From Boho to Beading: India Draws Designers With Exotic Inspirations

Designers are taking inspiration from India, reflected in beaded and metallic trim, embroidery, spicy colors and tie-dye prints.

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British fashion designer Matthew Williamson has traveled to India 36 times in the last 10 years and is eager to return.

His fascination with the country is shared by Oscar de la Renta, Monique Lhuillier, Etro, Roberto Cavalli, Gucci and Tracy Reese, among others, who have embraced colorful and embellished Indian style. This is expressed in the gypsy and bohemian looks; beaded, mirrored and metallic trims; embroidery; spicy colors, and tie-dye and ikat prints found in numerous collections.

Indian-inspired fashions are proving to be salable at retail and a reason to buy for many women bored with basics. Retailers from Target to Henri Bendel have opened in-store shops devoted to India and its kaleidoscope of offerings.

“India is a creative assault on the senses: The colors, the people, the land, the culture and the unique crafts and arts, from beading to Bollywood, are all incredibly alluring to me,” said Williamson, who produces part of his collections at Indian factories. “I fell in love with India when I was 18. The incredible range of great things found in India lend themselves to much positive interpretation and are having a big influence on the worlds of fashion and the arts right now. And, in many ways, I think it’s only the beginning.”

Williamson’s sophisticated collections are often exotically embellished and opulently colored as homages to India, renowned for its textiles and handicrafts, burgeoning fashion and home furnishings, as well as the megawatt film industry Bollywood.

In January, Target Corp. rolled out a new merchandising concept to all its stores for six weeks called Global Bazaar, with decorative accessories and furniture from India and Asia, Latin America, Africa and Europe. The Indian presentation featured items evoking India’s British Colonial past and more exotically inspired crafts and handiwork made by local artisans.

Jewelry designer John Hardy is based in Bali, but finds inspiration from India. He shot his upcoming fall advertising campaign in the desert region of Rajastan, an area known for its historic palaces, forts and colorful mirrored clothing.

“Interest in the exotic, colorful designs of India has traveled from Mumbai to Main Street, U.S.A.,’’ said Cindy Morris, chief operating officer at the Dallas Market Center, parent of FashionCenterDallas and the new India Pavilion, a wholesale boutique mart. “The popularity of Indian and Indian-influenced style is pervasive, from fashion to home and garden. We see retailers from small towns and large metropolitan areas equally interested in these unique products.”

This story first appeared in the March 23, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Among designers, Lhuillier said her fall 2005 collection of sparkling evening dresses was inspired by the private gemstone collection of an Indian maharani.

“I was influenced by the exotic beauty and rich colors of Indian jewels, and the opulent way of dress and extravagant lifestyle of Indian royalty,” she said. “We have the majority of our beadwork and embroideries done in India. The craftsmanship is beautiful. Their components are very interesting. The only downside is the eight- to 12-week turnaround time.”

Designers who produce in India stress that it’s mandatory to have a quality control and quality assurance team onsite to monitor each step of production, but that overt mistakes aren’t common. They said slight or quirky variances in individually handcrafted items with beading and embroidery are valued for their uniqueness rather than being machine-made and following a static prototype.

India’s cultural cavalcade of creative inspirations isn’t limited to fashion. Take a walk through any major shopping mall, surf the Internet, glance through a fashion magazine or make a trip to an art movie house, and it’s clear that India is reaching out to the world with assets that are waiting to be tapped.

The world’s second most populous nation, with 1.1 billion, India is successfully courting multinational businesses with cheap production and shipping costs, a plethora of indigenous crafts and people known for a strong work ethic and being customer friendly.

Still, even as more Indians enter the middle class, challenges and questions linger over profiting and prospering in post-quota India, which has an archaic public service infrastructure, widespread poverty and rising HIV rates.

The end of international apparel and textile quotas has created a new realm of fashion business possibilities for India, which is expected to increase its share of the $248 billion global fashion market to 6.5 percent by 2008 from 4 percent this year, according to the Fashion Design Council of India, which will stage its fall fashion shows April 20-26 in New Delhi during Lakme Fashion Week.

The event will include 40 shows, 70 exhibition stalls and an interactive panel discussion. Designers will show collections in categories such as Indian, Indo-Western and Western. Fashion week draws international buyers and is getting more media attention. This year’s visitors are anticipated to include Naomi Campbell and Donatella Versace, who is to award the winner of a design reality show an internship with Versace in Milan, according to the FDCI.

“India is on a roll, and there’s no turning back,’’ said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates, who recently returned from a trip there. “India is second only to China in terms of its strength as a production and export giant, but India has unique strengths that China doesn’t have: the handiwork of its artisans and craftsmen and all the beautiful textiles.

“India is an important and growing source of exports to the U.S. and the world, but it also is poised to do more importing of American and global goods as the Indian population gains wealth and becomes more and more concerned with status brands, which we’re already seeing happen,’’ he said. “They’re going to want to spend money. Within the next five years, India is scheduled to construct at least 200 new shopping centers in anticipation of its consumers’ demands for global merchandise.”

Manufacturers who produce in India said they can’t get the same level of handiwork in China, or anywhere else, but they concede that the turnaround time can be slow.

“The whole Indian-fashion craze is just exploding now, not just in America but throughout Europe and Asia,” said Sameer Ramani, vice president at New York-based Contrepoint Industries, which produces moderate and better sportswear collections, many of which have Indian inspiration. Ramani’s family owns fashion production facilities.

“What you see coming out of India is what China can’t do — India has the edge over China because of its wealth of artisans, craftsmen and beautiful textiles and prints that aren’t found anywhere else in the world,’’ Ramani said. “We’re seeing big increases in our annual volume thanks in great part to the Indian trend.

