Beyond bling


Beyond bling

Next week in Delhi, the Amazon India Fashion Week (AIFW), mounted by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), will see 25 designers presenting the grand finale in a rare show of unity and celebration. The number signifies the seasons that fashion weeks in India have gone through since the inception of the Lakmé India Fashion Week (LIFW) in 2000.

And the Summer/Resort edition of the Lakmé Fashion Week that started in Mumbai earlier this week is celebrating 15 years of fashion weeks with a slew of special shows. Fifteen years and 25 seasons do not add up, but that’s because India only had one fashion week a year till 2005.

The handloom sector is buoyant, and designer exhibitions and multi-brand boutiques reflect a thriving retail scenario. Yet a sense of compromise—between creativity and commerce—symbolizes the industry.

Veteran designers like Tarun Tahiliani describe it as “having sold our soul to bling”; Varun Bahl calls it “coming to terms with commercial reality”; and Rina Dhaka reminisces about the old days as the era of “new discoveries without worrying about commercial outcomes”.

India’s tryst with fashion remains a debate. Its vibrancy is undeniable; its kitsch equally so. Weddings can be defined through fashion, but not youth culture. Mumbai and Delhi fashion still slug it out as a war between baubles and brands. Even so, Innovative work has made inroads into the global design industry, and led to commercial success that would have been inconceivable once. The kind typified by Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Manish Malhotra.

There are spectacular couture shows for blingy bridal-wear, or Manish Arora’s fiery representation of contemporary India for the world. Yet what hits the eye most is the excess. Indian consumers have converted the designers, instead of it being the other way round.

Some of India’s most “saleable” designers reflect every whim of the Mumbai film world and every fancy of the bridal market, no matter how unflattering.

“The buyer has changed. Fashion in the former days was truly fabulous and there was no question of celebrity endorsement,” says Tina Tahiliani-Parikh, executive director of Ensemble, India’s first multi-designer store. “Designers pushed the boundaries, experimented and stretched themselves. Today, despite a growing industry, mind-boggling talent and customer evolution, the product has become rather generic.”

The Lakmé India Fashion Week (LIFW) was co-created by Anil Chopra, a former CEO of Lakmé Lever, New York-based Fern Mallis of IMG, which manages sports and media events, some core members of the FDCI, and a handful of senior designers. Ritu Beri opened the first show; and Wendell Rodricks, Tahiliani and Raghavendra Rathore were among those who presented the first finale. Beri had already begun working in Paris in 1998, and Rodricks, Tahiliani and Rathore were established names.

Rathore provides an insightful track to the evolution of the fashion industry: “The irony is that the designers arrived before the industry…followed by fashion events and finally organized retail, corporatization and the rest…”

Sartorial times

The classic Rathore bandhgala by Raghavendra Rathore

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The classic Rathore bandhgala by Raghavendra Rathore

Mehr Jessia, India’s last supermodel, was about to sashay off the catwalk, on her way to marriage and motherhood.

“Mehr was the top closing girl; we would be so happy if she agreed to walk for us,” remembers Dhaka, adding that in the first few years, there were no buyers.

From 2000-05, the LIFW focused on consolidation, organizing one fashion week a year, alternately in New Delhi and Mumbai. Chopra remembers it as a time when fashion events were ad hoc and designers were struggling to make a business out of their work.

“The Lakmé India Fashion Week started on a very good note because for the first time, people understood that fashion was not a society event, it needed international buyers and media to report it instead of being a ghar ki dukaan (home-grown store),” says Chopra. He admits that buyers from international stores like Macy’s, Browns, and Bloomingdale’s did not find Indian merchandise relevant. But learning came quickly, and soon Indian designers began to find a balance between individualism, adaptation and price points.

The FDCI and Lakmé-IMG split eventually and, from 2006, the two bodies started organizing fashion weeks separately every season. Many would remember this as the worst time for the industry, with disagreements and malcontent ruling the ramp.

