To reach the flower markets off Kunming city in China, tourists can transfer to bus No.12 from Juhua village. Like blazing bright lights, the orange-rust-yellow-pink-peach-red-white-burgundy flowers from Kunming bloom forever in your memory. Big embroidered flowers adorn the indigo dresses of women in Llachón, a “pretty village” about 750km from Puno in Peru. The pom-poms on the slouchy hat of a Llachón male are a delicious orange, like the colour of the Hunan chilli pickle of China, like the tangerine ribbons in the elaborate hairdos of women painted by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, like the orange-red wool your neighbour’s aunt in Kullu uses to knit her thick woolly socks. The colour of a magical spell could be neon green-blue and the texture of a Peruvian garment has the warmth of a slow fire and the feel of a grandma’s shawl.
Aneeth Arora’s Autumn/Winter 2017 collection for her label péro simulates a series of such disconnected connects. Visual and textural renditions of fruits, flowers, fabrics, textiles, threads, beads, laces, pom-poms, borders and patches from Peru, Mexico, China, Latin America and Himachal Pradesh lit a neon bonfire when Arora showed as part of the Amazon India Fashion Week (AIFW) in Delhi last week. Mounted at the Odisha Courtyard in the neglected National Crafts Museum in the Capital, this was “the” show, as many said, of the AIFW.
It is the “péro tribe”, says Arora of her visually layered assimilation. Artistes from the Dinero Ash D Club band raised a pulsating crescendo as models representing global colour diversity walked with a spring in their step and razzmatazz in their clothes. The canvas of the péro collection was woven indigo fabric—inspired from the indigo traditionally used in costumes from Yunan, Kullu, Guatemala and Guangzhou. Indigo coats with floral inner linings, soft jackets with embroidered collars and sexy cropped pants, frilly tops, Chanderi maxi dresses that kissed the ankle with petite floral prints or wispy white ones that swirled around the knees, tunics with beaded edges, shirts with hand-embroidered details. Like the collection, the garments were imaginatively layered to create a versatile wardrobe complemented by dreadlocks, tassels, blue velvet boots and short, sheer stockings with floral patterns. Street fashion blurred into high street and the péro high street widened the highway the brand has taken in Indian fashion.
The show was a visual expression of the ideas that struck Arora as she travelled—sometimes just through costume books, memoirs and travel sites, at other times in person. Though the floral and colour trajectories were inspired by the indigenous people of different cultures, every element—neon pom-poms, embroideries, or textiles—was made in India, says Arora of the collection that took a year to produce. The designer currently sells from 250-300 destinations in 30-odd countries. Her annual turnover has increased by 200-250% in the last two years.
After the show, a senior designer said she wanted every single garment, while another, Arora’s peer, said she now understood why a designer must work on multiple elements to make a collection noticeable. Not all the observations were one-dimensional though. Someone in the audience voiced her discomfort with “designers appropriating tribal symbolism for fashion”. Another designer said that while the National Crafts Museum had long deserved a show of this calibre, he wished Arora hadn’t mixed her fabulous creations with Bollywood-y glamour.
While the immediate thoughts of some among the large and discerning audience flew to English designer Stella McCartney closing her recent show in Paris with models dancing and singing on the ramp in an ode to George Michael, for Arora, the dancing her models displayed signified happiness, not a McCartney me-too.
“All my shows have expressed a happy vibe, and I have had dancing on my ramp before,” she told me.
If happiness was an intended takeaway, I found it in the styling of the garments, their intricacy, the insouciance of the velvet boots. Something somewhere reminded me of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates Of The Caribbean. It led me to wonder about the look of a modern gypsy. How must an artist dress the contemporary wanderer?
But I was most struck by a scrapbook she created to narrate her collection. It records all her ideas—scribbles, notes, stamps, rail and bus tickets, reminders to herself, fabric swatches, photographs of minority tribes, sketches of pickle jars, tiny hearts, a dried leaf, an artistic recreation of festival lanterns, and how she tried paint blobs to create a shade card. The journal is for me like a piece of couture, a garment of thoughts. “At the National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad), where I studied, we were taught to record everything we saw and observed. This journal is my storytelling device,” says Arora.
Till such time that Arora’s work is recorded in the fabric and fable of Indian fashion’s travel journal, I would hold on to her storyteller scrapbook.