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India Debates Its Fashion Moment

NEW DELHI, India — "Why is it that American women don’t want to wear saris?" asked Asmita Aggarwai, a journalist from The Hindustan Times, approaching a reporter from the West and echoing a presupposition shared by many designers in India...

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NEW DELHI, India — “Why is it that American women don’t want to wear saris?” asked Asmita Aggarwai, a journalist from The Hindustan Times, approaching a reporter from the West and echoing a presupposition shared by many designers in India who desperately want to be viewed on the same scale as Chanel, Armani and Gucci. “Is it because no one has shown you how to wear them?”

Actually, the converse might be more accurate.

If there was ever a moment for Indian designers to band together to demonstrate their talents to the world, this would be it. Global fashion, from the big runway shows to the streets of Manhattan, currently is filled with Indian influences. Bergdorf Goodman sells elaborately embroidered peasant blouses for $200 and H&M recently had a men’s kurta in its 34th Street windows in New York. In music, literature and film, too, Indian references are becoming increasingly prevalent and popular, like director Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding,” Madonna’s “Om Shanti” or the Bollywood chants that are sampled in Truth Hurts’ new single, “So Addictive,” and referenced in the dance sequences of Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge.” Cheri Blair made international headlines when she wore a sari during a tour of India in January with her husband, British prime minister Tony Blair, while retailers continually point out that customers are looking increasingly for individual looks rather than head-to-toe designer ensembles, leading them to scour international markets to find new and unusual collections.

For decades, Western designers have mined Indian culture, colors and silhouettes for ideas — as evidenced by Yves Saint Laurent, Diane Von Furstenberg and Donna Karan, all of whom have explored the country’s vast heritage of textiles and its exotic landscape in various collections. American and European apparel companies produce and source huge amounts of clothing and textiles there, or develop private label relationships with Indian manufacturers. “India is the most inspiring thing in the world,” said Von Furstenberg, who journeyed through India’s northern region of Rajasthan in December 2000. “India is always a source of inspiration for colors, textiles, jewelry, architecture and smells. India is a huge force.”

Yet most Westerners are surprised to learn that India has its own fashion week, even though it is covered in the nation’s capital with the same gravitas as a terrorist attack on Amarnath pilgrims near Pahalgam or a major development in the murder of a local journalist in which a top police official is accused, both of which happened during the shows in August. Three satellite channels broadcast non-stop fashion shows throughout the day, while the Indian-Express, The Hindustan Times and the Times of India — the largest English language newspaper in the world with a circulation of 2.14 million — dedicated daily sections to fashion week coverage, which some members of those news organizations theorized was not strictly reflecting their readers’ interest, but rather the desire of their publishers and their wives who sit in the front rows.

Serious, raging arguments on feminism and religion were ignited across the country by what was shown on the Delhi runways, from the size of models’ thighs and breasts to a trend of animal prints (and the Muslim models who wore them) to the question of whether designers should be showing traditional saris or something they imagine would be more impressive to an international audience, or whether the privileged class of a poverty-stricken country should be so extravagantly toasting itself.

Virtually everything in India, a country full of superlatives, is up for debate. It is, after all, the largest democracy in the world.

“The common man in India is poor,” said Rojit Bal, one of the more well-known designers to Western audiences for his trunk shows at major specialty stores in the U.S. “But when you look at the upper-middle class, the numbers are mind-boggling. A government survey showed that if you designed a branded petticoat, it would be a 17 billion rupee ($350 million) business. Everyone who wears a sari wears a petticoat underneath. But fashion in India is still a fantasy. It will always take the back seat because we’ve got far too many other problems.”

Few American or European stores and virtually no Western media have yet tapped into the Indian designer market, with the exception of the U.K. department store Selfridges, which has sent a team of three buyers led by Harvey Sutton, creative design manager, to the last two events. The store staged an elaborate Bollywood promotion last year with a group of India’s top designers that drew a huge turnout from London’s large Indian expat community and is expected to be expanded this year. “Indian designs are storming the market,” Sutton said. “A few years back, nobody in London wore a pashmina. Today you get pashminas which are dyed, fringed, sequined, pleated.” While Saks Fifth Avenue, which has turned up its focus on new designers in the past year, had initially planned to send buyers last month, the executives canceled their trip following increased political tension between India and Pakistan this May and June, when a travel warning was issued by the U.S. State Department. The warning was lifted in July after the conflict had temporarily subsided.

