To analyse fashion is to analyse the income inequalities within a country. Whether we choose to participate in ‘fashion’ or not, by virtue of having to clothe ourselves, the choice is ‘always already’* there. When a consumer walks into the marketplace, the choice of fabric or style has already been made by his or her purchasing power and socialisation.
There is a tableau available: Couture, designer, diffusion lines, high street, handloom, mass retailers and manufacturers, and flea bins. This follows a neat hierarchy, making it impossible to form tribes as per tastes, as are formed in art or music.
Taste, sartorially, came to equal money. But all artists depend on patrons; fashion had existed by alienating for so long, it was poetic justice that dwindling numbers started to become its undoing. As Dhruv Abrol, former head of international buying at Myntra explains, “…a lot of the luxury brands are making their maximum revenue from sunglasses, perfumes and cosmetics”, apparel had for a long time become a peripheral product.
That was until market disruptors like Zara, TopShop, H&M upended the system. They had multiple lines with multiple price segments but the same identity. You could be wearing something of ₹1,000 or ₹15,000 and still belong to the same bracket. The burgeoning middle-class sat up and took notice and now drives the largest change to have ever come into the fashion industry: Fast Fashion; labelled so for its ability to have trends trickle down from runways to shop windows in a blitzkrieg and then be discarded as quickly.
Despite the controversies, it goes to show that fashion is what the ‘aam aadmi’ wears and not the flighty, whimsical editorials one sees in magazines.
After the Cold War, India had embraced ‘modernity’ with the black-pants, white-shirt socialist combination that stood for competence. After the ’90s, jeans became the great leveller in offices. Peep into any workplace today — while we still do the subdued normcore [unisexual, unpretentious, normal-looking clothing], rest assured every third person is wearing a Mango, Zara or Benetton.
In the race of Fast Fashion brands, India is way behind because our expertise has never been the ‘fit’. “Ours is a tradition of fabric, not tailoring…” explains Tarun Tahiliani, “…all this American athleticism came in and we wanted to show our midriff and cinch at the waist etc, so the fit became very important.” Because of our rich fabric tradition we are used to draping the cloth around the body in creative ways and not tailoring the body to fit a well-cut suit. This does not work well in the international market of standard sizing and functional clothing. One wonders why, though — no one I know can manage to shop just by size and without trying the clothes on, a drape would be far more of a custom-made and body-positive statement.
Also, fast fashion makes use of effective mechanisation; whereas the Indian strong suit is its hand-skill. The only country that can make small-sized orders at efficient prices, we’ve still not been able to utilise this segment because Indian weavers have not been made part of the mainstream organised labour sector and, therefore, most often do not get the compensation that is due.
David Abraham, of Abraham & Thakore, who is steadfastly against fast fashion, says, “…we have built our business only because of the handloom industry, because we can do 30m warps, 60m warps. (It is practical for the handloom weaver to manufacture these small quantities.) So we can do small production runs that push our price points up... and the Indian designer can only afford to function at that high-end level, which I think they are calling ‘affordable luxury’, and that is the niche where the Indian designer’s RTW [ready to wear] has to be. Not at the high street level.”
At the same time, some argue that the heritage tag is what makes handloom expensive. Handmade fabric is dear abroad because hand-skill is a rarity there; we’ve adopted that model without looking at the nature of the indigenous market. A large chunk of the domestic market is opening up and is interested in buying linens and cottons that are homespun. Therefore, prices should become competitive, as has happened with new-age brands like Nicobar, Kharakapas and Tjori, which manage to merge the Indian sensibility with the functional aesthetic of the workplace. The North-East has managed to implement a model under which the maker of a weave can afford to wear it, so it is possible.
Marked at the same price points as high street, they are wooing the customer with pop-up events and online sales. By being digital in nature, they are not dependent on seasonal shows or buying, which, again, was a system that was imported without context and is now becoming obsolete. We went from having clothes passed on to us as heirlooms to discarding them every two weeks without this intervention of seasonal buying, which was a big driver for the prêt-a-porter market internationally. It could not translate into the value-for-money Indian mentality, which does not discard clothes every season.
The digital nature of the marketplace also provides greater engagement with clientele, something that has been undervalued in fashion till now. Most luxury brands started with an imagery that was steeped in aspiration and exclusivity. Indian fashion magazines (with the exception of Verve) are not ‘Indian’, they are syndicated — and they peddle images of the sartorial fantasy that suits advertisers. Magazine covers and editorials paid for by the likes of LV, Gucci and Prada are meant to showcase only their products — and this is common knowledge. It’s a relationship akin to that of a pharmaceutical representative with a doctor, pressuring, nay, paying to subscribe to their drugs, whether warranted or not.
Indian couture is not far behind when it comes to ‘unrealistic’ imagery. We have a special love affair with the royalty, especially the Mughals and their eccentricities. We keep resurrecting the same grand myth of the sone ki chidiya, the old Indian decadence, the Rajput, the nawab et al.
Sabyasachi was the only brand that placed its narrative not in class but in region. Not royalty, but Calcutta. It’s still nostalgia of a romantic past but the designer is communicating more culture than clout. He’s not saying you have to be rich to identify with this aesthetic (even though you have to be to own it), and so the booming middle-class moved in to rescue the dowager duchess with emptying coffers that Indian couture had become. Which is why, there are multiple designers doing well, but Sabyasachi is the only brand that became a household name, even among those not considered ‘fashionable’
The first wave of Indian fashion came in the late ’80s, with that legendary NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) batch which gave us some of the biggest design houses in the country. As they transition from avant-garde to old guard, there is a new breed of designers defining a new sense of Indian fashion. The new crop deal with different problems, of being the children of a diaspora that marries global identities with local influences, and so you’ll find the new Indian fashion aesthetic much quieter, and less defined by ‘Indians love colour’ than before.
There’s Anavila Misra, who’s made the sari new again. From hipsters to moms, soft linen saris spell urban cool and could slowly replace our shirt-pant Pavlov-ian reflex.
She took the traditional Indian silhouette and made it contemporary without exoticising it. Not reserved for special occasions or ‘traditional’ avatars, she’s brought the sari from its costume-y caricature and made it normal. Dhruv Kapoor, with DRVV, makes me eat my words about Indian style being more drape than fit. His cuts are extraordinary, to say the least. With light fabrics and a neutral colour palette, his designs would be at home anywhere in the world. Rahul Misra, Gaurav Jai Gupta, Suket Dhir — all masters of their craft — are able to revive old crafts and techniques in contemporary silhouettes and make it work. Not only is this a revival of the fabric but also a movement past the colonial hangover that was holding us back in corsets.
One sees and hopes for growth at both extremes — signature brands catering to their own cultivated niches that grow across borders and find resonance in hyper-local as well as far-flung settings, as ideas of style become more homogeneous, thanks to Instagram.
Corporate funding has not had a major say in the Indian design industry yet, as major designers continue to be owners and creators. With the welcome change of Wendell Rodricks passing on the bastion of his label to Schulen Fernandes, maybe we are looking at an evolution of the western system where CEO and designer work in tandem.
Companies like The LVMH Group, KERING, Richemont Group among others, have shown one model of functioning. Knowing the fragmented history of India, a singular top-down group that has a stake in the luxury and heritage market of India is highly unlikely, but the position is certainly vacant.