Interview: Vinitha Mammen (Mech – 2013)
Please elaborate on your current profile and daily routine. Please state your previous profiles, if any.
I’m currently working freelance, both on fashion design and illustration design jobs while developing a fashion business plan. I recently moved to Oman, where I’m trying to understand the industry so that I can arrive at the best way to approach launching a fashion label here. My current profile calls for a not-so-structured daily routine. Depending on the volume of freelance jobs on a given day, I juggle design and business planning. My first professional stint in the fashion industry was an internship in London as a Pattern Making and Garment Technology Intern with award-winning fashion designer Zekaryas Solomon. It was a significant learning experience. I enjoyed my time there as every day was a new construction challenge, and it really got both my creative and technical juices flowing. Following this, I worked as an assistant fashion designer with a Middle-Eastern label called Anotah in Kuwait. It was a demanding job with a lot of learning on designing for the retail customer. I recently took up the massive project of single-handedly designing and constructing all the outfits for my wedding. It was a daunting task, a test of resilience, extremely humbling and rewarding.
What skills would you recommend be developed to follow a career path similar to yours?
The most valuable technical skills I have as a fashion designer and pattern cutter are from drawing. In fashion, it is highly essential to be able to convey your ideas to others – be it your team, buyers or even the end-user. Pencil-on-paper sketching alone can take you to great heights, digital drawing skills provide an added advantage. To this day, the basics of Adobe Illustrator that I learnt on the internet are a strong foundation for my work. This also enabled me in taking up an MA project and by extension the project’s success. Also, I had barely used a sewing machine until a few years ago, but I wish I did. If you want to be a creator of fashion, getting busy with a sewing machine as early as possible is a good idea. The more time you spend making, the more you learn and evolve. Also, it would be wise not to ignore your math and geometry. If you want to move into the fashion industry, do not take them for granted.
What were the difficulties you faced in the transition from an industrial major to a masters degree in fashion? Did you face any backlash from your peers and family?
It was a huge transition in a lot of ways. Until I decided to make the switch, everything in my education was pretty straightforward. The next step was always ready before I finished the previous. However, the switch changed all that, and I started knowing what rejection felt like, what uncertainty truly meant. For one, I knew that I was majorly sacrificing on financial stability. Coming from a family that values education above a lot of other things in life, the thought of switching careers made me feel guilty about ‘wasting’ the four years of engineering I did and the prestigious B.Tech degree I had. However, I am incredibly privileged to have a family that was fully supportive of my decision. They supported me emotionally, mentally and financially through this. They chose to trust my choice and stand by me, and for that, I will always be grateful. I had peers who questioned if it was the right time to leave my corporate job without a backup plan in place. Honestly, this was a question I asked myself too, and I almost had considered doing an MBA in Fashion Management instead of diverting entirely to design. It was my now-husband who encouraged me just to do design since the design is, in the end, the essence of my passion.
Did the 1-year course in NIFT help you in the transition? Please elaborate on your experience in NIFT, Mumbai?
My time in NIFT Mumbai did help me in my transition into fashion. It gave me a small introduction to the vast field that fashion is. I learnt about the different areas within the domain of fashion, including several keywords that I had to google to understand. It was at NIFT that I first discovered my liking for pattern making. However, all I could get out of my time in NIFT was a taste of the whole picture. The programme I was enrolled in was not appropriately structured and did not seem like it demanded any serious commitment. Most of the students there did not have a fashion background, and we were treated as if we did not deserve to be there. Many of my peers were there only for the ‘NIFT-Mumbai’ branding. I did, however, get an idea of what I wanted to focus on, make good friends and come out of there with new perspectives in life.
How vital was your work experience at Carrier Corporation and United Technologies, in deciding your career path further?
Pretty vital. Until I decided to leave my job at UTC, I only saw fashion as a part of my lifestyle, and not as a career path. It was how uninspiring my post was that made me question the whole thing. A couple of months into the job, although I had good mentorship from my bosses, I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I needed to find an area that excited me more. I was passively trying to make a plan in my head on what I wanted to do next, while days went by making presentations, attending reviews and trying to meet targets. It was when I was given a new role under a manager who saw me as a threat more than as a team member that I really began to think seriously about my exit plan. My job at UTC brought me to Mumbai – the city that has impacted me the most and also rekindled the fashion fire within me.
