I’m going to tell you a story that you’ve probably heard before.

I was 16. Obese but not morbidly so. I grew up on a diet of ultra-processed convenience foods and a healthy dose of fashion magazines. I would devour glossy publications, slowly getting seduced by a universe where looking good – be it in Margiela’s iconic Tabi shoes or a Chanel tweed suit – was paramount. Yet, there was never a time when I was completely sure about fitting into an industry that has long worshipped toned legs, tanned bodies and wasp waists. Not even in fashion school.

In other words, I was an outsider.

In some ways, Imran Amed’s story is similar. He was the quintessential outsider. A Harvard graduate who quit his management job at McKinsey, where his clients – from pharmaceutical and finance corporates to real estate giants – valued PowerPoint slides more than prim powersuits, he was the most unlikely person to enter the fashion industry in any capacity. In fact, he’d always been interested in business. But a part of his brain felt underutilised – the creative part. So he took a leap of faith, merged his love for analytics and data with his underlying interest in fashion, landed in the industry as a writer with a blog called The Business of Fashion, and now is so influential that he even has an MBE.

BoF began as a blog but is now a multi-million-dollar venture layered with unique stories that are sometimes global exclusives, sometimes incisive takes on the most significant changes in the industry, often both. It has also been translated to other realms: Voices that organise some of the most coveted fashion events across the world, a paid careers section, online courses delivered by industry stalwarts, and a biannual print magazine that features everyone from Kim Kardashian to Anna Wintour. This is, of course, other than the venture’s widely-read reading list and the annual BoF 500 – a definitive index of the most influential people in the industry worldwide.

Amed’s original business idea was to create an incubator for young fashion designers in London in 2006 ( Jean Goldsmith )

The germ of an idea

“Your grandmother never tells you, ‘Oh, I hope you become a fashion designer or a fashion journalist one day’”

BoF was not an overnight success. Amed’s original business idea was to create an incubator for young fashion designers in London in 2006. Eight months later, the project tanked. “The idea was maybe ahead of its time,” he muses. “But while I was setting up that business, I was keeping a private blog for my friends and family because everyone was quite curious about the company I had started. This was way before smartphones and social media. But, I had a digital camera and I would take pictures. It was so stimulating – everything that I was seeing, all the people I was meeting!”

When the company didn’t work out, Amed decided to put his free time to good use. “I deleted all the old posts from the blog, set up a new blog and called it The Business of Fashion and just started writing. It was my creative outlet. I had no idea back then that it would turn into a company,” says the 44-year-old, who has now become one of the most influential voices in an industry that’s worth 1.7 trillion dollars.

He continues: “This was back in the day of Susie Bubble, Bryan Boy and Scott Schuman. We all started our blogs around the same time. And we were doing it for the same reasons – to explore our personal interest in fashion – but obviously we came at it with different angles. Mine was the only one that focused on business. It was very instinctive.”

Growing up, Amed and his family had absolutely no connection to the industry. “I grew up in Calgary, a small city in western Canada. There’s no fashion industry there. However, there was a TV show on CBC called Fashion File, hosted by Tim Blanks. In the 30 minutes of the show, Tim would be everywhere from Milan and Paris to New York. It seemed like a very colourful and fascinating industry. I was very drawn to it,” he says, adding: “Tim now works with me. I mean he was my teacher – he’s still my teacher. But that’s how I first got interested in fashion.”

Brown invasion

“Fashion is like a mirror of the world and that makes it powerful”

Amed – one of the few fashion leaders in the world with an Indian heritage – seldom gives monosyllabic or trite answers, probably because he’s often the one asking questions. He has interviewed legends like Karl Lagerfeld, Kate Moss, Giorgio Armani… the list is endless. At Mumbai’s Soho House, he’s all set for yet another talk, this time with Bollywood (and now Hollywood) dreamboat Deepika Padukone and Indian couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee.

And even though he’s part of an industry where size does matter Amed doesn’t shy away from ordering a hearty bowl of butter chicken before we start to speak.

While blogging brought Amed into the mainstream, there’s no denying he’s one of the few well-known Indian-origin people in the industry. “For a long time, fashion was an industry that was driven by Western Europe, North America and Japan,” he explains. “Obviously with the Chinese market and the growth of the Indian economy, there’s been a huge incentive for our industry to pay more attention to other parts of the world. But other than the consumer angle, it’s true that there aren’t many people in fashion who come from an Indian heritage,” he says.

