2015: the year in Indian fashion


2015: the year in Indian fashion

Around two months ago, at a Banaras show organized by the ministry of external affairs in Delhi for the visiting First Ladies of Africa, I overheard a conversation between a bureaucrat and a banker. “I have no idea what to wear in India these days,” said the bureaucrat, who was dressed in a silk Ikat sari. “The sari has become fashionable, so I am unsure of dressing in Western garments.”

“Oh my God, I have three kinds of wardrobes because of the same problem,” fretted her friend. “Western to wear abroad, Indian for festivals and shaadis (weddings), and fusion for when I am totally confused!”

How should an Indian dress in India? What a lovely problem. “Nothing to wear” is fashion’s oldest dilemma, but every year it has a particular tryst.

Sitting in our small town homes or big city offices, we may have participated in the world’s biggest ever online Black Friday sale, but off the digital racing track we still deal with issues of caste, class, religion and gender, all of which impact how we dress. We remain a culturally conflicted society, and our clothes reflect that.

In 2015, handlooms saw a resurgence as must-see, must-wear, must-talk-about aspects of our Indian selves. So much so that the handloom and powerloom lobbies took opposing positions in what’s actually a codependent ecosystem of weaving. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s strategic push to make Banarasi weaves the fabric of the year contributed to the growing handloom consciousness.

“We don’t need the Victoria and Albert museum to display our textiles. We have the V&A right here, we have the karigar (artisan) and we have our textiles,” said Jaya Jaitly, veteran crafts practitioner and founder-chairperson of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, when she inaugurated Nayaab, a crafts and textile show, in Delhi last week. Jaitly was referring to The Fabric Of India, an ongoing exhibition of Indian textiles across centuries at the V&A.

It’s an optimistic assertion. Because handlooms today are about taste, elitism and clout. Unlike in the Khadi era, they are no longer affordable for the masses, who prefer home-washable Surat synthetics. There is also a clash between the karigar and the designer brand. We need talented textile designers for innovation, modernization and a commercial push, but that keeps the karigar anonymous and real artisanship without a signature.

The year 2015 had many other captivating stories. The Modi kurta-jacket was rejected as a formal business garment by industrialists and the corporate community, never mind last year’s eager predictions. Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani wore a dark suit and a tie to launch the Digital India Week in July and industrialist Anand Mahindra followed suit to introduce American journalist Tina Brown at the first Indian edition of the Women In The World Summit, in Delhi.

The surge in men’s clothing formed the pivot of fashion retail. At least two events off the radar of established fashion weeks underlined this. Earlier this month, Delhi’s DLF Emporio mall launched L’Homme, a four-day, male-centric event for luxury fashion. The Van Heusen + GQ Fashion Nights held in Mumbai, also earlier this month, set up a platform for designer menswear. And the very first show, by designers Shantanu and Nikhil, called the Cabinet Mission, referenced the national movement during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time and the turmoil of Partition. The designers sent out tall and short versions of the Nehru coat, some paired with topis (caps) with the imprint Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. The models wore spectacles and beards and carried books. It was a compelling narrative.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s coinage of “suit-boot ki sarkar”, actor Kangana Ranaut’s decision not to wear a sari to receive her National Award, Air India’s new uniforms—there was a lot of idea-immigration in 2015.

Thousands of new products grabbed our attention: indie perfumes, wooden spectacles, fruit-scented shoes, and the arrival of H&M. Even so, the most talked about bride of the year, Arathi, daughter of non-resident Indian businessman Ravi Pillai, chose copious amounts of pure diamond jewellery at her reportedly $9 million (around 60 crore) wedding at Kollam in Kerala last month.

Actor Anushka Sharma sported short sleek hair in the film PK, and so did the sporty version of Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, but in life, very short hair still makes most women insecure about their image. That’s why I love it on NDTV channel anchors Nidhi Razdan and Barkha Dutt.

We are obsessed with filmy fashion, but can you name a Hindi movie you would follow for its looks? Deepika Padukone’s girly-sexy short dresses in Tamasha can’t be worn with comfort or confidence in Indian cities. Never mind what Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani said about girls not being dictated to about what they should wear.

Actor Priyanka Chopra’s Paithani saris in Bajirao Mastani look like a dream, but you need an expensive multifunction wedding to copy the act. Singh Is Bling, yes, but how often do you see a sardar in deconstructed salwars, bejewelled turbans, printed vests, gold chains and embellished shoes in real life?

Television remained terrible. Judges, celebrity guests, anchors and participants in talent shows, including children, looked like they had tumbled out of a costume cauldron. Their silk-chiffon-feather-leather-bling concoctions are attributed to stylists, boutiques and designers. Who are these people and where do they sell from? Is that where the nouveau riche buy clothes for mata ki chowki events?

I would also give a zero to Star Sports. Male commentators like Sunil Gavaskar and Anil Kumble speak from the field in sharp jacket-suits, ties and sunglasses, but the female presenter, the talented Mayanti Langer, is made to wear unstylish short dresses revealing her knees, come rain or shine. It’s not sexy, it’s sexist.

A year must also be recalled for what it did not do. No fashion blog found a story that became a talking point. No designer found an alternative for the runway. None showed models in the hijab, one way to become part of current debates on Hindu chauvinism. Fashion experienced a financial slump this year, so don’t get carried away by the sponsored fashion in your daily newspaper.

Nonetheless, four meaningful books on Indian fashion, textile and design made it to the racks. Indian Fashion: Tradition, Innovation, Style by Arti Sandhu (Bloomsbury), India: Contemporary Design—Fashion, Graphics, Interiors by Divia Patel (Roli Books), Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles by Maggie Baxter (Niyogi Books), and Fashion India by Phyllida Jay (Thames & Hudson).

So when an American researcher asked me why I love Indian fashion, my answer was: Because we get ready-to-wear rubia petticoats in our markets (have you heard of something like this anywhere in the world?), we home-wash Kanjeevaram saris in reetha (soap nut) water and our colours are pink-vink and green-shreen.