Brazil has had more success with its fashion week, producing Rosa Cha, Alexandre Herchcovitch, Tufi Duek and Carlos Miele — not to mention Gisele Bündchen — among its most prominent exports, and Australian natives Allannah Hill and bridal designer Michelle Roth have established businesses in the U.S., as well. But from India, American editors are most familiar with the elaborate ballgown skirts of Anand Jon and the more recent success of Ritu Beri, who moved from New Delhi to Paris in 1999 and took over the ready-to-wear design of Scherrer this year.

However, India is more commonly associated in the West with its elaborate textile heritage and embroidering techniques, not to mention the more troubling questions of exploitative child labor, the controversial slaughter of animals to produce cheap leather and the production of extravagant shahtoosh shawls from the endangered chiru, a wild Tibetan antelope. The concept of creating India’s own designer brands has only recently caught on, fed by the growing communications channels, widespread access to the Internet and the fast loosening mores of a complex society of castes, languages and religions, where color television was only introduced in 1982, but now the latest TV craze is a reality show based on arranged marriages, “There is Someone Somewhere.” Things are changing quickly here.

“You have to recognize that 30 years ago, Japan was not as it is today, with customers queuing up in front of Hermès, Louis Vuitton or Chanel,” said Anchal Jain, a trend forecasting specialist from the Paris-based Promostyl, who is targeting Indian designers as customers for the company’s trend reports. “Japanese society was really a traditional society as well, but it changed much more quietly. The starting point was similar, but the pace is different in comparison to India.”

The Bollywood film industry has greatly contributed to the more progressive attitudes among the country’s youth, as well as their self-image, the new popularity of health clubs, nightclubs and body-conscious clothes. Hundreds of buff and tone Indians are migrating to metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta, attracted by modeling careers or jobs as makeup artists, hairstylists and photographers, a trend that has been accelerated since several top Bollywood actors were discovered through India’s fashion industry. Old taboos in India are continuing to break down, as the film industry is now tackling more controversial subjects, including a crop of new movies with subject matter that includes “alternative sexuality,” (something quite evident in the fashion industry as well, where the alternatives, even though criminal here, are freely on display).

Bollywood films — characterized by sad “Romeo and Juliet” plotlines punctuated with choreographed video music routines — also were the primary inspiration of many of the collections shown here, influencing both the look of the models (fair skinned, lots of makeup, chunky hairstyles and ample bosoms) and the collections (lots of bare midriffs on the women, unbuttoned shirts on the chesty men). “Devdas” currently the top film at the Delhi box office, tells the story of childhood lovers who are permanently separated after a moment of weakness on the part of Devdas, the male lead, who then turns to alcoholism and courtesans. Their lives are shattered, but their clothes look great. Raghavendra Rathore, a Jodhpur-based designer known as Raghu, who studied at Parsons School of Design and worked for Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, was inspired by it to bring saris back into his evening collection this year to preempt what he expects will be a global trend, led by the international distribution of Indian films.

Others were inspired by the more high-brow “Bend It Like Beckham,” a British film directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bhaji on the Beach”) that is coming to the U.S. next year. The movie is about a soccer-obsessed girl who talks to a poster of David Beckham as her parents pray to a framed guru. It inspired a number of designers like Puja Nayyar to mix athletic sweats and track pants into their collections.

“India is really hot at the moment,” said Shantanu Mehra, who is the business partner behind his brother Nikhil Mehra’s collection Shantanu & Nikhil. “If you look abroad, you’ll see bindis, tattoos and women with henna on their hands. We are more into fusion work now with an Indo-Western look that can appeal to both cultures.”

Throughout the collections, there was a clear division between designers who remained focused on the country’s traditional crafts, like the chikan and zardozi embroidering in Meera & Muzaffar Ali’s show, and those who are pushing Indian fashion into a bold new direction. Muzaffar Ali, a well-known filmmaker, painter and designer, incorporated poetry and music into his collection to create details in the clothes that are metaphors for the various Indian religions and healing techniques that promote a state of inner grace. A contrast is Manish Arora, who paired tight T-shirts with prints of various deities over loose skirts with a collage of images and words, such as one that said, “Jack and Jill had sex.”

“With more designers coming in, the competition is building up,” said Shalini Jaikaria, who designs a year-old label with Paras Bairoliya called Geisha Designs. “We follow the international forecast trends and take inspiration from around the world.”

Promostyl’s Jain added that without clear trends in the Indian market, the vast majority of customers are likely to remain confused by the concept of fashion design and will remain in traditional dress.

“Any consumers’ desires will stay static as long as one’s environment remains the same,” he said. “Because our environment is evolving, our taste is evolving. If a film like ‘Monsoon Wedding’ can be embraced by foreign consumers, then the converse is true as well.

“Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a series examining India’s fashion and retail scene.

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