The Politics of the Returned Physical Fashion Week


The Politics of the Returned Physical Fashion Week

Some spectacular show staging, resetting fashion week influence, venue wows and why we, the fashion media disjointedly choose who (and what) to report back 

Unless you were a part of the in person show for Satya Paul by Rajesh Pratap Singh last Friday (October 3) at FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai, there was no way the pulsating spectacle would have hit you with its potency. The live, blended charm of film, fashion, theatre, colour and the smart use of Tencel fibres had to be seen to be felt. Actor Rahul Bose who had made a short film (he featured in it too) as the foreword of the show would then walk up to sit on a plush sofa on the ramp, his back turned to the audience. The alter ego, as if, of the reticent Rajesh Pratap (creative director of the brand) who finds it hard to look at press cameras but sends out forceful ideas on the runway. Bose as Pratap untold is an interpretation, yes.

Well, there was much to interpret. A lot of which could have been missed if we had just watched the digital version.


The Tarun Tahiliani runway showcase at FDCI X LFW.

The overall experience made me wonder about fashion’s diminishing potential to draw instinctive, sensorial responses even as its overall reach is increasing all over the world. More people watch, access and buy fashion, yet its once compelling aura is paling. So for moments, when I felt the familiar flicker of excitement while watching ‘Assemble, Disassemble, Reassemble’ by Abraham & Thakore x R|Elan in person and Tarun Tahiliani’s finely tailored and embellished clothes on a classy set created with architecturally designed strings, I wanted to write fashion’s lost and found story. The sets made by 70 EMG for all the shows at this event deserve an applause. The size, scale, artsy interiors and luxuriousness of the Jio World Convention Centre in Bandra Kurla Complex, the new address of fashion week added to the irony and amusement of a “big” event with a “small” guest list given COVID-19 protocols.

The Silenced Buzz

However, even as I remembered that fashion show staging is an art by itself (digital filmmaking is an entirely different skill) and a creative runway experience is where real consumer conversion, fantasy and curiosity begin, I greatly missed the buzz of fashion events of time gone by.

In the brazen 2000s and the skidding 2010s, fashion weeks in India lived out a bold and bright script. Quite clichéd, some would argue. They rode on high octane notoriety, film stars and glamour groupies to thrive and to generate tabloid “buzz”. The beast called Page 3 fed this drama. Fashion was undemocratic, notorious, ego hungry, built on large ideas and small fortunes. Whispers about scandals that never quite happened as they were reported (some happened too), hype that was thrown like a matchstick into a lighted crowd, networking—stale and new, talent discovered then discarded, fashion truly unclothed.


Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

File photo of a model in a creation by designer Rina Dhaka at the opening show of Lakmé India Fashion Week in New Delhi, 27 April 2004.

Much of that has lapsed for now.

When it returns, if it does, the rules of the game will have changed. New clichés will start getting dressed to take the front row in narration.

Back to the question: ‘How were the physical shows after a long gap, was it good to be back?’ My response is that while the industry has gained marketing, filming and technological learning, we have lost the mirroring of pop culture through fashion. Fashion is culture, after all, and that culture was once most visible at a fashion week.

On the other hand, an interesting shift is taking place in the politics and popularity of designers. Just before the pandemic enveloped us, the designer fraternity was tossed on the politics of matinee shows, opening shows, primetime shows, sponsor shows and power finales. The pandemic-forced fashion film however has rubbed out that crazy hierarchy of the big versus small. Audiences can watch any show at any time. At an in-person show, socially distanced seating and fewer guests means no FROW flurry which has diluted fashion media’s power games too. How cool?

Success and Social Media

Sponsors however continue to get top billing as they should with primetime shows. The AK OK by Anamika Khanna show, sponsored by Maruti Suzuki’s premium automobile chain NEXA, was Saturday night live for instance. But curiously enough, a statistical analysis of “likes” on the LFW and FDCI social media platforms digital and hits on YouTube of in-person shows compared with digital only, reveal an unexpected unfolding. It is hard to distinguish the success or seniority of a designer only by social media figures. A-league, mid-level, or emerging, most get an almost equal number of hits or likes.


