The French chiffon has given way at multiple points on the pallav (sari drape), the collapsed weave creating sporadic cavities at the outer edges of a hand-worked pattern. At the bottom, the band of the fall, meant to protect the sari from grime, has come unhinged from the main body in several places. But the embroidery—a delicate, trellised design of shaded flowers and curlicues, embedded with Swarovski crystals—has held on for 40 years. Madame Bertha ‘Pape’ Chorosch, a Swiss émigré to Mumbai, designed the piece for a member of one of the royal houses of North India. Today, the sari awaits refurbishment in the very place it first came to life—inside her former apartment in the curvaceous precincts of South Mumbai’s Napeansea Road.
Chorosch’s was India’s first indigenous design label; between her arrival in the 1930s and death in the late 1970s, Chorosch saris—always French chiffon—were a must-have for every Indian woman who could afford them, mostly royalty and ladies of major business families. But, like most matters of good taste, the Chorosch line fell into a slump during the hedonistic 1970s and 1980s. “Things were quite difficult back then; sometimes, we just made saris to keep the workers occupied,” says one of the promoters of the House of Chorosch. (The family that owns the business does not want to be named.)
For most of us who grew up during the Doordarshan and Garden Varelli era, names such as Gucci, Prada, IWC and Louis Vuitton used to be just words floating about on a horizon far, far away. But here we are, in the era of liberal economics and hosting the biggest names in international luxury as they jostle for space in the Indian urban retail landscape.
And with that increased awareness of contemporary fashion and design has come a renewed respect for the old. The House of Chorosch, for instance, has seen a sudden surge of interest in its designs, which still follow the same patterns set out by Madame Chorosch some 40 years ago. Last month, Devyani Rana, who is related to the Scindias of Gwalior, wore a Chorosch creation for her wedding to Aishwarya Singh, grandson of Union human resources minister Arjun Singh. And, in addition to fixing their old creations, Chorosch now has a burgeoning international export market and a list of new clients.
Across the world, vintage clothing and accessories have become an important style statement, as consumers look for individuality in a homogenizing marketplace. In India, we’ve always preferred shiny new. Just look at our cities—even in the country’s most expensive addresses, it’s difficult to flee the pungent smell of neglect. But, when it comes to matters of personal style, consumers are now willing to look back and revamp the old. “The new Indian consumer knows quality and nothing can better the workmanship of high-end vintage goods,” says Tikka Shatrujit Singh, India advisor to Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. Singh’s South Delhi home is a veritable treasure chest of old-world luxury and glamour, with a collection of vintage Louis Vuitton trunks, John Lobb shoes, Sulka ties and other personal items bequeathed by his father.
In October 2006, Maithili Ahluwalia, who runs Bungalow 8, a lifestyle store tucked beneath the bleachers of Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, introduced a new line of vintage accessories—a team of incongruous items such as a Valentino belt, Dior purse and Kenneth Jay Lane jewellery. Some 90% of the collection sold immediately. “I was actually flabbergasted that it did so well,” says Ahluwalia, who admits that some people had to be convinced that the pieces, which were in good condition, were indeed old. Ahluwalia is also a guardian of antiquities in her home; the 29-year-old inherited signature pieces of international brands of clothing and accessories from her grandmother, Chandu Morarji, which she uses as part of her own contemporary wardrobe. “My grandmother was very well-travelled for her time and picked up Paco Rabanne, YSL and Kenneth Jay Lane from Paris,’’ says Ahluwalia.
While purses and clothes don’t necessarily increase in value the longer they sit on the bench, watches are always a winner. Yasho Saboo, the Chandigarh-based CEO of Ethos Swiss Watch Studios, is also the brain behind the Watch Heritage Club (WHC). The club, which plans to organize an exhibition of its members’ wares later this year in Bangalore, has a collection of 110 registered watches. “Typically, a complicated piece from a highly-respected brand and of a limited edition can be a very valuable piece, and its value may appreciate as much as 100 times,” says Saboo, whose father also handed down an impressive collection.
Saboo’s favourite piece is a 1950s’ Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox, which was the first mechanical watch of its time to come with an alarm called the cricket alarm (for the insect). “The fact that three other people in my family wore it makes it the most important piece in my possession.”
That same emotional charge courses through the master of widescreen histrionics, Ravi Chopra, while discussing his most significant accessory. In 1975, as Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna faced off in front of a camera, he made his directorial debut with a dummy mahurat (opening) shot. When he was done, Chopra’s father, the legendary director B.R. Chopra, handed his son an initiation gift—a diamond-encrusted, gold Patek Philippe. The younger Chopra fondly remembers that scene from Zameer and his induction into the family business. And even though, since then, his taste in timekeepers has gone through an Omega phase and currently resides firmly in the house of Rolex, Chopra says nothing clutches him quite like that Patek. “There’s a lot of emotion attached to it and no matter how many others I buy, this one piece will always remind me of that day.”
While Chopra’s timepiece is 32, in general, vintage is defined as anything that’s older than 25 years of age, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Anita Trehan, a New York-based vintage dealer, who scours through flea markets, estate sales and auctions to source merchandise for stores such as Bungalow 8, says when it comes to the wares of certain designers, even a five-year-old piece could be a big-ticket item. “For one thing, everything old will be new again,” she says, “and designers such as Marc Jacobs are always so different that even recent lines are in big demand.”
But Trehan says she’d be wary of trying to sell vintage clothing to the Indian consumer. “I think clothing is difficult because of sizing issues and people’s perceptions about wearing something that belonged to someone else.” Even a Chorosch sari isn’t an easy recycle target. A few years ago, a regular client asked the owners of the label to sell an old Chorosch creation for her, but “no one wanted it”, says the Chorosch representative. But then it’s probably sound to be cautious: It was recently reported that a pair of golden hot pants worn by singer Kylie Minogue in her Spinning Around video was originally owned by the madam of a call-girl service. Minogue had purchased the pants for 50 pence from a charity shop. Imagine the stories those shorts could tell.