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Is it a coincidence that the advertising campaigns of a majority of Indian couture and jewellery brands speak a similar language in the way they portray women? Whether it’s Sabyasachi couture, Tarun Tahiliani, Manish Malhotra, Anita Dongre, L’Affaire, Ekaya, Frontier Raas, Sunita Shekhawat, Khanna Jewellers or Hazoorilal Jewellers—the communication of these brands may be visualized and styled by diverse creative teams but it shows women in near identical ways.
The language is one of unruffled grace and conventional beauty, not the disruptive ideas of body and beauty that currently define women’s lives and choices. These advertisements are noticeably different from the playful and whimsical images in the campaigns of ready-to-wear brands like Globus, Reliance Brands, Nicobar, Ritu Kumar Label and W, to name a few.
A visual reading of couture campaigns in the days of Instagram and selfies turns into a revelatory exercise. Here’s what you get: Women who wear pearls and sapphires, embroidered lehngas and designer couture, sequinned purses and handwoven textiles, embody conformist feminine values. The shorter length of a choli in an Anita Dongre couture ad or the diaphanous capes of Tarun Tahiliani paired with bold black lehngas may add a touch of modernity but the essential portrayal is of content women in languid poses, smiling, without a wrinkle of rebellion, urgency or flurry in their kingdom. A kingdom with rose petals, fine art, Banarasi saris, vermillion, turmeric tilaks, gota patti lehngas, saffron-laced milk in black handis, maang tikkas, marigolds and palaces with marble floors, ivory carving and crystal vases. No sign, not even remotely, of the kind of concerns and causes you witness for, and by, women on social media and in society.
Clearly, the target customers of Indian couture and jewellery, the rich and the well-heeled, want to buy into a mythical idea of the Indian woman, perhaps to allay current social anxieties. There is no scope then for even a glass of martini in the hands of the model wearing jadau jewellery or for a bride in a precious lehnga to kick off her stilettos.
In fact, the title of jewellery house Birdhichand Ghanshyamdas’ current campaign, Adaa Of Jodhabai, evokes a Mughal queen, with the model’s eyes averted from the camera. The television campaign of beauty brand Forest Esssentials shows a warrior princess setting off for battle, but only after she is blessed by a pandit in white robes.
These are vastly different constructs from the dynamic body language of models of Western brands, where the storytelling revolves around newer plots. The body in motion—the photographic style reminiscent of the work of two influential fashion photographers, Martin Munkácsi and Irving Penn from the last century—still dominates Western fashion. But there is experimentation, and a clear touch of contemporary insouciance, in lighting and location, as well as in the poses and facial expressions of models. Even in couture and jewellery, it is hard to miss the overall agency of the person over style. Some campaigns of brands like Balenciaga, Valentino, Calvin Klein, and Dolce & Gabbana, shot by American photographer Steven Meisel, even became controversial for their suggestive shoots.
This enormous difference between couture photography in the West and East is befuddling, particularly in a scenario where fashion images are shared 24x7 on social media, blurring cultural distinctions. And, because the designers, photographers and brand directors who create the campaigns of India’s most sought after brands make a strong case for liberated women.
“We have always tried to capture the modern Indian woman who takes pride in her cultural heritage and is rooted in her traditional aesthetic. Being a part of the fashion fraternity for almost 27 years, I have the utmost respect for women who push their boundaries,” says Manish Malhotra, about his recent Regal Threads couture campaign inspired by the Make in India theme. Shot by photographer Abhay Singh, it shows models in resplendent Banarasis. This resonates in Dongre’s definition of her woman. “She is feminine, elegant and, at the same time, strong and independent and grounded,” she says about her campaign, shot by photographer Rid Burman.
Krishna Aroop, the founder and owner of Delhi’s sari and fabric store L’Affaire, praises the divine in the female form, emphasizing that his brand is “a celebration of women as the ultimate inspiration in beauty”. L’Affaire campaigns feature fine handloom saris and barefoot women wearing tikkas and rudraksh malas, photographed on the ghats of Varanasi.
The observations of Himanshu Dogra the founder of Ilum Designs, a branding and design identity firm which created some of L’Affaire’s campaigns, resonate with those of Aroop and well-known fashion photographer Tarun Khiwal, who shot the photographs.
“From the moment you step into L’Affaire, the way you are greeted, the use of Hindi language as the medium of communication, Aroop’s spiritual ideas, and his passion for handlooms, conveys the brand story,” says Dogra. “The alta (red dye) on the feet of the model, the choice of Varanasi ghats as the shoot location—it all builds from what L’Affaire stands for. We created the mood board accordingly,” he says.
Khiwal, who has been in the business for more than 25 years and worked briefly with storied photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta, describes Aroop as his guru-bhai, saying they share a spiritual connect. “When I was shooting the store’s campaign with the model meditating on the ghats of Varanasi, as if in search of her identity, it was like my own journey was evolving through that story.” Khiwal says his childhood vacations, spent on the ghats of Mathura, his early exposure to Indian ritual practices of birth, death and other life events, helped create the L’Affaire story.
A brand’s mood board, explains Dogra, evolves from sketches and a bunch of ideas that lead to repeated meetings with clients in which firms like his help crystallize the outstanding features of a brand’s identity. “A client’s own definition of the brand is fundamental. But when we met Sunita Shekhawat for her jewellery campaign, we found that her meenakari (enamelling) was the outstanding feature of her work. We advised her to focus on that for her new campaign, The Lost Princess.”
Designers like Tahiliani and Sabyasachi take deep personal interest in their campaigns, from the mood board to the final selection of campaign images. Couturier JJ Valaya is an accomplished photographer himself and Dongre says she is involved in her advertisements, from the choice of the model to the location, even hair and make-up. None of them uses voyeurism, transgression or even social innuendos for their couture photography. And none of them has experimented with any disruptive idea for a brand campaign.
“Couture in India really means bridal couture. It is like selling a dream that every girl has—that one day she will get married to a man of her choice in beautiful clothes and the wedding will be in a palace!” says Dongre, adding that she hasn’t done something different because she hasn’t given it enough thought.
There are, as always, some exceptions. A new print advertisement by designers Falguni Shane Peacock has a sexier interpretation of the couture wearer, a woman half slouching on a sofa with a plate of fruits at her side, riding her desires instead of hiding them. The Shantanu & Nikhil Spring/Summer 2017 ad has a model caught up in the swirl of a personal moment. Unconventional campaigns from other commercially successful couture brands like these may just help turn the tide of the princess, pearls and palaces formula as the only bet for commercial success.