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NEW DEHLI — The most common self-assessment used by local designers to sum up the burgeoning fashion culture in this, the second-most-populous nation in the world, is that India is in a state of “fashion anarchy.”
Homegrown designers are a relatively new phenomenon here, most having set up their businesses only in the past five years in response to India’s growing upper class and its appetite for global styles. Yet the country, or at least its most wealthy minority, has nevertheless become suddenly obsessed with having its own fashion. India already has supermodels, stylists, celebrity designers and a three-year-old fashion week staged with all the pomp and seriousness of those in Paris, Milan or New York. The industry’s snappy ascendancy has resulted in a dichotomy that pits a centuries-old tradition of dress against the more modern influences of the West.
Saris, kurtas, sherwani and sarongs — yes, there is plenty of what one might expect to see on the Indian catwalks. But there is also a nearly equal representation of crack-tight denim pants, sequined apron tops and silk taffetta ballgown skirts — some of it great and some downright awful — often all in the same collection. American and English audiences are by now becoming familiar with the masala that is characteristic of Indian cuisine and the Bollywood film industry, but perhaps not yet with the mix of cultures, spice and a constant flare for embellishment that make up its fashion, as well as the personalities behind the collections. In some cases, the jarring combinations were pleasant; in others, so much flavor was cause for heartburn.
One show held during the most recent Lakmé Indian Fashion Week and staged at the Taj Palace Convention Center in early August, included a company called Geisha Designs showing dip-dyed cotton slips and sequined tops embroidered with butterflies to a soundtrack of “I Will Survive,” performed in Portuguese. Countless variations of peasant tops with ruching that looked like Tom Ford’s first collection for Yves Saint Laurent and a sherwani — a traditional, collarless Indian jacket — turned up in another collection, styled with the off-shoulder neckline of Jean Paul Gaultier’s recent trench coats. In the audience, attractive young women arrived in a spectrum of elaborate saris and traditional salwar suits, carrying the latest handbags of Prada, Gucci and a Louis Vuitton purse with Stephen Sprouse’s graffiti print.
If attendees had any question that fashion has truly become a global business, their doubts should be laid to rest following the presentation of 53 collections over seven days in a venue here that looked just like the shows in New York, partly because they were produced by the same company, IMG, the international licensing and event marketing conglomerate that acquired the rights to 7th on Sixth last year. There are now fashion weeks in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Iceland, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and South Africa. As the American designer Yeohlee Teng once said, “One day, it will be just endless. We’ll be going [to shows] from Bombay to Kuala Lumpur.” (Last year, India Fashion Week was held in Bombay, now known as Mumbai.)
Most of these fashion weeks are geared toward promoting the local designer industry with the eventual goal of competing with the dominant world fashion capitals of New York, Paris and Milan. But many also receive government sponsorship because they, much like film festivals that have crept up around the world in recent years, help promote trade and taxes and boost the local economy with big business for hotels and airlines, even if the locals’ idea of fashion design does not necessarily warrant international exposure.
In only three years, Lakmé India Fashion Week — named after the title sponsor, India’s largest beauty company, a division of Unilever — has become the largest and most high-profile fashion trade event in the country, drawing thousands of guests, a zealous press corps from the local tabloids, Bollywood actresses, cricket stars and a cast of local socialites. “It is good to be seen at an event like this,” said Amol Chetter, a buyer and designer for a Mombai shopping mall called Crossroads, which carries all the big Indian brands and a few Western labels like Benetton and Ermenegildo Zegna.
“It is very glamorous, but there isn’t really any business to be done. If you look around,” he said, scanning the faces in an audience of 590, packed to capacity, “there are only about 30 authentic trade buyers here,” and people are still begging for tickets outside. The local police stopped at least two evening shows from starting on time, not because of crowd control, but because, the designers said, they were unsatisfied with the number of tickets they were offered by the event organizers.
A young generation of Indian designers is now looking to show the world a more indigenous point of view, but it unfortunately is one that is very much influenced by what their perception of a “designer fashion” business should be: a world made up of velvet ropes, big hair and makeup, a hostile relationship with the press, exclusive parties and lots of angling to be perceived as the hottest, most original designer in the bunch. Far from naïve, most of the designers come from large, privileged families, some with royal lineage from India’s various states, and they have traveled extensively and studied at fashion schools in New York, Los Angeles and London or the local universities that offer fashion training. Some worked for Seventh Avenue designers like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan before returning home to set up their own companies in Delhi, Mumbai, Goa or Calcutta and thus are very much influenced and inspired by Western business models.
There are more than 24,000 trained designers working in India in all industries. But while fashion is a rapidly growing field, it does not yet equate to the more professional level of engineers and technologists, of which there are seven million. The country’s entire apparel industry is estimated to generate sales of $13.8 billion, according to Vinod Kaul, executive director of the Fashion Design Council of India, the local equivalent to the Council of Fashion Designers of America. However, Darlie Koshy, director of India’s National Institute of Design, said during a seminar that clothing and footwear account for only 4.9 percent of the nation’s consumer spending, and of this, the cottage “fashion design” industry — and there’s a big difference between this and the garment trade — has a turnover of about $37 million. Very few of the samples from the runways are ever produced, and most of the collections are sold right after each show in an adjacent exhibition hall or at the designers’ stores, where models, journalists and socialites can purchase the looks for the U.S. equivalent of $15 to $200, with more elaborate saris running no more than $800 (of course, this is a country where a three-bedroom apartment with servants’ quarters rents for $440 a month).
