UNDERSTATEMENT: More Biba than Bal


UNDERSTATEMENT: More Biba than Bal

More than a decade back, when Rohit Bal, one of India’s favourite designers associated with the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC)—along with a few other designers—to design khadi ready-to-wear under his signature, the line retailed at select outlets of Khadi Gramudyog Bhavans in India sold out. Those who queued up for that affordable, patriotic version of Bal, weren’t concerned about fashionized khadi. They wanted a designer name in their wardrobes and Bal made big sense. KVIC wanted to give hauteur and aspirational value to the humble khadi. That did happen but briefly. The association snapped too soon due to bureaucratic fault lines that creep into many Indian government projects.

If Bal was frustrated with that experience (he said as much to me in an interview two years back) the loss was actually of the customer trying forever to find a stylish cross between fashion and affordability. Also, because only a few benefited from Bal’s original design affinity with khadi. He loves the fabric and amongst Indian designers trying to give khadi style and substance, he is one of the best choices to create magic out of its natural shades; white, cream, almond.

Essentially known for kurtis and suits, Biba may not exactly be a mass brand but it’s certainly not premium. Keeping aside its Manish Arora line, its home brand clothing has the stamp of the mundane—printed crepe kurtis, cotton or silk three piece sets, ethnic embroidered salwar and kurta silhouettes and so on. Busy patterns mostly in screaming colours. Oh yes, the market clamours for this kind of range and who can quarrel with the relevance and space it may have in the wardrobes of the regular Indian customer. No doubt, the “regular Indian female customer” is a far more precious entity (than the much marketed fashionista) to understand the pulse of Indian fashion or the tides of retail. Yet, Rohit Bal?

Pushing aside my jholawala prejudice that Fabindia or Goodearth are better fits for the Rohit Bal brand (he also makes select pret garments for Wills Lifestyle) I went to see his collection at the Biba store in Delhi’s DLF Promenade Mall. Agreeably it’s a smart move with clothes priced from 8950 to 22,000 or so. Not cheap, but far from the steep Rohit Bal price tags. In some ways, this collaboration makes even more sense than the one with Manish Arora because Bal is closer to the silhouette needs of the Indian female buyer. But while some colours in the range are purely Bal (the deep blue and muted maroon especially), many seem like a compromise with Biba’s ongoing favourites (see the fuschia ones). The anarkalis have Bal’s familiar presence in the their flow and fall but some have large gota borders and an overall muchness that disturbs the designer’s signature. Presumably, they will find eager customers.

Unlike the images you see here (obviously styled in a studio with a blend of vintage style worn with European hair and sent by the PR), when you view the garments in the store, Bal gets drowned in Biba’s clutter and noise. That’s a pity. Especially for customers because while they are buying Bal, it is too accented by Biba. Bal the brand and the designer may likely remain unaffected as his fashion market is cut out. Yet even for his sake, those wonderful lotuses he creates on clothes and the fabrics he uses need better and prominent visual display as well as a certain distinction in design and colour palette. Else, when you go through the hangers, the Rohit Bal signature starts playing hide and seek.