Buyers, sellers

Manish Arora’s Autumn/Winter collection at the WIFW, 2008

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Manish Arora’s Autumn/Winter collection at the WIFW, 2008

Fashion politics still works insidiously but fewer designers take sides—everyone shows everywhere. The fashion media has more real stories to report than captions naming who arrived where, and who wore what.

Many senior designers recognize and salute this change.

“There is a radical alteration in the way fashion is presented now and accepted by the global community in the Middle-East and Europe,” says Valaya. “The FDCI fashion week has managed to bring buyers to one stop, creating an organized business environment.”

Rodricks lists the changes: “the discovery of new talent, discipline among designers to show twice a year, the opening of flagship stores, the business dialogue between buyers, stores and designers, the appearance of Indian designs on the international scene, the emergence of e-retail, media specialization, the growth of bloggers and fashion websites…”, as well as “the brand building between corporate houses and designer names”.

Nonita Kalra, columnist and former editor of Elle magazine, calls herself “disgustingly positive” about the fashion scene. “In the creative field, nothing follows a path. But in spite of our best efforts we have grown,” says Kalra. “Hundreds of stylists, creative young people finding fashion careers, stylish campaigns, Rohit Bal tying up with Jabong, Manish Arora living in Paris, new voices that determine the consumption and display of fashion…Indian fashion is seditious, but it adapts, it fights,” she says.

There are other concrete gains. “There was little or no interest in the embroideries of our country—Phulkari, for instance, or Zardozi—the main thing was weaving and woven textiles. But fashion drew attention to embroideries, besides stunning the world with the beautiful complexity of (block) printing,” says Ritu Kumar, emphasizing that no other country is capable of this kind of work.

Multiple factors contributed to growth: “200 stalls, 200 buyers, 100 designers in a trading space of 120,000 sq. ft and a reported business of more than 1 crore per season each for a good number of designers,” says FDCI president Sunil Sethi, presenting last season’s figures.

A look from Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s Summer/Resort collection at the Lakme Fashion Wek earlier this week

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A look from Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s Summer/Resort collection at the Lakme Fashion Wek earlier this week

But even now, the council is unable to pin down the exact earnings at fashion weeks. It remains a contentious issue in the industry—there is clearly a boom and, unofficially, a fair number of designers agree that their business ranges from 50 lakh to a lot more than 1 crore at a fashion week.

It’s the same story at the LFW: “150 Indian buyers, 50-odd global buyers is what we list,” says Saket Dhankar, vice-president and head of fashion at IMG-Reliance. He agrees that it is difficult for them to quote cumulative earnings every season. “Some designers claim their businesses are worth 100 crore annually but the fact is we, as a fashion body, are left with random data points, as some designers start selling from the next day of the show itself through fashion portals or stores, thus overriding buyer deals at fashion week, while younger designers make deals based on consignments instead of outright payments—there is no way to know if these actually sold,” says Dhankar.

The big names in the industry offer supporting arguments. “The multiplier effects of fashion weeks should be assessed through the widening range of stakeholders,” says Chopra.

Sethi points to the “steady stream of global buyers” and collaborations with international brands and designers, adding that business must be measured by the yardstick of new sponsors—from brick-and-mortar brands to e-commerce names—entering the industry.

While there is plenty to applaud, Suneet Varma says it is also time to “celebrate the struggles”.

“Nobody talks of the hurdles we faced to get here,” Varma says. “Let’s not forget that in all other countries, the fashion industry has the backing of the corporate world and the government. We have none. Our fashion graduates do not get bank loans to start businesses, some of us have had our stores demolished on MG Road in Delhi, only for a similar fashion street to come up later; we have still survived despite all this,” says Varma.

Today, we have everything from a blinding array of bridal couture to designer Chanderis and modernized black and white Ikats; from slinky designer cholis to lehnga gowns, drape dresses, the world’s finest bandhgalas, and a range of no-fuss contemporary young fashion reliant on the handmade as well as Khadi, the world’s only hand-spun, handwoven fabric. We also have Rajesh Pratap Singh’s memorable white shirts and Sabyasachi’s ornate saris.

