In the late 1980s when Ensemble, India’s first fashion store, opened its doors to designer wear in Bombay (now Mumbai), two clothing aesthetics were on display. On the one hand were brightly coloured silks with embroidery that referenced the maharaja look epicentred in Rajasthan or Gujarat emporia. On the other was the hippie look, transiting at times into Bollywood kitsch—extremely loud, cinema-derived costumes. I recall being forced to take a call which path to take. It would be neither.

I decided to develop what was then not translated into a visual aesthetic yet but was tangible and appealing in an abstract way. The India of south Indian temples and spirituality, yoga, Ayurveda, local geometry, Gandhi, Goan beaches… These ideas had an appeal among Indians and were internationally recognized. When I translated them into fashion, the Indian media began to call it minimalism.

Twenty-eight years on, it is time to review how those initial years morphed into what’s now called “new minimalism", or the New M. For me, it is a flexible boundary with a sense of non-excess. It is at the opposite end of what Indian wedding wear means for the general populace. That sparkling brocade carnival: gold-doused, Swarovski-encrusted maharaja wedding. Till even a decade ago, brides wore saris of a certain ethnicity or vintage. But all that changed with the Karan Johar wedding on celluloid.

So, what is the New M? Natural colours, white, black, grey of course but also brights like rani pink or sunny yellow cut in a certain style, printed or embroidered. A tribal necklace, a handmade Kolhapuri chappal or a single bloom hairband can be minimal. But if one brings in fluorescence or a headache-inducing colour mix into these items, they become kitsch.

“You wear the clothes. Don’t let the clothes wear you," said the legendary French designer Yves Saint Laurent. That’s the essence of new minimalism. It may be bright, dazzling, sassy or bold. But if it is the extension of your mind, it flows into the New M.

While in the late 1980s, Rohit Bal’s voluminous crinkle cottons and sheer mulmuls would slide into the definition of minimalism with ease, today it would be vintage chikankari by Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. In their later work, these designers have moved on to other styles that cannot be called minimalist. There are other examples. Ivory coloured Gara embroidery on an ivory silk Parsi sari is as minimal as denim jeans and a white shirt. If a collection is entirely white, even with sparkle, that slots it into the M zone. So is exquisite tailoring even in bright colours, digital prints, tie-dye, elaborate yet effective drapes.

Raw Mango designer Sanjay Garg’s recent exploration of Benaras weaves veers away from his earlier minimalist pop art coloured handloom saris. Gold or silver is minimalist if used as a woven texture like Abraham and Thakore’s metallic weaves. But as woven motifs, however small or large, bling and shine make it exit the minimalist zone.

The New M is about a total “look". Clean hair or out-of-bed messy can both work as a part of it. So can sneakers and some kinds of jewellery. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s purple lips on the Cannes red carpet this year could have been effective minimalism, especially if she had teamed them with a white sari edged by a slim Kanjeevaram or Kerala gold border.

What’s debatable is the use of new minimalism by young Indian designers who apply it more to Western wear and their reluctance to approach garments channelling the vast Indian repertoire of clothing. Western dressing, never mind the new shapes or technology application, has seven garments for women: blouse, skirt, trouser, jacket, frock, cocktail dress and gown. In contrast, India’s wardrobe has a plethora of styles, silhouettes, weaves, dyeing and embroidery from 29 states. Other countries have already been dipping into this encyclopaedia in minimalist ways. Giorgio Armani has taken our Nehru jacket, Saint Laurent the sari gown, Karl Lagerfeld the maharaja jacket for Chanel. This is not cultural stealing as fashion thrives on the exotic, the unseen, the waiting-to-be-trending. And India can easily be trending every season in a subtle new minimalist way.

That’s why the future of minimalism rests at a crossroads between the choices that can be endorsed as minimal and how much one can push the evolving concept of minimalism. Imagine a 3D-printed T-shirt in a country of super-brainy techies. Or a phulkari motif embroidered on a pair of jeans. The opportunities are endless, endearing and ever fabulous. Minimalism is waiting for a redefinition and reinvention by Indian designers, weavers, dyers and embroiderers for the future of India’s 6,000-year-old clothing legacy.

The writer is a well-known fashion designer and author of Moda Goa: History and Style and Green Room.

Fine Print runs viewpoints on luxury and design from different writers every week.

Close