India’s fashion moment: Free ‘n’ confused


India’s fashion moment: Free ‘n’ confused

There is a creative boom in Indian fashion, fuelled by bold, mini movements. Now is the time for its leaders to show commitment and consensus to make India a globally relevant fashion destination.

Fashion is no longer just clothing and costume in India. It echoes in everyday life, its fickleness just the right companion in the oscillations of a society in transition. As global brands bombard us with their presence and Indian designers reciprocate with a strong creative impulse, an interesting stage has been set. The rich and famous use it to establish new hierarchies of distinction. The middle class uses it to unravel an identity – a part of which is defined by ‘who we are is what we wear’.

This is the time of the year when this pursuit becomes louder and more visible. When we wear Spring/ Summer and watch Autumn/ Winter at fashion weeks. When fashion magazines come out with their big trend guides, marketing them as Bibles to counsel us on our shopping anxieties. Alongside, newspaper supplements, TV reports, blogs and websites tell us smug stories of party princesses and moneybags, tyrant trends and Bollywood showstoppers. They make fashion sound like Wonderland where a contemporary Alice would wake up fascinated.

Sandwiched between Mumbai’s recently concluded Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) and Delhi’s Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week(WLIFW) – backed by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) – that begins next week, plus half a dozen other weeks elsewhere, fashion is at this moment an extravagant monster, a spectator sport. Much like the IPL.

This month, for the first time after 11 years, LFW did a headstand. Instead of following the international norm of showing Autumn/Winter in summer, it did a strategic shift by showing Summer/Resort 2010 with clothes ready to go to the stores immediately. “(For) our shift of seasons to be more aligned with the domestic buying cycle is a ‘radical’ move when looking at industry conventions. The market was leading us to this point as demand for merchandise to reach the outlet sooner has increasingly become the requirement both here and across the globe,” says Ravi Krishnan, managing director IMG, South Asia. The FDCI, which split from LFW some years back and now organises the competitive ‘other’ event, says it is shocked. “How can they unilaterally change the supply chain management followed all over the world, without consulting the big stakeholders in the industry?” asks an emphatic Sunil Sethi, President FDCI. “In no other industry, whether telecom or cinema, do rival camps take policy decisions without debate and discussion,” he adds. No doubt, India is primarily a summer and resort wear market. Middle Eastern buyers, the biggest customers of our fashion after domestic retailers, look for similar stuff. Let’s face it;buyers from London, Milan, Paris and New York are unlikely to order winter collections from here. Yet, to become a property of international worth, some benchmarks must be absolutely non-negotiable. Shifting away from them – without first being unified over a shift – causes commotion. That is what is happening now. So LFW has one seasonal theme and FDCI has another – Autumn-Winter 2010. To those abroad, India would seem like a chaotic client – a new design hub with terrific talent but no consensus. The ordinary consumer, the last stop in the chain, wonders what’s going on. Too much is going on. It truly is India’s fashion moment: free and confused.

Sample first the freedoms. Never before have new generation designers been given the kind of platforms that they now receive from fashion bodies. This is a talented crop with great ideas but poor business plans, trying to survive in a market soaked with wedding wear. Take designer Anuj Sharma, for whom fashion is about sustainable design with minimum dependence on resources, darzis or machines. Within minutes, he can make a bag from a piece of fabric. It can then be unbuttoned, re-buttoned, knotted or re-knotted as a cushion cover, a trouser, a short skirt, a tube top, a tunic.

Other youngsters – Rimzim Dadu, Jasleen and Jenjum of Koga, Varun Sardana, Anshu and Jason of Small Shop, Anand Kabra, to name a few, are ahead in this march that even the bigwigs agree will give Indian fashion a vision. Milliner Shilpa Chavan with her outrageously innovative headgear and Hyderabad-based Suhani Pittie are just two who offer the market a refined taste in accessories. Pittie’s new jewellery line – Grunge Begum – shown at LFW last week was tweaked to look grunge enough for the New Fashion Seeker but retained an old world charm to attract the conformist. Senior designer Narendra Kumar agrees. “Young designers generate the energy and the talk. We reap benefits from the buzz created by their spark and creativity. If I can’t evolve with them, I have no business to be around, ” he says.

