Essay: The intelligent garment


Essay: The intelligent garment

Soon after the London Fashion Week in September, Jess Cartner-Morley of The Guardian wrote an article on how the catwalk and the front row were embracing the new normal. It may be premature to chime in and agree with Cartner-Morley’s arguments on the vanishing of the peacock, or spot normal dressing from the catwalk to the street, but fashion is not called “forward” without a reason. Its tremors resonate everywhere. India is no exception.

The march to our own new normal was visible at the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week last month. Designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh, Pankaj & Nidhi, Aneeth AroraNachiket BarveSanchita AjjampurUrvashi Kaur and Payal Singhal, to name some, invested in silhouette, technical know-how, modern craftwork and fabulous materials, to offer a no-fuss approach to good dressing.

Clothes that are aesthetically beautiful instead of being inaccessibly “awesome”, as fashion is feared to be: A subtler colour palette with no space for fuchsia and parrot green, the absence of shiny embellishments, the toning down of hair and make-up from shrill multiple statements to quiet, powerful glamour (think wet, gelled hair without a trace of make-up), attention to silhouette, and the ouster of tiny, clingy clothes, exemplify this change.

Most enjoyably, there is an emphasis on casual as truly “casual” instead of overdressed prêt that passed as Indian casual for years.

Pratap, known as the master of minimalism, focused his collection Blue Blood on indigo-dyed Khadi denim styled as a blue-collar line with sturdy leather shoes and workday jumpsuits. It had clothes for men and women brushed with the aura of simplicity that elevates casual wear to memorable fashion.

“I’ve loved indigo ever since I was a kid and for me the blue-collar worker is far more chic than anyone else. We edit out the fuss all the time. Each collection has a meaning which would get disguised if one stashed 50 things on it. The point is not to create a substantial visual overload but to concentrate on quality and construction,” says Pratap, who worked on his indigo Khadi denim for more than three years.

On the other hand, Pankaj & Nidhi, known among fashion retailers as “star designers who balance commercial success and artistic appeal”, showed Vintage Closet, using silk threadwork to reflect the elegance of lace in cape dresses and jackets.

Ajjampur, who works in Europe and India but sells mostly abroad, showed Modern Nomad, mixing sporty with modern casual. She also sent out elegant white sneakers on the ramp.

Kalahari by Barve, inspired by the inhospitable but striking Kalahari and Namib deserts of Africa, featured the chequered fabrics of the Maasai tribe and beaded corsets of Dinka men in colours inspired by the sand, sky and sun.

Firdaus by Payal Singhal, an ode to Kashmir’s Gulmarg valley, was made from a monochromatic colour palette of stone and black in silk, Chanderi, organza and tulle. These are only some instances.

Stand by, then, for the “intelligent” garment from India. Its intelligence is defined by intricate, modern craftwork (not ethnic embroideries) and glocal fabrics. Interestingly, it toes the line of prettiness instead of being experimentally fierce or androgynous. “I have been questioning what is ‘too much’ in fashion statement and would any day opt for jute and wood as my working materials than shiny chrome. The juxtaposition of handmade with machine, raw with polish excites, me,” says Barve, who researched textiles from Congo, Ethiopia and Namibia for Kalahari. A jute coat from his collection had tone-on-tone embroidery that took 300 hours to complete. This line included custom-made shoes made in jute and wood and models came out on the ramp with dripping wet hair, wearing laser-cut acrylic cuffs.

This is not the look seen on streets, in local markets, among the middle class which revels in fashion oblivious to catwalk trends, not even in celebrity dressing in India which still errs on the side of More is Less. It hasn’t even convinced a majority of ready-to-wear designers yet. Fuss and excess continue to dominate Indian couture, which is modern only for want of another smart term, but in effect struggles to escape the long-laid traps of royalty, multilayered drapes and folds, rich textures, heavy embellishment, and the bold Indian colour palette. The “intelligent garment” is thus an inflection point.

“Indian couturiers have taken off in a big way, thus marking and separating the territory for ready-to-wear designers,” agrees Pankaj Ahuja of Pankaj & Nidhi, adding that being distinguished as prêt designers has become a bigger challenge than before. “When we design collections, we also think of our global retailers like Anthropologie in the US, or our Japanese and Middle-East buyers. Toned down craftwork, subtle clothes and clean silhouettes are commercially successful for us. It’s a myth that Middle-East buyers are only after fuchsia clothes with loud embellishments,” says Ahuja, adding that the Indian customer too is becoming “relaxed” about expectations from fashion.

Global saleability of Indian garments pushes the new casual. “Across the world, the cult idea of changing clothes three times a day is waning. Women want to go from office to an evening of happy hours. Casual wear with a couture touch makes sense,” says Ajjampur, who shows in Milan, Italy, as well as Paris, France, and works with brands like Etro, Lanvin and Chloé. Since she doesn’t have a big market in India, she thinks of her European and Japanese clientele while designing. “My clothes are more fusion than prêt, even the category of my flat shoes or sneakers is different from Nike,” she says.

However, the Indian fashion customer, formerly a chameleon ducking style consistency as well as a peacock obsessed with bling, is searching for a localized new normal too. “Minimalism has a parallel market in India too,” says Smita Shroff, owner of Elahe, a successful multi-designer store in Hyderabad. Shroff notices a shift in consumer preference from the time Elahe was founded 15 years back. “People are tired of the anarkali and look for embellished Indianwear without bling. There has also been a change in colour preference, we could have never dreamt of selling blush pink, rose or pastel shades in Indianwear,” she adds.

Yet she underlines the difference between Pratap’s brand of stark minimalism and Pankaj & Nidhi’s tone-on-tone embroideries. The former is sought only by a handful; the latter is growing in popularity.

Aparna Badlani, co-owner of Mumbai’s Atosa multi-designer stores, agrees. “We stopped selling anarkalis a couple of seasons back and this season we don’t have a single anarkali in our store,” says Badlani, adding that Indian fashion is in fast-forward mode. “Our designers are doing excellent work compared with anyone in the world, nor is our fashion market only teeming with pinks and reds,” she says.

This brand of “intricately made Indian casual”, even if it’s a prosaic definition so far, may slowly open up to a wider demand across the world compared to the “too-casual” look of new Western prêt. A territory, waiting-to-be-conquered, that Indian designers must not take too casually. Sorry, anarkali.