The potential market for such designer clothes varies depending on whom is asked, but several resources agreed that it is growing — to as many as 250 million people, nearly the entire population of the U.S. Others were much more conservative, as Koshy estimated that about 0.2 percent of India’s one billion-plus population, or just two million people, account for 14 percent of the national spending on clothing overall. Driving home this point, B.G. Nagash, managing director and chief executive officer of Shoppers Stop, a chain of small department stores, said his most valued customers spend no more than 40,000 rupees, or about $825, on clothes a year, while his average customer spends less than $100. In a country still ravaged by the Gujarat earthquake, one where 30 to 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, and where government corruption is common, with constant rumblings of connections to an underworld in film, financial and — quite possibly — fashion circles, some, as did perennial fashion fixture Umang Hutheesing, asked, “Does India really need a fashion week? The cost of this could supply water to 50 villages.”
But creativity often flourishes under the most strenous of circumstances, especially here where there is a constant spector of a nuclear threat looming between India and Pakistan. Even Hutheesing, whose wealthy family is heavily involved in the trading of Ahmedabad textile collections and once was the supplier of kundan jewelry to Tiffany in the U.S., remains very much a part of the New York-Delhi-London connected social set, making key introductions to movers and shakers on the fashion scene, as he did in August for Uday Singh, a young Gucci-clad marketing manager for WorldTel, a Bangalore-based company that represents the country’s top cricket players and is now looking to market fashion personalities. (Hutheesing, once a lavish party-goer who professes to now spend his entire career working for charities, was rumored to be staying at the luxury Taj Palace Hotel on Singh’s bill.) And as they increasingly reach out to the West, it often appeared Indian designers are picking up some of the Western designers’ less-savory characteristics — including their bitchiness. It often seemed that designers were more interested in aspiring to high class than high fashion, a cynical lot freely offering bitter criticism of one another’s collections, partly in a bid to win over the top clients of Indian society by poisoning them against their competitors.
Made up of the descendants of maybe 50 to 60 families, their client base is a very small segment of the population who drive the designer business almost entirely by purchasing wardrobes for the elaborate, week-long wedding ceremonies that are a central component of traditional social life in India, where arranged marriages are still common.
“They’re all Vera Wangs,” Hutheesing hissed.
There was plenty of titillating gossip to be found elsewhere, sometimes more so than talent. At a party during the first India Fashion Week in August 2000, a drug raid led to the arrest of virtually half the event’s audience, whose names — or at the least descriptions that left no doubt to their identity as the children of many prominent politicians — were then splashed across the English-style tabloids the next day. Within a month, the country’s strict drug penalties had been reduced to a fine or brief incarceration. While narcotics have now become less prevalent at fashion parties, one guest reported that he returned to his hotel room at 10 a.m. after a hard night of “negotiations at the Colombian Embassy.” Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, a handsome prince from Jodhpur who is the cousin of designer Raghavendra (Raghu) Rathore, caused a stir at a club called My Kind of Place late one night when he took his shirt off on the dance floor to reveal a full carpet of chest hair, photographs of which appeared in the local press under the headline, “The hair apparent.”
This year, the biggest talk of the shows was a new book, Indian-Express journalist Kanika Gahlaut’s “Among the Chatterati —?The Diary of a Page Three Hack,” a thinly disguised novel that describes the real-life foibles of the designers, many of whom are quickly becoming famous in India thanks to the tabloids’ intense society coverage. The book includes the portrayal of the shocking murder of model Jessica Lall in 1999 at an illegal nightclub formerly operated by socialite Malini Ramani (in the book, she is called Monica Mastani), who has since become one of the most sought-after designers in the country. Rojit Bal, who is one of Delhi’s most successful designers, was furious with Gahlaut’s description of a character called Rajat Rana, whose achievements are accredited to “sustained efforts at image building and frequent changes in sexual preferences.” He told India’s two-month-old afternoon daily Today his opinion of Gahlaut: “Every time you open your mouth, toilet paper is required. Such shit is only possible from your bad-breathed mouth.” His nickname, by the way, is Gudda, or “sweet man,” to those who know him well.
Nothing is quite what it seems in India, which is a stereotype, of course, but one that is spelled out even in the guidebooks put out by Fodor’s and Lonely Planet. Nor is it one that many participants at Lakmé India Fashion Week would dispute, considering underneath the patina of the runways, the cracks were plainly evident.
“The Indian mind doesn’t think in a straight line,” said Romi Chopra, a famous design consultant here who has contributed ideas to fashion designers and resorts, like the luxury-tented safari camp Sher Bagh in Ranthambhore Sanctuary. “The Indian mind is circular because there are so many layers to our personality. Dress is no more than a layer related to the part you play. You can look at a woman here who plays the part of an IT expert, a traditional daughter-in-law and a disco kid all in the same day. You see that dichotomy in the Indian markets, where the hip-cat kids ride by on a duster with a mobile in their ears, passing a woman selling vegetables on the side of the road. It’s the next generation of Indians that will break the shackles of tradition and bring us into the contemporary world.”
That already is beginning to show in several impressive collections here. A handful of young designers from Calcutta, the rock-infused styles of Bal, Ramani and Ranna Gill, and Raghavendra Rathore’s sharply tailored eveningwear could be equally well received in New York, although the biggest complaint in reviews published here was that they often tried to be all things to all customers, offering bare bikinis paired with punk T-shirts, then conservative saris in the same show. The result was as if Kimora Lee Simmons and Donna Karan had collaborated on a line and couldn’t make up their minds.
That confusion does not seem likely to change overnight.
“There is no Oprah Winfrey, no Martha Stewart here who will tell us how to act in one way,” Chopra said. “India is a basket of fragrances. It can never be just vanilla. It’s Baskin’ Robbins, and it will always be like that. Don’t look for a trend here, look for genius.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at India’s fashion world.