NEW DELHI — To read most of the Indian press leading up to the country’s first back-to-back fashion weeks last month, the focus was definitely on the ensuing drama over emerging design.
The split in the country’s fashion community, which since 2000 had held one annual fashion week for a wide range of Indian designers, was lamented as “a fashion soap opera” and a “war on the ramp” in local headlines. India’s fashion followers — in a country where designers have celebrity status, quite a large group — have been closely watching to see which event would trip up.
But in the end, both fashion weeks were able to pull off successful showings that were big on the glitz and pomp that is beginning — for better or worse — to define modern Indian fashion. Each also spotlighted a small but strong number of emerging labels that showed real worldwide commercial viability and generated significant interest from international buyers.
“There is a lot of potential here,” said Albert Morris, a consultant for Browns in London, who attended the fashion week in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. “Most designers are not quite ready yet [for international markets], but there are many that I want to watch.”
However, the split to two fashion weeks could definitely unravel some of the recognition that Indian designers have started to earn. The drama began in September, when the Fashion Design Council of India said it had decided not to renew its contract with IMG, the company behind New York’s Olympus Fashion Week that helped found India’s fashion week in 2000 and had run it ever since.
The FDCI surprised many when it instead signed local events management company PDM to run the shows. (In January, the production company behind London Fashion Week, S2, was hired as a consultant for the event.) Subsequent talks between founding title sponsor Lakmé, India’s largest local beauty brand, and the FDCI broke down, which eventually led to the announcement in November that shook India’s fashion community: Lakmé and IMG were teaming up to launch a second fashion week for Indian designers in Mumbai from March 28 to April 1, a week before the FDCI’s New Delhi shows.
India’s designers were forced to take sides as each event worked hard to woo the country’s top talent, slashing participation fees and inviting a wide range of overseas buyers and media to help make one show more attractive than the other. The stakes for designers were high, as well, and most felt the pressure of choosing between IMG, with worldwide fashion presence that held more potential for international expansion, and the FDCI, particularly after the council made it clear that designers who signed up to show in Mumbai would not be invited to participate at Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week in New Delhi.
“It’s unfortunate that this rift has overshadowed the clothes,” said Narendra Kumar, a Mumbai designer who had hoped to show a women’s wear collection in Mumbai and a separate men’s line in New Delhi. After the FDCI did not include him in the New Delhi lineup, Kumar sued the council, but lost the case just days before the first fashion week began. That didn’t stop him from making a strong statement with his Mumbai show, which combined the two collections: Kumar titled his show “Protest,” and sent the models down the runway with white gags over their mouths, in complete silence.
Both events worked to generate buzz. In Mumbai, among the prominent guests at the shows and lavish after parties were Fern Mallis, IMG vice president and 7th on Sixth executive director; actress/model Elizabeth Hurley, and a slew of top starlets from Mumbai’s hometown film industry, Bollywood. New Delhi countered with a bigger event — 80 designers, compared with just over 30 in Mumbai, along with more than 180 domestic and international buyers — and a front row that included Chambre Syndicale president Didier Grumbach.
“If there’s a positive side to having two fashion weeks, it’s that each worked harder to bring in buyers and make the events more professional and organized,” said Varun Bahl, a young designer who showed promise in his New Delhi show, particularly for his modern cowl skirts and dresses.
Now that both weeks are finished, it’s clear the real casualties of the split have been India’s designers, who are finally starting to attract the kind of positive interest that could boost their reputations as well as revenues. The tangible competition between the fashion weeks ended up distracting media and confusing buyers, who were uncertain about which event to attend.
“From a buyers standpoint, it’s time-consuming and costly to try to attend two fashion weeks for a relatively small number of orders,” said Maggie Wachsberger, a buyer for the new Diane Merrick store in Los Angeles who spent a few days in each city placing orders for designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Rajesh Pratap Singh. “For me, I was able to make time to attend both events for a few days, but most cannot be so flexible.”
It seems the rift won’t be mended anytime soon. Both sides have announced plans for shows this fall — IMG will hold Lakmé Fashion Week from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4 in Mumbai, and FDCI will return to New Delhi Aug. 30 to Sept. 3. This will be the first year Indian fashion designers will show both seasons.
The hope is that both events can move forward without so much obvious friction. “If you look at other cities like New York and L.A., two separate fashion weeks are able to coexist and provide different platforms for designers,” said Ravi Krishnan, senior vice president for IMG.
Rathi Vinay Jha, director general of the FDCI, said, “Competition is not a bad thing. But this could have a negative effect [on the industry] if the two events cannot start to work in tandem.”