The Swarovski Republic


The Swarovski Republic

Bling has become India’s ultimate showstopper. Be it couture weeks or television costume, they come with a generous sprinkling of crystals. Our correspndent looks at this obsession with ostentationThe most popular debut in Indian fashion recently has been of the Austrian Swarovski crystal. In a palace coup, it has usurped our embroideries and upstaged gold zari. If one needed any evidence of India’s unapologetic affair with bling, plenty was strewn all over the Pearls Infrastructure Delhi Couture Week and designer Tarun Tahiliani’s Bridal Exposition. Both the events, which unfolded in the capital last week, celebrated India’s ultimate showstopper — ostentation. At the feet of this bejewelled deity lie two sacrificial lambs — design and its sibling, couture.

Swarovski Elements was the official trend partner of the Couture Week. Over four lakh Swarovskis formed glitzy installations at the venue. Meanwhile, a fibreglass elephant and faceless mannequins clad in crystals welcomed guests at Tahiliani’s lavish wedding set at the Emporio Mall.
Swarovski, which entered India just 10 years ago, is now a metaphor. It stands for New Wealth as much as bullet-sized solitaires and seven-series BMW. Throw in a monogrammed Louis Vuitton bag and big chandeliers in a house draped with velvet curtains to complete the picture.
Crystals, Swarovski or otherwise, however, are not just the armour of the nouveau riche Indian. Wealthy Middle East buyers who drive designer sales and affluent NRIs who look for Bollywood fashion too shop for stones and sequins on lehngas, gowns, saris, even bikinis. In their fashionable minds, Indian customers are happiest as baraatis in a Karan Johar film. The quiet power of a Chanel jacket in a fashion magazine may grab their attention and they may occasionally choose the Little Black Dress over a sari but their wallets and wardrobes seem to be on a perennial hunt for glitter.

Even so, does a couture week require crystals? By definition, haute couture is made-to-order — it could be burqas in charmeuse lycra or orthopaedic slings made of boned crepe. “Couture is about creation. It is about 30 people working on one garment, an affirmation of timelessness in a timely frame and beguiling a customer with know-how and technique,” says Hemant Sagar of Lecoanet Hemant. Former members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, Paris, they now work in India, but do not make couture any more. In India, the embellished and the shimmered have come to stand for couture.

For young designer Raakesh Agarvwal, the crystal craze is his saviour. His collection “Premier Class” at the Couture Week announced it loudly. “If I didn’t want to impress fashion editors, I would call my line ‘Clear in Crystal’,” he says candidly. Bling doesn’t just sit on his lehngas, but even on itsy-bitsy swimsuits. “Beneath it all, there is mukaish and resham chikankari but my customers have no idea. They are all busy counting stones,” he says. Indian couture arithmetic begins at bikinis priced at Rs 25,000, with the most expensive lehngas and saris costing Rs 20 lakh.

Even old patrons of traditional Indian embroideries like Tahiliani and JJ Valaya now generously sprinkle their creations with Swarovskis. “The nouveau riche prefers bling because they think it makes them noticeable. Taste comes with time,” says Tahiliani. However, he emphasises draping as an important element of bespoke Indian wear. “Why are you only looking at embellishments?” he asks. “We measure you, sculpt a sari, gown or lehnga around you. Even the inside is beautiful. Couture is about making a woman feel like a million bucks before she leaves the room.” Yet, customers pay obscene amounts for the decorated outside, not for the luxuriant inside.

The new rich, like debutantes without make-up, seem insecure without ostentation. They chase obvious symbols of wealth to advertise their identity. The old, moneyed class, meanwhile, wants bling couture to play the new game of power. The Micromax Q55 phone is symbolic. It is named Bling and is modelled by Twinkle Khanna, one of the few fashionistas with an original sense of style. Yet, the ad’s gurgling voiceover, “Ha, ha, ha, it twinkles”, is of Akshay Kumar, who has never been squeamish about his rise from Chandni Chowk to Bandra. The rich in Milan and Paris need fashion to become one with their surroundings. In India, bling is a way to stand out in the visual poverty of the urban landscape. The wealthy want islands of glitz inside a dour reality — five-star hotels, luxury malls and opulent fashion events where they can wear Manolo Blahniks and desi crystal couture.