Consider this. The ‘Banaras’ collection by Abhishek Gupta got approximately 1,01,271 views on Instagram, Payal Jain’s ‘Earth Song’ had 1,01,336, Abraham & Thakore got 1,02,087, Satya Paul by Rajesh Pratap 1,44,660. While Troy Costa’s had 1,27,245, AK-OK got 1,31,862 and Jade by Monica and Karishma had 1,01,738. Average views: 1 lakh plus for most everyone. Same difference, would you agree?

On YouTube, a different, but less effusive story played out. The Satya Paul show only had 70 plus hits, Troy Costa a little under 300, while Arpita Mehta had nearly 462 and JJ Valaya 551. Ranna Gill got less than 70 hits, Payal Jain had 122 and Nikita Mhaisalkar less than 50. Mhaisalkar’s show though had 79.2K views on Instagram.


Arpita’s Mehta digital showcase.

The deduction here is not about the art-craft-merit of the shows, the heft of the designer or the desirability of the clothes, but that YouTube is not as well promoted or popular as Instagram for fashion and that social media success is a dynamic of numerous factors. What a dispiriting little insight, you may say. Indeed. “As a designer, it is a battle for me,” agrees Arpita Mehta who was part of the FDCI x LFW event via a digital show. “I miss the energy of the physical show, the creative freedom. At the end of the day, we create garments and they must flow before a person’s eyes. However, many hits and likes we may get on social media, the grandness cannot be replicated on a digital show,” she says.

Mhaisalkar, who too had a digital showcase agrees. “I was overwhelmed and in tears when I saw my own show digitally because I really miss the runway. There is no comparison to the tactility, the touch and feel that these garments deserve and can be appreciated as art,” she says. While she emphasises that the next time she does a runway show, she is determined to carry her pandemic learnings to minimise waste, plastic and excess of any kind for the show or set, she does feel that buyers respond to fashion only when they see and touch it.


A look from Nikita Mhaisalkar’s digital presentation.

Trell Tolls a Bell

A source from the LFW digital team tells us that while physical shows had a clear lead over only-virtual showcases when it came to social media notice, the social commerce app Trell that collaborated with FDCI x LFW for live streaming designer Samant Chauhan’s show instantly got more than 1 million followers. More than the LFW Instagram handle, which has 973K followers as of today and remains among the highest followed fashion weeks of the world. Trell and Samant Chauhan must be app-solutely happy.

Which means more than fashion itself, the platform it is being streamed on, its unique and loyal followers, the recruitment of smart ideas and marketing buzz, collaborations with influencers who can drive noticeability is where the story will lead. In the US, at the New York Fashion Week Spring-Summer 2022 edition, TikTok influencers were invited to roost. Pinterest found its own innovative way for fashion week coverage. Reach grew as did engagement.


Festive Couture 2021 by Geisha Designs showcased digitally at FDCI X LFW.

Back home, Paras Bairoliya of the duo Paras and Shalini says that even as their show went up digitally as part of the FDCI x LFW event, the clothes from the same collection could be seen and bought live at a store in Mumbai. The smart synchronisation had been pre-set. “Anyway there is very little scope to bring actual buyers into a show venue, because physical audiences will now be divided among media, sponsors, glitterati, special guests etc. This way, digitally and with other collaborative ideas, we can make a fashion show a B2B and a B2C event simultaneously,” says Bairoliya.

If innovation is the driving word, everyone is stabbing at it without clear answers on what’s really working or has the potential to be a game changer. A case in point was the Balmain Spring 2022 show at the recent Paris Fashion Week (September 27-October 5). The 10th anniversary for designer and the brand’s creative director Olivier Rousteing, it saw industry insiders and celebrities in full attendance but it was also open to the public. A story reported by digital publication The Business of Fashion said that of the 5,000 people who attended it, 4,000 paid for their tickets as part of a fundraiser for the HIV charity called (Red).

If something like that is tried in India (after all the crafts sector has been waiting for decades for private investment and funding), a story on the changing fashion culture may well be in order.

You will find it on The Voice of Fashion.

Banner: Actors Tripti Dimri and Rahul Bose flanked by models at the Satya Paul runway showcase.