“The fashion microscope is on India and its influence on the style scene is definitely growing,’’ he said. “The styles and especially the embellishment, prints and colors are becoming staples and constantly revisited by designers. Look at the current rage for gypsy and bohemian chic and the silhouettes, such as long tunics and peasant dresses. It’s yet another reinvention of hippie chic that goes back at least 40 years.”

Adam Lippes, who owns the sportswear, T-shirt and innerwear business Adam+Eve, based in New York, described Indian style as “cool, easy and sexy. It fits right in with the concept of American sportswear being relaxed and highly wearable.”

Lippes has much of his collection embellished in India, and he will start sewing complete garments there in 2006.

“I learned a lot about the beauty of India handiwork and embellishment from Oscar de la Renta, where I was a creative director for a few years,’’ he said. “So when I launched my line a year ago, I knew I wanted to go there for the exquisite detailing. Now, thanks to the relaxed quota system, I think we will start actual production there very soon.”

Silk Threads, a Dallas-based dress and sportswear business that specializes in native Indian wedding dresses, sportswear and home furnishings, is starting a line for fall with Western styling and Indian embellishment, said Ruby Bhandari, owner and designer.

“We’re launching 30 styles of dresses, jackets, shirts and blouses with an exotic feel and lots of Indian detailing,’’ said Bhandari, who has been in business 14 years and also owns production factories in India.  “Wholesale prices are $34 to $150. The ethnic-inspired look is becoming almost a classic fashion niche that’s not going to go away, but get stronger. So we’re combining the best of Indian embellishment with highly wearable Western styles.”

Apparel sales in India are projected to hit $16 billion this year, according to the Fashion Design Council of India, with double-digit growth projected for the foreseeable future because of the surge of international interest in Indian style and manufacturing, along with growth in volume at established Indian design firms.

By comparison, U.S. women’s apparel sales were $95 billion last year, up 5 percent from $90 billion in 2003, according to The NPD Group, a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. Total U.S. apparel sales in 2004 were $173 billion compared with $166 billion in 2003.

“I produce my fashion line in India because it’s not affordable to do such handiwork in America,” said Charlie Brown, a multiline sales representative and also owner of the Karlie juniors’ and contemporary sportswear line, based in Dallas. “India offers novelty and unusual detailing at a great price. You have to really pick and choose carefully the factories that you do business with and keep a close eye on production to make sure you get what you ordered, but I guess that’s the rule anywhere.

“The turnaround time isn’t fast, either, so you have to do lots of advance planning,’’ he said. “Overall, the Indian population is extremely polite and great to do business with. And it’s just the place if you want embellished items, which everyone seems to be doing.”

India’s infatuation with fashion, style and the media can be linked partly to the youthfulness of its population — the median age is 24.4 years. Media-savvy Indians can’t seem to get enough of MTV, fashion magazines and films. Bollywood, India’s film industry, has long captivated moviegoers with its formulaic plots that typically involve a love triangle that ends in a happy marriage and/or a broken heart. Dazzling song-and-dance segments are often metaphors for passion.

For many Indians, Bollywood productions are a respite from personal troubles, a chance to dream of a better life and savor a hot potato samosa, spicy peanuts or mango ice cream — all for a few rupees. At least 25 percent of the Indian population lives at or below the poverty line and only about 60 percent of homes have electricity and running water.

Still, India produces almost 1,000 movies a year. Each costs about $1.5 million and the industry annually sells almost 4 billion tickets, with gross revenues of about $2 billion. Hollywood produces about 800 movies annually at a cost of about $47.7 million a film, selling 3 billion tickets that generate a $51 billion gross. But the Indian film industry is growing at a rate of 13 percent annually while Hollywood is gaining 6 percent. The average ticket price at an Indian movie theater is about 70 cents compared with about $10 in the U.S.

Significantly, Bollywood actresses are the style icons and have so much impact on Indian lifestyles that women often view movies before going shopping so that they can dress like their favorite star. Families routinely turn to Indian cinema, including a classic movie such as “Pakeezah” or a newer blockbuster such as “Devdas,” before making a wedding sari purchase so that the bride is certain to wear the latest trends. Indian wedding saris are almost always red and heavily encrusted with gold, jewels, exotic beads and mirrors.

Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra is credited with the rage for colorful Punjabi-style shalwars, which are long tunics worn over pants.

In fact, according to the Fashion Design Council of India, Bollywood has more impact on apparel buying habits that any other source. It is is expected to inspire at least $4.5 billion in retail fashion sales during the next two years. 

Indians idolize stars such as leading men Shahrukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Amitabh Bachchan, and heroines Kareena Kapoor, Bipasha Basu and Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World, who is considered the reigning queen of Indian cinema. Rai, who is trying to cross over to Hollywood with several English-language films in the works, stars in the current “Bride and Prejudice,” a Hindi-flavored, English-language version of the Jane Austen novel. She is also negotiating a production deal with Michael Douglas, the actor and producer, who announced in February that he’ll start producing movies in India in 2006, starting with “Racing the Monsoon,” the installment of an adventure trilogy preceded by “Romancing the Stone,” and “Jewel of the Nile.”

Other producers have brought Indian-based or -flavored films to American screens with some commercial success, including “Monsoon Wedding,” “Lagaan,” “Bend it Like Beckham,” “A Touch of Pink,” “Bollywood Queen” and “Vanity Fair.” The musical “Bombay Dreams” ran on Broadway from last April to Jan. 1 and received Tony Award nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Orchestrations. And rock ’n’ roll diva Tina Turner is said to have agreed to star in a new Merchant-Ivory film called “The Goddess” to be filmed in India during the next year in which she will sing in Hindu and Sanskrit.

“India is playing a huge role in entertainment, fashion and lifestyle,’’ said Contrepoint Industries’ Ramani. “It’s a revolutionary change.’’

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