Menswear is seeing a retail boom even though the Men’s Fashion Week, launched in 2009, collapsed in three years, unable to sustain sponsorship for this stand-alone event. Rahul Mishra is flying the tricolour on foreign shores and Anamika Khanna is redefining couture at home.

“What we need now is for the industry to be recognized as unified. India also needs a sizing system,” says Rodricks. Ramp shows in the Capital still attract entertainment tax, an issue that challenges the FDCI, since it mounts the fashion week as a trade event.

Even more problematic: India is still waiting for locally applicable size measurement charts, something other countries with much smaller garment industries, like Thailand, already have.

Other voices return to the main question. “Our industry has grown by quantum leaps and bounds in the last 15 years,” says Tahiliani. “Yet I have this sinking feeling every time I sit at an airport or at a mall that somehow women looked more elegant 15 years back. That authenticity is missing as ‘aspirational’ Indians move from Juicy Couture to ‘jewelled’ Indian couture, devoid of any style of their own, which they seemed to have before there was ‘fashion’…when the humble drape caressed the curve.”

But Ritu Kumar says she is hopeful. “Instead of everything that is overdesigned”, she hopes, fashion will return to a focus on weaving, “…return to the mindset that we are an exceptional country, we can do what no one else can,” she says.

What fashion is and what it does to a country can be two diverse tales. Those stories are yet to merge.

Guide to an evolving business

What’s changed in terms of buyer profiles, stakeholders, e-commerce and other developments.

The Weeks

From 2000-05, there was just one fashion week a year. Today, there are two each in Mumbai and New Delhi. The Lakmé Fashion Week lists its seasons as Summer/Resort and Winter/Festive, while the FDCI follows the international model of Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter.

A dozen other smaller events across cities also bill themselves as “fashion weeks”, without offering business environments of buy and sell.

The FDCI organized a Men’s Fashion Week from 2009-11 and has been holding an India Couture week since 2010.

Buyer profile

In 2000, the major buyers at the Lakmé India Fashion Week were international, including Selfridges, Macy’s, Browns—today, 80-90% are domestic buyers.


The multiplier effect of publicity and celebrity culture has spurred even non-fashion companies like Tata Nano, DHL and Philips, beside half-a-dozen jewellery brands and online sponsors, to become stakeholders.

u GenNext

Labelled as the “future of fashion”, the Lakmé Fashion Week’s industry-altering platform for debutants has helped newcomers showcase their work.

Bollywood’s gain

Besides showstopper appearances, film stars have begun recruiting trained stylists, often from magazines, and turn up in designer-wear sent by those whom they endorse. This has changed the way celebs dress

Couture vs prêt

Once a royal mishmash from bridal- to resort-wear, fashion weeks now compartmentalize bridal-couture weeks and prêt. There are fewer overlaps.


Fashion portals have taken the elitist tag off fashion. Jabong, Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop, Myntra and are fast turning fashion weeks into B2C (business-to-consumer) events. See today, buy tomorrow.

Smaller stakeholders

Fashion retail has grown beyond sophisticated designer stores. Now, Westside, Killer Jeans, Shoppers Stop and Reliance Brands, among other mass retail destinations, sell “designer” collections.

Designer directory

A handful participated in the first fashion week at New Delhi’s Taj Mahal hotel. Today, more than 100 designers take part in fashion weeks.

International footprint

Indian designers now take part in design and fashion fairs abroad like Tranoï, the international fashion trade show in Paris, bringing back more business.


Fashion magazines have instituted beauty awards as well as recognition for innovative fashion and young designers, popularizing their work and boosting the industry financially.


Fashion and design colleges now seek association with fashion weeks.

The textile movement

There is a noticeable return to innovation in textiles for both prêt and couture. This, in fact, defines Indian fashion today.