“And honestly,” he elaborates, “I think what people in the Indian diaspora and people in India have in common is that our families have never really encouraged this kind of a career. It’s medicine or law or business. Your grandmother never tells you, ‘Oh, I hope you become a fashion designer or fashion journalist one day.’ But in fact, there are all sorts of career opportunities for people in fashion. On the creative side, on the business side, and increasingly on the technology side.”

The biggest impact India has made in global fashion, says Amed, is through its faces. “When I’m sitting at Virgil’s show for Vuitton or the Missoni show in Milan, it’s really interesting to see the Indian faces in the fabric of a global culture on the runway. That’s what makes fashion so powerful; it’s a mirror of the world. More and more, you see all cultures reflected in the way we project fashion and fashion imagery. I find that really exciting,” he says.

The biggest impact India has made in global fashion, says Amed, is through its faces

India and other stories

“I was never the smartest kid in school. I wasn’t the most creative. It took me a long time to figure out that my potential value isn’t in one or the other – it’s in the combination.”

Over the years, BoF has helped its readers navigate an ever-changing social, political and cultural climate. The fashion conversation around Me Too, for instance, started with casting agent James Scully giving a talk at Voices, revealing shocking stories about the way models are treated. This was way before the media take-down of Harvey Weinstein. “What we’ve learnt from the Me Too movement is that it isn’t isolated to one industry. It’s politics, media, fashion, entertainment and sports. It’s even in the Vatican!” says Amed. “But it was a reality check for the fashion industry. Our social values are shifting. There’s more transparency. And these secrets that were kept behind the scenes, it’s not possible to do that anymore. We’ve seen LVMH and Kering put out a charter for the protection of models, and also Condé Nast. They all had to. If you ask me, it’s a bit late. But I’m glad it has finally happened.”

“However,” he adds, “In India, it seems like the conversation is a bit muted. Not everyone is able to speak out but there were some very brave women who voiced their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Change is not going to happen overnight though. You have these deeply-rooted systemic behaviours. It takes awareness, acceptance and then action to change this.”

“There aren’t too many people in fashion who come from an Indian heritage”

His advice to Indian designers wanting to tap into the global market is similar to what veteran writer Suzy Menkes once told Sabyasachi: ‘There are 1.2 billion people in India. Why’re you worried about the world when you have this huge market at home?’ Amed pointedly notes, “You can’t have this schizophrenic approach where you’re going after all these different types of customers. If your customer is international, then do what Ruchika (Sachdeva) has done at Bodice. There are only a few Indian designers who have tapped into both markets. One brand that has been able to do that is Péro by Aneeth Arora. You’ll see her clothes in the coolest stores in Japan and you’ll see them working here as well. There’s an opportunity to create a hybrid, but it’s not easy.”

As a journalist, he feels criticism is important, but it should be constructive. “There’s a way of being critical without being personal. Media should approach its subjects with fairness, without an agenda and give critique in a constructive way. I think everyone should take it as honest feedback so they can become better, ” he says.

A modern entrepreneur

What Imran has figured out is that money makes the world go round. To deal with this mad, mad world, he meditates like his grandfather, who emigrated from Mumbai to Tanzania and later to Canada.

“When I’m sitting at Virgil’s show for Vuitton or the Missoni show in Milan, it is interesting to see Indian faces in the fabric of global culture on the runways”

When he hands me a copy of BoF’s recent print edition themed around ‘Modern Entrepreneurs’ – chronicling the growth of some of the most successful businesses in fashion – I point out that the story rings true for Imran, a writer and an entrepreneur, as well.

So I ask him which side he enjoys more: the business or the creative? He answers with, “No one’s really asked me that question before. Of course, I was originally drawn to this because it helped me tap into my creative side. But I also like building things. I like building teams. I like thinking about business problems. When you’re Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) and you come up with a business model to sell things online, when you’re Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify or Elon Musk of Tesla, business and creativity increasingly come together. I really hope I can bring that same intersection of thinking into my business. I was never the smartest kid in school. And I wasn’t the most creative. It took me a long time to figure out that my potential value wasn’t in choosing between one or the other – it was in the combination of both.”

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From HT Brunch, July 14, 2019

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First Published: Jul 13, 2019 22:20 IST