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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

From real estate to the runway: Kanchan Kulkarni’s story of her label Kara by KK

Kanchan Kulkarni, the designer behind the brand, worked in real estate for more than 25 years in Dubai before deciding to pursue a more creative career in 2013. 
Indian designer Kanchan Kulkarni worked in real estate in Dubai for 25 years before switching to fashion design. Victor Besa for The National
Indian designer Kanchan Kulkarni worked in real estate in Dubai for 25 years before switching to fashion design. Victor Besa for The National

Walk into the Dubai showroom of Indian designer, Kanchan Kulkarni, and you are ­almost overwhelmed by the sea of gowns lining the walls.

Though a few are in rich, ­jewel tones, most are crafted from black raw silk and feature ­dazzling embellishments along the neckline or around the waist.

You might assume Kulkarni, who creates the designs for her label, Kara by KK, is a one-trick-pony, specialising only in gala-style gowns for an Indo-Arab clientele.

You would be wrong, as becomes clear when the designer emerges, wearing a structured denim dress with picturesque appliqué work featuring illustrations of ­flowers and a bird.

“I make things that are simple, but there has to be something quirky added to it,” she says.

With easy access to a host of tailoring shops and textile souqs, the UAE is something of a hub for aspiring fashion designers. But it takes hard work, motivation and a degree of artistry to succeed in creating and building a fashion line.

Kulkarni epitomises this ­ambitious niche. The middle-aged mother of two had no formal training in fashion when she began her brand – now she has a commendable client list, plus an established showroom and workshop in the heart of Dubai.

She worked in real estate for more than 25 years in the city before deciding to pursue a more creative career in 2013.

“I was exploring and I came up with this idea of sketching [fashion designs],” she says. “But I realised my sketches were horrible – they looked like Hangman, with massively wide shoulders and a really tiny waist. The whole concept of the garment looked hideous.”

Kulkarni enrolled in drawing workshops and short courses, at the London College of Fashion in Dubai, to develop the skills needed to run a fashion brand.

“Not being technically trained, and not being able to drape the fabric on the mannequin myself, or stitch it, it was hard to ­communicate,” she says.

“I only had the idea of the shape in my head but the construction of it was what I needed to get out there.”

Kulkarni hired a team of four, set up her showroom and a workshop next door, and began a process of trial and error, testing designs and learning to work with her tailors and embroiderers.

“The first six to eight months was just exploring designs and understanding each other,” she says. “My drawings weren’t up to standard in the beginning – I learnt I can’t say vaguely I want a flower embroidered – I have to draw the exact flower.”

Now, Kulkarni is well-established, with a list of clients and portfolio of fashion shows under her belt.

She plans on showing at the Oxford Fashion Show in London next month, and at Fashion Forward Dubai in March.

She is always on the look out for platforms that support designers. It is a path, she explains paved with disappointment, as some fashion weeks are more focused on ­financial goals rather than creative ones.

“I’ve had the experience of working with certain fashion weeks where they do not curate at all,” Kulkarni says. “They don’t understand ­quality or style, they just want to fill up their spaces with designers who have the money.

“It’s very frustrating – there’s no sense of achievement.”

Another challenge facing local designers, Kulkarni notes, is a tendency for clients to dictate what they want, instead of allowing the designer room for creative expression.

She has even had clients printing out images of dresses they have seen on the internet and asking for copies.

“It’s the most frustrating thing about being a designer here,” she says. “You wouldn’t go to a doctor and say, ‘I want you to operate on me and this is how you should do it’ – you trust a professional.

“If you’re a new designer and trying to get yourself noticed, this happens a lot. Nobody would go to Karl Lagerfeld and try to change his aesthetic.”

While she will produce seasonal collections when showcasing designs on the runway, Kulkarni tends to create trans-seasonal garments, and does not strictly ­follow the international fashion calendar.

“Because I haven’t come from fashion school, and it’s not ­ingrained in me to work a ­certain way, I just create whatever I want,” she says.

“Technically, it is winter here, but you don’t see people wearing wool or heavy fabrics here – they’ll still want a lighter collection.

“Maybe it’s not summer, but I just want to create something yellow. Seasons here are not that extreme and you ­never really tend to change your fabrics too much.”

• Kara by KK is available at Vesimi Boutique on Jumeirah Beach Road, and the studio is located in Dune Centre on 2nd December Street in Dubai. Prices range from Dh500 to Dh3,500. Visit www.lovefromkara.com for more information

hlodi@thenational.ae