How conducive would you describe the NITT environment to facilitate career switches, in terms of opportunities provided?
I was not considering a career switch while I was at NITT. Although I took up Mechanical Engineering intending to become an Automobile Designer, my time at NITT exposed me to several other exciting fields within the domain of Mechanical Engineering. By the time I was finishing, I was particularly interested in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and jet propulsion. I was considering doing a masters relating to either of those after a few years of industry exposure. There was uncertainty, but I wasn’t looking for anything, even on a tangent at the time.
Being the best of both worlds, what are the technologies you’re looking forward to in the pattern-cutting domain?
My research focus during my MA in Fashion relied heavily on laser cutting technology to aid in pattern cutting. Laser cutting is a fascinating field, and I believe it has tremendous scope in the fashion industry. Currently, a lot of its applications are in embellishing garments and fashion accessories and not so much in the actual construction of garments. So, that’s something I’m definitely looking forward to. I also believe there’s massive innovation coming up in 3D printing technology that will drastically impact the way clothes are made, which I’m excited to witness.
What are the different career options people can choose in fashion? How did you discover one so closely related to engineering?
A career in fashion is often taken to mean that one is a fashion designer, but there are a great many branches that people are not aware of. To list a few, there’s pattern cutting, fashion merchandising, garment technology, pattern grading, textile designing, print technology, weaving, knitting, runway management, fashion communication, marketing, visual merchandising; each one being a vast area to explore. My entry into a career in fashion was inspired by my love for drawing and imaging interesting outfits, but once I began exploring these, I realised that the real excitement lies in executing these ideas and that this is the real challenge. There are multiple approaches to bringing a sketch into a three-dimensional reality, and arriving at the best one is the exciting part; the analytical thinking and problem-solving part. During B.Tech, engineering drawing and machine drawing were particularly stimulating for me. Pattern cutting is the same, just that you’re now drawing garment parts instead of machine parts.
How did you discover your passion for fashion and that you wanted to pursue it as a career option? How did you go about it?
Fashion was always a part of me. My mum always stood out in the way that she carried herself, and it also turns out my grandma was famous in her circles for her sense of fashion! Even as a toddler, I was very opinionated about what I wore. I grew up casually designing outfits for myself and my family. I would envision silhouettes when I went to a fabric store and try to get them implemented. I didn’t know how to sew, so I always had to rely on my mum or a seamstress to bring them to life. However, it was only a part of my lifestyle. I was always going to care about what I wore. I did not see it as a career, although it was probably the most obvious path for me, but somehow it was meant to happen all twisted. It finally happened in Mumbai. I was inspired by how most people in the city cared about fashion. From celebrity hangouts to the streets to the slums, fashion was everywhere. In 2014, I found my way into a Lakmé Fashion Week show for the first time and sat through it like a wide-eyed kid. I strolled around the stalls all alone, feeling like I belonged. That’s when I knew I wanted to get myself into this exciting industry. After much contemplation, I decided to dive head-first into undiluted fashion design. Around the same time, my job was proving not to be worth it, and I decided to take the plunge.
What skills did you pick up in your undergraduate programme, away from the technical side, to help you in your eventual career?
Once I started my education in fashion, I realised that my undergraduate experience gives me an advantage over my peers in many ways. The rigidity of the deadlines and exam dates in NITT made me respect time. Time-management and an organised workflow was always a strength, but the constant last-minute demands of an engineering college culture strengthened this even further. Besides, living at NITT for four years gives you a unique set of life skills that no other place can offer.
What indicators did you have in college, to affirm that you wanted to choose this path after college?
None actually. I didn’t have the slightest clue back then that this would be where I am in my career today. Although looking back, it makes sense. I was often complimented in college for the way I carried myself and for my taste level. I outperformed any creative challenge that came my way, and I was especially passionate about any technical drawing subject I had to take.
How difficult is the selection process for the top fashion institutes, especially for someone with an engineering degree? How did you go about this?
Applying to fashion schools has been the most humbling experience in my life so far. After having everything served to me on a platter, being told I wasn’t good enough was new to me.
