A tale of two cities


A tale of two cities

It’s a little after 9am when a lady in a sharara and a cropped top accessorized with a vintage Rajasthani belt walks into the Pali Village Cafe in Bandra, Mumbai. Soon, a young boy in checked shorts and T-shirt and two girls in printed, home-wear pyjamas and casual tops come by. Against the café’s distressed-chic interiors, the occupants of the two breakfast tables mirror Mumbai’s style spectrum: a sense of individuality, freedom of expression through dressing, whatever the address or time.

That’s not how it is in New Delhi. Here, “cautious dressing”, an important safety concern, is churned with social status, location and time considerations. A breakfast table in Khan Market would see power-dressed men, in corporate shirts and blazers, or politically correct ones in linen kurtas and women in formal wear—churidar kurtas, Ikat dupattas, handloom saris, sweet dresses worn with a statement bag. Even college students covet and wear logo brands.

Delhi’s textile expert Rajesh Pratap Singh took a bow with Kareena Kapoor Khan at the finale of the recent Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) in Mumbai, symbolizing the fashion combo of the two cities, quite like Shilpa Shetty walking as designer Tarun Tahiliani’s showstopper for the opening of the ongoing Autumn/Winter edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) in Delhi. As commentary, Tahiliani even read out from author Rana Dasgupta’s book Capital: The Eruption of Delhi.

Despite the criss-cross, Delhi versus Mumbai fashion has become a more compelling narrative. The modern-day fashions of the two cities emanate from different creative founts but are equally influenced by brands, Bollywood and bridal bling before branching out separately.

“Mumbai’s look is of secure fashion without anyone wanting to prove a point. It’s fashion smart as well as street smart,” says Sangita Sinh Kathiwada, director of the Morarka Arts & Crafts Foundation, who founded Melange, one of Mumbai’s eclectic fashion stores, 21 years back. Others agree. “Mumbai’s style is more elegant, casual and laid-back, not label-centric like Delhi, where wearing a label is the ultimate stamp of approval,” says veteran fashion commentator Meher Castelino. “Mumbai’s diversity enables an individual style without boxing different aesthetics as one. Here, a person’s worth comes from what you do professionally, unlike Delhi, where it is often about your last name, where you stay and what you own, and where people are expected to show off brands and conform to a cloned style,” says Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej India Culture Lab and editor-at-large of Verve magazine.

Over the years, Mumbai fashion has trumped regional angularities like Parsi dressing, bauble-happy Sindhis (once the most fashionable community of the city), Gujaratis steeped in old money and jadau jewels or older stars dressed in Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla finery.

It is now an effortless mix of youthfulness, Boho-trendiness, grey-blue-green nail colours and eyeliners, funky bracelets, flatforms and flat sandals, coloured bras under chiffon shirts, exciting high-street accessories created by a tribe of alternative designers paired with big fashion. The Maharashtrian identity pops up in Kolhapuri chappals, but in Mumbai they are paired with a Tom Ford suit.

Delhi is a mela of handlooms, big diamonds, bangles, mojris, Chikan tops, logo bags, Fabindia and Anokhi kurtas with blue jeans, red nail colours, silver jewellery, liberally applied kohl pencil, no visible bra straps please. Elite Delhi parties are a sea of woven heirlooms, ruby-diamond jewellery, vintage purses and, in winter, fine pashmina shawls. The sari is both star and foot soldier. The details would decidedly be different if you headed west towards Rajouri Garden, where dressy salwar-kameez and crystal-studded footwear are worn as audaciously as beachwear. But further out in Old Delhi, the dupatta is non-negotiable, jeans are worn with the demureness of a salwar, and handbags are faux.

The city keeps its regional identity on top through colour, shine and ostentation. And as Mumbai-based journalist and designer Umesh Jivnani rightly points out, “Mumbai is younger, cooler, hipper from south Mumbai to Vikhroli, unlike Delhi, where a section of people are very trendy but other vast neighbourhoods have no style identity at all.”

A quarter-century back, Mumbai gave India “fashion” with Ensemble and now its film industry adulterates India’s style. Delhi, the headquarters of the national crafts movement and Khadi Bhandar, with Hauz Village as its first fashion district, is now the biggest address for crafts exhibitions and bridal fairs and houses the DLF Emporio mall which hawks global luxury.

Style variances stretch to the ramp. “Even without résumés, I can instantly sense if a designer belongs to Delhi or Mumbai by looking at the clothes. So can the entire fashion week jury,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) that presents the WIFW.

Consider now the overlaps. In 1987, when Ensemble, India’s first fashion store founded by Sal and Tarun Tahiliani, threw open its doors in Mumbai’s Colaba, fashion was the privileged playground of a very few. Designer Wendell Rodricks remembers how intimidating the store was. “Parmeshwar Godrej and Nita Ambani shopped there after all. It was women like them who also sat in the front rows at the shows when there were no fashion weeks and before the fashion weeks disintegrated into the celebrity fashion weeks they are now,” he says.

Unlike Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, which fuelled fashion consciousness through designer Bina Ramani’s idea of urban-village cool, Mumbai was incredibly “forward”. “Bombay was genteel, fashion buyers were sophisticated, not like Delhi, which being a city of refugees had different impulses. Designers made clothes as an ode to creativity,” says Tina Tahiliani Parikh, director of Ensemble.

“The romance of that age has now been replaced by seriously commercial considerations, celebrity endorsements and a focus on what will sell,” says Parikh, adding that while earlier Mumbai fashion buyers would do anything for one-of-a kind pieces, today some common codes are accepted. “It has become de rigueur to own a floor-length anarkali or have at least one such function at weddings where everyone turns up in gowns,” she says. If Delhi is about brights, Mumbai too has become like that, says Parikh, adding that she can now map the differences between fashion buyers in Colaba and Bandra, the former club-going, selective and insular, the latter, hip, young, partying and bling-happy.

Bandra bling, or what some call the Gauri Khan-Suzanne Roshan look with animal print dresses, stilettos, diamante cuffs and logo bags, is a thesis all right.

It is fashion retail in fact that offers a point of inflection. While Delhi stores are guided by the local customer’s desire for big, shiny and visible statements, Mumbai stores like Bungalow 8, Bombay Electric, Le Mill and Melange to name some, strive to be unconventional. They emphasize free-spiritedness, rejecting seasonal ramp favourites. “I wouldn’t allow a garment to go on the rack just because it was a hit at a recent fashion week,” says Aparna Badlani, founder of Khar’s pretty multi-designer store Atosa. That flavour of curating is not easy to spot in most Delhi stores.

Yet it is difficult for anyone to conceive of “Bombay fashion” without Mumbai’s blind devotion to Bollywood style. “The evolution of the red carpet in India or what our stars wear at Cannes has led even some senior designers, who earlier looked down upon ‘Bollywood’, to design costumes for films. It has also given birth to a new generation among designers who want to focus on the red-carpet category and dress up film stars,” says Saket Dhankar, head of fashion at IMG Reliance, which mounts the LFW.

This co-dependence between fashion and film stars is now increasingly coercing Indian fashion. It makes Kathiwada’s insight relevant. “Everyone wants to look like stars in clinging dresses and high heels but stars, in fact, aspire to look like the society women of former days who brought nuance to the term fashion by mixing meaningful activities with social gatherings alongside a sense of personal style,” she says.

Not surprisingly, the fashion industry is unsure which city is India’s fashion capital.