There is also a clear emergence of an avantgarde. Both on and off the ramp. Anti-fit, anti-trend, non-sexy, strong and individualistic. It’s far from becoming a market yet, but there is no mistaking its presence. Young, restless, bright, brash, rebellious. They sport tattoos and piercings; hang around at Blue Frog in Mumbai, the Big Chill in Delhi, wear Goth makeup, black nail polish, orange bags, prefer shots to pegs, Lady Gaga to Lata Mangeshkar. FabIndia is fine for them but JJ Valaya is not.

Another compelling story is blue jeans. At Big Bazaar, its over-embroidered versions mean fashion forward. But to a fashionista, jeans are basic, almost conservative. Yet, when Tarun Tahiliani ties up with Levi’s to dress Priyanka Chopra in a Diva range, they fly off the shelf as the new cool. Ditto for Reebok shoes, worn by Shah Rukh Khan in My Name Is Khan, one of the smartest product placements of recent times. Some collaborations have changed the market for the better.

Manish Arora’s spectacular fashion shows and modernistic clothes are stimulated by tie-ups with global-local brands like Good Earth, Reebok, MAC cosmetics, Nivea, Swarovski and Swatch to name some, making his imagination accessible through products. Mass brand store Westside stocks designer collections which they first began in collaboration with Narendra Kumar and Wendell Rodricks. Priya Kishore, creative director of Bombay Electric, a radical fashion store, mentors select designers to create only for her clients. She taps talent in a focused way, inspiring the use of Indian textiles subtly interfused with craft traditions. “Cultural groups are creating their own trends beyond fashion weeks and magazines. It is the social elite that limits itself to the catwalk. Real fashion starts from amongst real people. My clients get dressed in the morning and do not want to necessarily think about fashion for the entire day. They have a life beyond fashion,” she says.

A new cultural group underlining personalised fashion are the gays. Many of them are stylists themselves, often seen in fashionable abandon at fashion weeks, magazine offices or parties. You may call it camp behaviour in a hot house setting; but they understand and wear fashion with individualism, giving life to that style tactic: “It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” It’s an explosive time for the industry with new textile development and a fresh take on the ‘Indian look’. Young designer Rahul Mishra’s work stands for multilayered co-existence. He creates reversible clothes working with Hindu, South Indian craftsmen for one side of the garment in Kerala cotton and with Muslim, North Indian weavers for the other side in the Benarasi weave.

Designers Lecoanet Hemant got drag queen Harish to walk the ramp in 2008, bringing, along with super menswear, a debate on alternative sexuality onto the ramp. Menswear is not just a separate fashion week in India now;it’s also a profitable segment. Dream to become designers, stylists, models, have overtaken youngistan. National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) colleges receive hundred times more applications compared to seats. Whenever LFW screened entries for GenNext designers, it found more applicants from small towns, including Meerut and Bhatinda, tipping the numbers from the metros. In Jharsugda, West Orissa, which has a population of under a lakh, Reebok claims to do business of a few lakhs per month.

Ironically though, there is a head-on collision of creativity with chaos in this industry largely defined by dissent. Industry stakeholders have formed power centres, hijacking the biggest sponsors to back already established designers. Also experts across the board blame the fashion media for the mostly non-serious reportage of fashion, turning it into a list of the most stylish (read richest or most influential), a game of the partying circuit and the privilege of Bollywood. As a ripple effect, whatever fashion touches is viewed as superfluous. Socially, it deepens the symbolic divide between the groupies of salwar kameez and those of the Little Black Dress.

The industry has done itself a big disservice with multiple fashion weeks and by allowing sponsors to take creative decisions. Bodies may emphasise strategic shifts but at the end of the day, whatever the theme, you can find everything – summer, autumn, winter, resort, trousseau wear, sports chic, diamond jewellery, or digitally printed saris at any Indian fashion week. Screening for quality of participating designers remains questionable too – if designers bring a sponsor, much else is overlooked. As are the rights and earnings of craftspeople and weavers, the underbelly of this industry.

What still sells most in the name of fashion is not fashion. “In 17 years since we started Melange, I can only see regression in taste and aesthetic,” says Sangita Sinh Kathiwada, ownerdirector of Mumbai’s fashion store Melange. “Instead of content, we favour competition putting the industry back again and again.”
Indian fashion needs bold, united, decision makers to give it rhythm and rigour. Only then will this faith inspire rootedness in its increasing number of devotees.