Fashion schools tend to not care about the portfolio that you meticulously worked on. Most of them do not consider applications from students of diverse educational backgrounds, despite their websites saying so. I was rejected by some of the top-ranked universities just because of my engineering degree. Knowing that I had to settle for less than the best was disheartening, but eventually, I ended up with a handful of exciting offers, and I picked Heriot-Watt University’s MA in Fashion and Textile Design program.
What would you suggest/advise current students who would like to build their career in interdisciplinary fields?
My advice would be to cultivate strength and resilience. Switching careers is not for the weak-hearted. You need to know that it is a daily battle and you cannot give up, the road is not going to be smooth but also beyond enriching. Information pertaining to your situation will not always be readily available, you have to play the specimen quite a lot. This can be frustrating, allow yourself some downtime when you need to. Do not compare yourself to others who are in a straightforward career path. I’m sure they have their challenges too, but you’re on a path that works entirely differently, so cut yourselves some slack. Above all, seek passion, not interest. I was not one of those kids who did Engineering because their parents asked them to. I did it out of pure interest. But I later came to realise that interest can be passive, whereas passion is always active. Passion is what you need to find.
What was the motivation behind ArtThrob by Mammen? What are your future plans for it? Do you receive any funding for it from sponsors? How did you go about it?
Born into a family filled with creativity, I have been drawing, painting and crafting since childhood and won at several art competitions. It was in my third year at NITT that my art reached social media in the form of nail art. It wasn’t a prevalent form of art at the time, especially in India. However, once I entered the corporate territory, the nail art died down and so did most of my art hobby. Fast forward to 2016 when I was pursuing my master’s degree in Scotland, I turned back to art, this time to de-stress and unwind amidst all the coursework, albeit momentarily. This caught on and in January of 2018, ArtThrob by Mammen was born on Instagram and Facebook as a digital home for my hobby of creating art. I started exploring hand-lettering, bullet journaling, spiritual journaling and illustration techniques and posted these occasionally. Eventually, I began getting some design jobs and art commissions through social media and I gladly took them up. However as I continue to discover art, I am now shifting my focus over to illustration and not so much on graphic design. As for future plans, I’m just going to let it take the most organic path it can as I do not want my de-stress mechanism to end up stressing me out.
How has your experience been in the fashion industry? What are your future plans in the industry?
The fashion industry is a tough place to survive, it’s not as glamorous as it seems. Even with the most direct career path in fashion, the competition is crazy. It takes a lot of hard work to make it, I am still in this phase. The industry is so competitive that many are willing to go through extended unpaid internships and extremely low-paying jobs. This unhealthy culture makes the fashion industry a real financial struggle for up and coming professionals. My time in Scotland brought sustainability in the fashion industry close to my heart. My MA project was rooted in design for disassembly, which was heavily driven by the need to reduce the ever-increasing consumption of fashion across the world. I developed a mini collection called ‘REPLAY’ comprising three garments that can be worn in multiple ways by easily adding, removing, reversing or combining the different garments, thus providing several outfits in one. My vision in the industry will always have this sustainability as a significant part. The fashion industry is also location-specific – in India, the field of technical pattern making barely exists. It’s almost a skill you learn just to get through fashion school. Traditionally, most Indian labels have an under-paid ‘Masterji’ who drafts the patterns based on his traditional know-how(as opposed to any technical training). Since the limelight of Indian fashion is on embellishments, traditional textiles, print and embroidery techniques as opposed to silhouettes and innovative construction, it doesn’t necessarily demand a technically trained pattern cutter. This made my finding a job as a pattern cutter in India close to impossible.
I managed to touch base with a few upcoming Indian fashion labels that are attempting to change this fashion scene in India, but they were all so new that they were not in a position to hire. I landed a job as an Assistant Fashion Designer with a fashion brand called Anotah in Kuwait shortly after. Anotah is one of two big retail brands that have their design studios in Kuwait. Two! I recently moved to Oman due to personal reasons and the Fashion industry barely has any design presence here. There is potential for a fashion boom in this country, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m looking forward to being a part of that era. With that vision in mind, at this point, it’s just about daily progress and taking things one step at a time.
Any queries may be addressed directly to Vinitha via email.