By  on April 7, 2010

NEW DELHI — Traditional Indian fabrics, from dull jute to glistening raw silk, were transformed into edgy, Western designs at fashion shows in Delhi and Mumbai.

More than 190 designers unveiled collections at India’s two biggest fashion events. Lakme India Fashion Week, named after the cosmetics company that is its biggest sponsor, was held at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Mumbai early last month, while India Fashion Week, which is bigger, took place at an exhibition center in the capital, Delhi, between March 24 and 29.

But designer fashion in India, which has burgeoned since the economy was liberalized in the early Nineties, is still small in global terms. It constitutes 0.4 percent of the global industry’s net worth, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. It is expected to rise from less than 2.9 billion rupees, or $64 million, in 2008 to 7.5 billion rupees, or about $166 million, by 2012.

In Mumbai, in a radical departure from tradition, the shows were dedicated to the summer instead of the usual fall season. That meant the jumble of styles — from opulent Indian to more minimalistic Western wear — usual at fashion weeks in India had some coherence, since they all fell into the category of resortwear.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What is India really good at?’” said Sujal Shah, the India head of IMG Fashion, which organizes the Mumbai shows. “And India has tremendous resort style. Design here is about the colors, the layers, the fabrics of a warm weather climate and the style: open and flowing.”

He said IMG decided to change the seasonal system for Mumbai’s fashion week to reflect domestic consumer demand. The next fashion week, which will be held this fall, will focus on India’s winter party season instead of spring-summer 2011. “Indians want to be able to buy what they have just seen on the catwalk,” he said. “The just-in-time cycle works very well here.”

He added that because the event, normally held in April, had been brought forward by a month, designers would have time to fulfill orders from overseas buyers. International buyers, for their part, said they tended to focus on summer styles when buying from India at any time of the year.

In Delhi, the shows were dedicated to the fall season. Revealing a very different business plan for cracking the world market, Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India that organizes the Delhi shows, said the event would remain in line with the global fashion calendar because “India is going global.”

Traditional handmade Indian fabrics including raw silk and jute got a good showing at what many considered the highlight of the Delhi catwalks: Tarun Tahiliani’s “return to the craft” show. He sent models onto the runway dressed in gowns with sari-style draping, gillets worn over tight-fitting T-shirts and embroidered pants. His color palette was composed of muted tones of indigo, burgundy and brown.

Generally, Western styles dominated the shows in Delhi. Another big name in India, Ritu Beri, reflected the country’s growing patriotism with a tribute to the Indian army. Alongside military-style coats and a lot of badges and metal buttons, she made room for short, embroidered dresses and one-shoulder, body-fitting dresses. Hemlines were often short across the shows, from Poonam Bhagat’s abstract-print minidresses in hot pink and burnt orange to Nandita Mahtani’s glamorous collection of short dresses, skirts and HotPants.

In Mumbai, the 64 designers who showed included major names like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, one of the first Indian designers to show in Milan. A relaxed gypsy aesthetic dominated his collection of skirts, long line T-shirts, dresses and baggy pants. Though the silhouettes were elegant and easy to wear, the colors — from indigo to burnt orange — were strong and the embellishments quintessentially Indian: lavish and sparkling.

Another popular line was Malini Ramani’s five-part collection, which was based around an imagined global journey. Mexico inspired dresses and caftans in floral shades from sunflower to fuchsia, while the Northern India segment featured floaty dresses and wraps embellished with Rajasthani embroidery. From Africa came funky wildlife prints of black, white and brown worn with chunky wooden necklaces.

A more mixed blend of East and West was achieved by Manish Malhotra, whose Saint-Tropez-inspired collection included saris, transparent kurtas (Indian-style long shirts) worn with stockings and loose-fitting pants. A favorite of Bollywood stars, who tend to dominate the runways at the Mumbai shows, Malhotra used only models for his show, saying: “My clothes are the stars.”

Indeed, the usual use of Bollywood stars as models and their habit of diverting attention away from the clothes can perplex foreign buyers. Shah of IMG Fashion said while it was designers’ choice who they used as models, “this season, there was a significant drop off in Bollywood folk walking the ramps.”

Business was on the uptick, Shah added. At Mumbai’s last fashion week in October, foreign buyers mostly stayed away, but at least 40 attended the summer show. In Delhi, there were 150 buyers, at least 50 from overseas. Sethi of the FDCI said this was fewer than last year “because our dates clashed with Japan Fashion Week.”

For Craig King, general manager of General Pants Co. in Australia, the Mumbai shows were the first he had attended in India. “If some of these designers were to really focus on the international market and pare their stuff down a bit, it would work really well,” he said. “Sabyasachi is incredible — the fabric, the way he puts it all together…and I’ve seen some very interesting Indian accessories, too.”

Alongside established designers in Mumbai were a handful of people showing for the first time. While Delhi’s two annual fashion weeks focus on the country’s biggest names, Mumbai seeks to emphasise new and emerging talent. Eight new designers unveiled their collections at the GenNext show, now a regular slot at the Mumbai shows.

Among them, Sabah Khan stood out, with her collection of sundresses, blouses and skirts printed with images of children from Dharavi, the vast Mumbai slum in which the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” was set. Asymmetric hemlines were inspired by the uneven rooftops of the slums, while wearable patchworks were a nod to the slum’s famed recycling industry.

Khalid Mekkana, owner of Ginger & Lace, a boutique in Dubai, said Mumbai’s resort theme was particularly popular with buyers in the Middle East, where cool, body-covering designs are sought after.

“I came with no budget, just to have a look, check out the Indian brands, see how they are moving towards more Westernized fashions,” he said, “and I’ve placed lots of orders.”

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