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It is hard to say if we really understand Indian fashion.

Too many entrepreneurs, not just trained designers, fade in and fade out here every year, in portals, pop-ups, small stores, boutique retail or as personal shoppers and fashion curators. How can six newcomers possibly help us make sense of an industry which is inspired by anything from Mata Hari to a decadent Turkish king—and yet one in which bridal fashion occupies centre stage.

The Gen Next show at the Lakmé Fashion Week’s (LFW’s) Winter-Festive 2014 edition last week in Mumbai gave reason to argue once again that debuts are indeed significant to get a whiff of the future of fashion. More than that, once it is clear what’s going on in the mind of younger designers, it becomes easier to define youth style in India.

A model in Neha Agarwal’s leather-trimmed gown.
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A model in Neha Agarwal’s leather-trimmed gown.

A Mumbai girl who studied at the London College of Fashion, and then worked with designer Manish Malhotra before making her debut, Agarwal says she wants to create red-carpet fashion but isn’t anxious about marketability. “A debut is about a designer," she says, agreeing that using buffalo, goat and other genuine leather pushes up the price of her garments, but she was keen to go ahead with the “shock treatment".

Another debutant, the 25-year-old, New Delhi-based Anuj Bhutani emphasizes that fashion is first about the self. “Menswear isn’t the most promising commercial segment in India yet but it will be in the future, but more than that, I am a man, a shopaholic. I love menswear, so that’s what I wanted to debut with," he says, adding that he originally wanted to be a stylist.

Bhutani’s “reinvented" menswear was a line called Reboot, inspired from the 1960s British subculture of Teddy Boys. He used geometrical thread work with twisted yarn, screen printing, block printing with zippers to create long coats, trench suits, shorts-suits and other separates in shades of royal blue, olive, smoky grey and sand that appeared easy to wear, easy to style without looking clownish or effortful.

Contrary to last season’s Gen Next show at LFW, where most young designers stuck to well-exploited ideas, the group of six this time were much more whimsical. There were no clingy ball gowns, no derivative little black dresses, no orange embroidered tunics. There were lots of separates with patterns, details and motifs that would excite that so-called I-Me-Myself generation. This was fashion that would attract people with an androgynous way of mixing accessories and clothes, not those aping a pretty, perfect film star. More Kiran Rao than Kareena Kapoor Khan, let’s say.

“A debut show is about putting yourself across and I want to make clothes that surprise people after they buy them when they discover edgy details they hadn’t noticed earlier," says 28-year-old Surbhi Shekhar, who was born and raised in Varanasi, studied at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) in Bangalore and now lives in New Delhi.

Shekhar’s clothes had a feline edge and were inspired by Fever Ray, the lead vocalist of the Swedish electronic music duo The Knife. Styled with leather boots and black wiry headgear, Shekhar sent out a hoodie over a skirt, some palazzos, long flowing sheer dresses, sleek jackets, a satin toga and wrap tops in maroon, grey, rust and black.

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A model wearing menswear by Anuj Bhutani.

Each entrant had to send sketches of every piece he or she would show, besides numerous instances of stitched clothes, to the selection committee, says Majhi. She got inspiration from her favourite subject in school: science. Her line was called the Venus Fly Trap, after the carnivorous plant. Inspired from botany illustrations, Majhi used watercolour prints digitally transferred on fabric to create tubular and curved silhouettes for skorts, skirt-pants and dresses using rexine fabric, cotton satin, jute suiting and polyester satin.

Creative freedom and commercial success, alas, can often be enemies of each other in the retail market. Gen Next mentor Dongre agrees. “I wanted these designers to be creatively exhilarated and free but they must also sell so that they can return next season to the fashion week. So I told them to put aside anxieties of selling for their ramp creations but guided them towards watered-down interpretations of their clothes for the stalls," she says.

Astute advice this, and it will stand the debutants in good stead throughout their careers if they can figure out how to use it without stifling one aspect or the other.

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