Indian fashion’s ‘save the date’ moment
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As the Indian fashion industry completes almost three decades, the well-promoted “event” is now a top trend. The last couple of years indicate that most fashion celebrations are rather formulaic—brought together by a cast of sponsors with strategic interests, an “interesting” venue (like Bikaner House in Delhi or a film studio in Mumbai), a liquor partner, a creative concept and a public relations army to whip up the obligatory social media storm. An all-too-familiar fashion community arrives for such events with the same conscientiousness that it would attend a family or friend’s wedding.
This is not a lament. It is, in fact, sparked by three enjoyable celebrations in Delhi last month, each mounted by three brands that celebrated 25 years in fashion. Master of monochrome Ashish N. Soni had his at The Lodhi hotel with a technologically buzzy experience. Chivas, Ben Q, Indie Eye and Honor 7X were the partners. Soni’s fashion journey was narrated with the aid of a 3D camera studio, interactive videos, a press dome, and mannequins dressed in black and white.
For an event held on 20 December, couturier J.J. Valaya invited designers, stylists and textile artists to style his Alika jackets (created by Valaya in 2010 as a wardrobe classic, like the Chanel jacket) and represent his work over the decades. It was called the Alika Project. Framed photographs of these interpretations shot by Valaya hung on the walls at Bikaner House, while the installations stood in a row. With Swarovski as the event partner, the most engrossing installation was a Valaya couture piece. Against the black-dyed garment, the crystals shone bright. Wine, cheese, vodka (sponsored) and warm congratulations lit up the evening.
“Obviously, events help generate PR buzz but there is so much noise all around that unless it is a jaw-dropping evening, everything becomes fleeting,” says Vivek Ramabhadran, Swarovski vice-president for South Asia and Africa. He explains sponsorship decisions. “The first reason we sponsor any event stems from how stimulating the experience is for the many collaborators that Swarovski works with—exporters, manufacturers, embroiderers and others. We look for an enduring platform for our user ecosystem, unlike a drab distributor’s conference,” he says. The rest, he adds—venue, alcohol sponsor, etc.—must then be stitched up well together.
Sponsors collaborate with fashion events on different scales of monetary investment but as anybody in the business will know, a decent event costs nothing less than Rs30 lakh. Swarovski itself collaborated on six-seven events in the last year—its involvement varying in scale.
If Soni and Valaya’s celebrations mirrored their fashion DNA, the evening to mark 25 years of David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore’s textile brand Abraham & Thakore reflected the quiet contemporariness symbolic of their design leadership. Hosted by Veer Singh of the brand Vana, it did not promote any liquor brand or sponsor. At its core, it was a showcase of work from the design archives of Abraham & Thakore, curated by textile designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul.
These were three distinctive events but just photographs of the guests (and the shawls they wore) made it to newspapers and social media.
Some of Indian fashion’s memorable milestones and movements in the last quarter-century and more have similarly been lost in the attention game. From the resilience of Fabindia and the enduring business of Ritu Kumar, to the ascent of the House of Anita Dongre, currently the most commercially successful fashion brand in the country; from the design influence of the late Rohit Khosla, the nuances of the late Prabuddha Dasgupta’s fashion photography, to the study and work in textiles of Martand Singh (Mapu), who died last year; from Wendell Rodricks’ books, including one on the history of Goan costumes, to Rahul Mishra inspiring the young crop by becoming the first Indian designer to win the International Woolmark Prize; from Big Bazaar’s fast-selling fashion to the story of Khadi as the fabric of freedom to a fashion must-have; and from Manish Malhotra’s rise as the top celebrity designer to Manish Arora’s strategic design collaborations across the world. They represent the abundance of ideas that have contributed to making fashion relevant and influential. Vibrant and vigorous micro trends currently throb in the veins of our fashion industry, such as innovative fabric development by young talent, reinvented embroideries, the re-evolution of minimalism, and most notably, the resurgence of handloom in mainstream fashion.
