Haute Politics


Haute Politics

New Delhi : Behind the glamour of a couture week lies a web of networking, Bollywood contacts and desperation to woo the elite

A shakespearean comedy has at least some of these elements: tension and deception between characters, multiple intertwining plots, more emphasis on situations than characters, separation and re-unification, a clever servant and a happy ending. But every happy ending leaves some people unhappy.

The analogy fits an Indian couture week like a made-to-order glove. Watching it as a fly on the wall or even a fly in the soup is a fascinating way to understand its politics.

I am the fly in the designer soup. What’s the criteria of selecting designers who show at the couture week? I ask Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), that organised Delhi Couture Week. “There is no criteria, if there is anyone who can suggest a process we all agree to, I would be happy to incorporate it,” says Sethi.

How were you chosen to show here? I ask a participating couturier. “Who can stop us from showing at a couture week? Isn’t it obvious that my name would be on the list, whoever makes it?” says the miffed designer.

So, who spends the crores of rupees on the event? “FDCI spends on the event, the venue, the choreographers, make-up, models, the works. Except the clothes and the sets,” says Sethi. The entire event is worth more than Rs 5 crore, not including the garments.

“But it is the sets and clothes that differentiate one show from another, one designer’s talent from another,” thunders a couturier. Right. He spent close to Rs 15 lakh on the set and has reason to yell if he is told that the mineral water he sipped was free. A couture set costs anything between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 20 lakh, depending on its lavishness.

So, if your next question is how does it all come together, here’s the drill. Resist the temptation of comparing it with the processes of the Parisian Chambre Syndicale De la Haute Couture, because in Indian couture, all’s fair, like in love and war.

The FDCI board begins with two initiatives. It circulates a couture week announcement among designers asking for entries leaving out newbies, or those whose resources do not facilitate couture production. They also invite 10 jury members to “select” the final participants. This comprises two fashion editors, a stylist or two, a socialite, a non-participating designer, preferably an FDCI member and, as Sethi adds, “a couple of wives of industrialists who actually buy big pieces of couture.”

All efforts are made to keep the jury names from leaking out in order to contain infighting. Every jury member must give two lists of 10 designers each. List A and List B. An average is done and a final List A is made. If some designer from List A is unable to participate, the top one from List B gets a chance. This time, for instance, Anamika Khanna and Sabyasachi were missing. Nobody would be surprised if two designers in the 12 who showed this time came up because Khanna was travelling abroad with her family and Sabyasachi was too busy with a film.

Yet, when insiders say that despite murky politics, furious midnight phone fights, accusatory emails, even emotional blackmail, the list of 10 finalists that the jury chooses usually has eight names that are common among all, the argument must be paid heed to. This time, 50 designers applied. Only 12 got to show in 11 shows as one was divided between Anju Modi and Ashima-Leena. India now has an established set of couturiers. If they choose to enter, you can’t deny them participation. Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani, JJ Valaya, Suneet Varma, Manish Malhotra, Anamika Khanna, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla are the definitive names in couture. “Do you expect us to ask Rohit Bal to send us one of his garments to examine for selection?” asks an outraged Sethi.

Without a fixed criteria (a designer’s seniority in the business, number of workers and craftsmen employed by him, the production resources or a list of customers), any designer is free to apply for couture week. Which is how younger talents like Gaurav Gupta and Varun Bahl, whose factories are only a few years old, could show this time. While bringing in young, deserving designers could be a high point of this “no-criteria” process, what it also allows is freedom of selection to those in power. Even if eight out of 10 names are predictable, the choice of the remaining two can be biased without anyone to question the process. It could lead to disagreement and controversy. Sethi agrees. “Yes, there is usually a controversy around a couple of names, whenever a final list is out,” he admits. New couturiers are infusing our old market with innovation. Mumbai-based Manav Gangwani, who was not very long back critiqued for garish and overdone bling, put up one of the best shows this time. Even his detractors say that in three years, Gangwani will be able to compete with the biggest players.

Money is big in couture, so it is a headier game. Some say that until you break into the clique of couturiers, you aren’t powerful enough in Indian fashion. “With the Indian wedding becoming a phenomenon, we all acknowledge that the couture market is where the business is. This is what India responds to,” says Tarun Tahiliani, adding that in comparison, ready-to-wear faces intense competition from mid-level foreign brands and “Bangkok knockoffs”. Couture, on the other hand, with its swagger, is central to the quest of the moneyed elite that wants to associate with fashion designers and with Bollywood via it. That’s how New India wants to announce its wealth.

“It is the elitism of money that is more compelling than wanting to be radical and design for a younger republic,” says a designer who pulled out all stops, took bank loans and sold assets to put together a couture collection.

Each collection is worth upwards of Rs 75 lakh; couture being high-value, and some designers who show 40 garments at a time will have clothes worth about Rs 2 crore.

Everyone tries to score by hook or crook. Some by pulling each other down, even calling each other dirty names while speaking to journalists “off the record”, yet others by paying money for publicity. Some take the Bollywood short cut (not inexpensive either) when they call their star friends for “support”. The pairing of the rich and famous with couture is an old game, though Tahiliani says he is becoming tired of it. “Bollywood seems to support what is handed out free or is beneficial and we should protect our brands more,” he says. But if Gangwani had the “loser Khans” (as someone said on a text message), Fardeen, Zayed, Soha Ali with Rahul Khanna, Raveena Tandon and others dot his front row, Ashima Leena got Sharmila Tagore as the showstopper.

Bollywood not only assures publicity, it rakes in sponsors who invest huge monies so that their brand is splashed alongside a Sonam Kapoor, a Sonakshi Sinha or an Arjun Rampal. “Some designers are desperate and unsure about their work, and panic without Bollywood presence. We network frantically to organise celebrities for them. Even Bollywood has all types, some starlets and B-grade actors are willing to come and walk in shows for anything, a couple of lakhs, a business-class ticket, some free clothes and all this publicity you guys give them,” says a PR representative.

The show goes on, it manages to get reams of press and ends with an infectious, and by now signature, dance by India’s couturier-at-large Rohit Bal that seems to say it’s all worth it. All’s well that ends well. Didn’t the Bard say as much?