NEW DELHI — Indian fashion is all over the map.
While the Western perception of this country’s attire might be something along the lines of a sari state of affairs, here it’s the opposite case, with fashion designers often being derided as too influenced by ideas from Paris, Milan and New York.
There is no doubt designers here are plugged into the international runway circuit when Anjana Bhargav sends out a series of vests made up of scalloped patches (channeling Balenciaga’s take on Kaisik Wong) or Priyadarshini Rao features a group of ribbon-trimmed pastel peasant dresses reminiscent of Marc Jacobs. That doesn’t mean there weren’t original ideas, too, but the designer community here is hypercritical to the point that it takes itself a little too seriously.
Following a chorus of complaints from the models, the designers themselves and even a sponsor as the shows were just beginning (“They’re mediocre, absolutely mediocre,” sniffed Kingfisher beer czar Vijay Mallya), Harmeet Bajaj, chair of the department of fashion communication at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, came to their defense in an editorial in the Times of India, writing, “Even if some of our designers are browsing through Vogue, Collezioni and Officiel for design ideas and adapting these to suit their customers, there is creativity and an understanding of fashion involved. In the collections we have seen over the past few days, we have seen glimpses of YSL, Gucci, Prada, Vivienne Westwood and Issey Miyake —?but most of these have been modified for the customer near home.”
Even though some references were cut too close to the originals, it was the globally minded designers who eventually broke new barriers for the Indian team. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, a relatively unknown 26-year-old NIFT graduate from Calcutta, designs a two-year-old collection under the Sabyasachi label and stunned his competitors when, instead of showing a rainbow of saris, he presented an edited collection of layered sportswear — wrap skirts, cropped jackets and simple blazers over jodhpurs. Mukherjee had taken his grandmother’s garish, floral print saris from the Forties and distressed them with acid sprays and cigarettes, then reembroidered them with colored threads in a cross-hatch pattern to create a dull, vintage tone on the fabric that resembled a Chanel tweed, putting a total of 18 fabrics in the collection, including linen, silk georgette, brocade and wool.
“We’ve used a lot of old Indian textiles and converted them to look more international,” Mukherjee said. “I made this collection, keeping in mind an international buyer. I was inspired by these gypsies who travel to India—nomadic tribes and prostitutes. I asked myself, ‘How would a well-read French woman, an artist, want to dress to travel globally?’”
The answer was a somewhat bookish swami, wearing a multistriped raffia skirt that was perfect to unroll as a beach towel in Goa. It was sarong, it was right. Anamika Khanna, also from Calcutta, similarly modified traditional Indian silhouettes with a tailored fit, such as a bright treatment of trousers with a leaf motif at the hem and a red brocade coat cut as sharp as a military jacket.
Ranna Gill and Malini Ramani, two young women who were raised on the nightlife of Delhi and New York, separately presented party-inspired clothes that, while they turned off an older element of Indian society, resulted in the most active demand for their collections at an exhibition hall after their shows.
Gill studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked for a year in women’s design at Ralph Lauren before launching her label, Ranna, in New Dehli in 1996.
Gill’s folksy peasant camisoles were presented in a variety of animal prints, inspired by Marrakech, Mombasa and Madrid, she said. “It may be too much for you, all this color,” she said. “But for us, it looks like jewelry. For us, it’s everyday.”
Ramani, whose sister Gitanjali was recently named director of communications at DKNY in New York, used to run three nightclubs in Dehli until a murder took place at an underground spot she operated in Qutub Colonnade in 1999. Having studied fashion merchandising and buying at FIT, she decided to switch careers and open a design studio there, creating an imaginary character named “InDiva,” who is the inspiration for her rock ’n’ roll collections. “All my styles are something I would wear,” said the 32-year-old Ramani, wearing wraparound sunglasses and a zebra print cowboy hat over skintight jeans trimmed with leather fringe. “If I wouldn’t wear it, why would anybody else want to?”
Some of Ramani’s creations would take a lot of courage to pull off in Indian society, outside the protected veil of the catwalk. But her rhinestone GOA-buckle belt and sequined chiffon kurtas were just opaque enough for modest girls to pull off when meeting the in-laws, as long as they’re from a lower caste.