The 30th anniversary celebrations of Ensemble, the country’s first fashion store, last month in Mumbai, captured this creative arc quite well. Forty designers were invited to create representations of the fashion journey through sculpture, photographs, videos and installations. Among the newfangled ideas was an installation by Arjun Saluja that stood for “progression versus regression”, as the artist describes it. Two garments had been placed as one, a bomber jacket with an overcoat, a blazer with a vest to convey structure, form and shape, and the deconstruction of local silhouettes, the burqa included.
Progression versus regression is, in fact, an apt metaphor for Indian fashion.
And now the lament. Despite all that goes on, the top impressions of fashion are trapped in a tight triangular formula: Bollywood celebrities, weddings and sponsored events. Airport style stories or what Viruskha—as the media has begun describing the couple Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma—wore, are apparent symptoms of the consumer fixation with the formula.
The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) was founded in 2000 but there is still no design museum or systematic archiving of fashion. There are no industry regulations around the pricing of fashion garments, no labels to certify goods as organic or sustainable. Most disappointingly, there are no mechanisms to counter plagiarism, which is rampant. No industry body has been able to create a credible awards property that rewards the deserving in the industry.
In the recent explosion in handloom, many designers have jumped on to the bandwagon of working with traditional weavers, a field that they believe to be profitable business, but have cluttered and disturbed the arena. While the current fashion retail market is worth around Rs2.97 trillion and is estimated to grow to Rs7.48 trillion by 2026, according to Technopak, a leading management consulting firm, whether the lives of weavers have changed substantially, is yet to be documented.
The media’s culpability cannot be understated. Large sections of fashion media work on the principle of paid coverage. Those who can’t pay are simply ignored, so emerging talent gets no space. In the PR-controlled age of storytelling, stories like the 2016 opening of the Shrujan museum in Bhuj in Kutch, a green and artisanal building that documents the lives of 12 rural communities through their embroideries and objects, found little space. The Delhi Crafts Council founded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay completed 50 years in 2017—but the remarkable milestone lies largely unnoticed without an “event”.
FDCI president Sunil Sethi agrees that in the absence of design museums, the next best thing for designers is to show their work through sponsored events. “A sponsor is crucial as no designer has the budget even for his or her own retrospective,” he says.
Take the example of designer Sunita Shankar, who launched her label in 1996. Her consistent explorations with Bandhini give her brand a clear signature, yet she showed at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Winter/Festive 2017 edition in August after 10 years. “If you don’t make a noise, don’t have a PR mechanism in place, you are forgotten. Having an aesthetic or a commitment to handlooms is not enough. Validation in the industry comes from power, fame and money,” she says. Designer Payal Khandwala echoes similar sentiments. “This event-centric approach is the product of a need to be top of the mind, to scream instead of whisper. We have collaborations, celebrities, award functions, but, in my opinion, the goal seems to be to grab attention in an already overpopulated fashion landscape. It’s a pity because the clever ones get more credit than they deserve and the talented ones, if they are reticent, will have to learn to play the game,” says Khandwala.
There may be other losses, says couturier Suneet Varma, whose 30th-year milestone was marked by “the finale of the finale” at the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of the Amazon India Fashion Week in September. “In the earlier days, we were obsessed with styling, fittings, and the perfection of the collection. Today, in the pressure to create spectacular events, the novelty is gone. Beautiful events may get created, yet unless there is a symbiotic connect with the clothes, they make no sense to the traditionalist in me,” says Varma. He adds that for him, having an event at Bikaner House, for instance, is already passé. “It is the safe thing to do.”
The future of design innovation in India is robust, undoubtedly. But will unsafe, untried territory be the venue of fashion’s future outings? For that, templated, hackneyed “events” like the recent Lux Golden Rose Awards—where a bevy of actresses in designer concoctions ostensibly defined fashion and beauty—will have to make way for point-of-view occasions. The socio-political Operation Black Gown at the Golden Globe Awards held on 7 January in the US is just one example. Until then, Indian fashion’s best black will remain a dull grey.
Shefalee Vasudev is editor, The Voice of Fashion, a-soon-to-be-launched fashion portal by IMG Reliance.