One reason why many young designers are succumbing to the lures of the bridal lehnga market is the certainty of sales. It invites intense criticism because of its repetitiveness and excesses, but wedding couture is the only thing that sells. It has helped designers survive even recessionary lows. A number of extravagant Indian weddings are like baroque courts where wealth, power and status are served up in a flaming pudding of excess. The lehnga is the sartorial centrepiece, the showstopper, of this ritual of profusion. It is couture in the way it is handmade and involves intensive labour, fittings and intimate designer-client interaction. But then come the embellishments: new stones riding piggyback on old embroideries.

Valaya’s showstopper at the Couture Week is in his own words “perhaps the most extravagant wedding outfit I have ever created”. Onyx from Madagascar, Peruvian opals, freshwater pearls, rubies and emeralds, along with Swarovskis, smile on a lehnga-choli set. The price is so steep that Valaya refuses to divulge it but says customers are waiting for it. Indian couture has turned into another baraati and designers into style directors of the Big Fat PR-Managed Indian Wedding. The tagline “Look At Me Now, I Am Arriving” is unmissable.

Television, the biggest mass entertainer in India, too endorses bling. It was in July 2000 when Ekta Kapoor and company descended on us with snake-shaped sindoor, bejewelled saris, ornate sherwanis and fuchsia bedcovers. Now, malls have reached small towns and four international fashion magazines have been launched in the last five years, but TV costumes remain versions of the same styling ethic. “Let’s not confuse upward mobility and aspiration with fashion,” says Gul Khan, who produces the TV serial Geet and earlier directed Sanjivani. “The Indian middle class aspires for status and identity. But fashion there is often about what your father does, what your husband allows you to wear, what your in-laws think,” she says.

International fashion brands have realised that their loudest products work best here. Almost all fashion stores in small and big cities, cheap to chic, speak for it. Shoes, bags, sunglasses, bindis, bra straps, kurtas, cell-phone trinkets, even blue jeans are trussed up in crystals — or their fake variations.
Voice in the wilderness, Goan designer Wendell Rodricks, who doesn’t touch bling with a bargepole, tries to reason this obsession. “Indians associate clothing as an extension of shringar. We do not like clothes that are aggressive, gothic or too powerful and challenge the body form,” he says. “With these boundaries, the goal posts don’t move at all. So designers are compelled to create shine instead of imaginative weaves, conform rather than innovate.”

But, coming back to the question, do they need to? Look closely at garments made by India’s top couturiers: Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s khadi garments with gara embroidery, Rohit Bal’s Kashmiri work on finely cut angarakhas, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla’s refined chikankari, Ritu Kumar’s rich jamevars, Valaya’s fine embroideries. Each is a lavish advertisement of Incredible India and doesn’t need bling to make a point. Nor does Tahiliani, who can do an exquisite fusion of textile details and masterful draping. By allowing too much synthetic surface embellishment to dominate their creations, they end up doing a disservice to their brands. Sameness threatens to drown individuality.

To be fair, some are subtly challenging the tried-and-tested bridal wear. Sabyasachi’s couture show that began with DK Pattamal’s rendition of Jana gana mana also introduced his Save The Sari project. Anamika Khanna looked at newness of form, material and presentation. Bling may have played hide and seek but it did not overwhelm her clothes. Amid all his profusion of glitter, Valaya launched the Alika jacket as a key piece for all his future collections. He envisions it as a classic in the making.

Business compulsions may have made fashion designers bling followers. But a designer should not simply reflect social prejudices but be an agent provocateur of new sensibilities. Coco Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld and John Galliano became fashion leaders by swimming against the tide, by cutting through the orthodoxy of the fashion consumer. Those are the terms of divergence. Perhaps the time has come for Indian designers to make up their minds one way or the other.
(The writer is a former editor of Marie Claire India)