Who is an international designer?

MINT

Who is an international designer?

Fashion has to be rooted in soil and the soil of fashion is in Paris,” said Stéphane Wargnier, a French fashion commentator and international fashion expert, This was at the recent Mint Luxury conference, during a talk on haute couture by Didier Grumbach, one of the grand old names of French fashion and president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

Moderated by designer Hemant Sagar of Lecoanet Hemant, a former member of the Chambre, the panel was discussing what nourishes, sustains and propels fashion. This was in the context of Grumbach’s book History Of International Fashion, first published in French in 1993 and updated in 2008 and 2014; its English translation has been released in India recently.

Grumbach’s tome, a must-read for anyone keen on the creative and commercial meanderings of dressmaking, the booming industry of ready-to-wear and the enduring mystique of haute couture, mentions only one Indian designer, towards the end, in a section titled Postscript. And that is Manish Arora, who has made Paris his second home and shows at the Paris Fashion Week (PFW) each season.

Grumbach, who co-founded Saint Laurent Rive Gauche with Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge in Paris in 1966, is no stranger to the evolution of Indian fashion. Yet he only chose Arora.

Should “Paris as the soil of fashion” then be the sole criteria for a designer to be considered international, as Wargnier, executive president of the Federation Francaise de la Couture, du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers at des Createurs de Mode, suggests? “We were happy to see a Rahul Mishra garment from his PFW collection on the cover of Mint Lounge,” added Sagar. In a follow-up conversation, he described “Parisian fashion” or “fashion nourished in Paris” as the “primordial” core of the concept.

It may be time to challenge that view. Paris’ historical significance as the pilgrimage of international fashion is undeniable. But with the economic-power balance shifting towards Asia, old assumptions on fashion’s nature and nurture, and the emphasis on Western business models, have to be questioned.

To limit “internationalism” to those showing there, like Arora or Mishra, who won an international award and got funded to show in that city, narrows the idea of global fashion, which is nothing without its diversity. It is like saying that only those who win an Oscar make worthy cinema, or that the only meaningful literature is that which can compete for the Booker prize.

Grumbach contradicts his own words somewhat. “Divisions in the world are disappearing and cultural mixes are replacing folklore…. In a world without borders, innovation is more effective than marketing and brands constitute powerful tools of differentiation. In parallel, national legislations dealing with the protection of brands and clothing that had remained disparate until now are finally beginning to work together towards the same goals,” he writes, taking the argument from “internationalization to globalization”.

But he doesn’t even clearly examine the exoticism of Indian craftsmanship and culture that influenced haute couture by designers like Elsa SchiaparelliJohn GallianoDries Van Noten and Jean Paul Gaultier. Or the fact that dozens of designers from different countries used India as a sourcing centre for embellishments but never added Made in India to their labels. The Japanese sway on global fashion, represented by Issey Miyake and Kenzo, among others, finds worthy mention (both show in Paris) but the innovative trajectories of Rajesh Pratap Singh, the couture of Sabyasachi and Anamika Khanna, who have experimented with new materials, or the business model of veteran Ritu Kumar, go unnoticed.

There is nothing about the growing global demand for ready-to-wear made in India. Incidentally, textile and apparel exports from India to the US, its largest single market, grew by 7% from January-August, according to official US data.

“The Indian textile industry does not invest in R&D to use new materials year after year. Besides, the catastrophe of Indian fashion weeks focusing on sponsors instead of designers has wrung out the creativity from the industry,” says Sagar. Bridal couture may now be recognized as “business” but it can’t really be called “fashion”, he says.

Now consider these facts. One of India’s most respected designer duos, Abraham & Thakore, began their retail careers as a design brand more than two decades back at the Conran Shop in London. Textile expert Neeru Kumar sells not only in Japan and Paris but also from museum stores in various countries. Pratap has a sturdy global clientele (not limited to the Indian diaspora), as has Ashish SoniRaghavendra Rathore customizes high-end menswear through private showings for a niche clientele in Paris.

In 2012, Rathore was the fashion partner at Bal de L’ete, the 17th edition of the annual ball organized by the Order of Malta, Monaco, which works for healthcare in over 20 countries. Couturier Manish Malhotra rings in high retail sales in London and Dubai. Even younger designer Aneeth Arora sells in around 65 retail global destinations.

Both Anupamaa Dayal and Pankaj and Nidhi are top-selling names from Anthropologie, a chain of fashion stores in the US, and Wendell Rodricks’ garments can be found in most known resort destinations. Tarun Tahiliani’s non-resident Indian customers and Rohit Bal’s global buyers are stories in themselves, while Gaurav Gupta’s garments walked the red carpet from Cannes to Grammys this year, on “international” stars.

Some local designers even use international cultural influences and techniques. In 2012, Pankaj and Nidhi created Wycinanki, inspired from the Polish technique of paper-cutting. Amit Aggarwal, who sells to the European market from exhibitions in Paris, uses industrial materials like silicone and acrylic sewn with zari on Indian and non-Indian fabrics.

Pratap and Khanna showed in Paris for just one season. It may be worth probing why they no longer seek validation from the West. Ditto for Sabyasachi, who wound up showings abroad to focus on the market here. Today, more international customers visit his store in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda than the nearby Hermès store.

The term “international” has become wonderfully, if woefully wide. It has broken old barriers of elitism and zoomed into new, less haute territories. Like fashion itself, it has put on the proverbial “new clothes”. Some of these clothes are made in India.

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