris. We used his family name and my first name together— it was very intentional. Until then, it had never existed, where people got together and used two names together in fashion. You had plenty of cases where people were using their surnames together, like Mr. Roll and Mr. Royce, or Benz used his daughter’s first name Mercedes and put it together to form Mercedes Benz, that kind of thing existed. However, two people from different cultures, uniting to make a singular cultural entity out of their brand, is a novelty and still is kind of unique. In fact, all of the Indian designers, 98%, are two names together, and I think they were very encouraged by the fact that we did it. I believe this is why India is a country where most twosomes designers exist. I mean Viktor and Rolf came after us, Dolce and Gabanna came after us, Proenza Schouler came after us, all those many fashion brands came after us, and liked the concept.
So, the initial brand was the Lecoanet Hemant brand, which we operated on to make haute couture, which is a work field in which you deliberately do not reproduce tradition. You produce creations, and the idea.
Then we came here, and we knew very well that we would not be able to sustain ourselves with this handmade creation. The Indian traditional scene just did not have space for that, and it still doesn’t, because tradition is an important thing in an Indian clan or family. It has to be respected, that’s what you do, so we decided on not making clothes for weddings, but clothes for daily life, which we’re doing still. We find that there is more and more space for that which is a new discovery! Of course, everybody dresses daily to a certain level, but the actual expression of a career dressing and daily dressing, to enhance your own social appearance outside a wedding or a branded social event, is fairly new here. When you go to a wedding, you will suddenly realize how important the social structure is, and that every person on the woman’s side or the man’s side has a different name and designation. If you see how precise it is, you understand how important it is, and you realize that can’t just come in and say you’ll dress them in a pink evening dress. They’ll say, are you mad? Are you out of your mind? How dare you change my tradition?
Then we came here, and we knew very well that we would not be able to sustain ourselves with this handmade creation. The Indian traditional scene just did not have space for that, and it still doesn’t, because tradition is an important thing in an Indian clan or family. It has to be respected, that’s what you do, so we decided on not making clothes for weddings, but clothes for daily life, which we’re doing still.
Talking about culture and fashion, what do you think is the scope of influence of the first to the latter?
There was this big cultural revolution in 1981 when we opened our shop in Paris. We were making only daily wear clothes; we were not making evening wear clothes. We were only making clothes in sharp, modern, non-traditional tailoring, and self-invented designs with sharp shoulders for young women who were going into a career. Sharp top shoulder, why? Because in a corporate world of men, women need sharp shoulders, otherwise they did not exist. And at the same time, Giorgio Armani was making his first revolutionary suits for men with rounded shoulders. Now, what do all these mean? The men were getting the soft shoulders, and the women were getting the strong, sharp shoulders, because women had to nudge their way into society, literally. They had to be decorative, to be non-traditional, they had to be pretty and feminine, and they needed to make a statement in a male-dominated world.
So, all of that was uniting a product. Don’t think that you’ll do anything in that scene by putting a girl in a lengha; you’ll do nothing to that. It doesn’t even exist!
What do you think of the fashion industry in India and the work culture in this industry?
Well, if you consider my prelude of everything, I just gave you, I would tell you that the fashion industry doesn’t exist. It’s a cottage industry, and it has a general, tremendous respect for tradition and its interpretation around traditional paths that have been undertaken over the last 15 to 40 years, but it is not a fashion industry. First of all, it’s not even an industry.
Do you think it’ll ever change?
It will have to; there is absolutely no question. Otherwise, it will be dominated by imports. So, while the young people are not acting because the older people are telling them they have to do old stuff, you know who’s happy? Uniqlo, H&M, Zara—they are all thrilled! Because when the local industry is out of business, theirs grow.
There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and fast fashion. In terms of the brand, where do you stand on this?
Sustainable is a word that’s used to sell better. We’ve been having a very profound dialogue about sustainability for the last 15-20 years, and we hurt our heads against the fact that we can’t change society, and we cannot change everything around us. So at least, we try to do it in our collections, etc. I find it a challenging topic to address. To imagine that people will find sustainable ways when we live in this soup which has such vast pollution problems. The pollution in India is so vast that you don’t even know where to start. Air pollution, land pollution, water pollution.
Do you think it’s achievable? Or is it just an idea that everybody loves, but not really attainable.
Well, if you look at the latest numbers, if the whole planet, by a miracle, was to become sustainable and to abide by all kinds of pollution risk, hazard levels by tonight, the entire world. If we did by tonight and we adapt it and maintain that level, strictly for the next 30 years, we will still not bypass the 2-degree temperature rise that the planet is in for in the next 30 years. We will not. It’s already too late for that. So, we will have to face inevitable consequences, but it is not too late to make life better afterward, but we have to understand what we’re going through.