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Sabyasachi and his team at India Couture Week 2014.
Sabyasachi and his team at India Couture Week 2014.

UNDERSTATEMENT | Fashion writing lessons from 2014

The influences that make and sustain a fashion journalist and critic

Yesterday, the theme on a WhatsApp group I am on with my school mates was to write about things we would like to do in 2015. I quickly typed out my top ten including I will “try to write the most meaningful fashion stories next year". My post went up, but I suddenly wasn’t so sure of my confidence on fashion writing. Fact is that at a personal level, I am navigating a delicate space of questioning the influences that make and sustain a fashion journalist and critic.

Here are my constant guidelines and guard lines. There is no substitute to objectivity in journalism. Question: But can one really be objective? Answer: Yes. How: Blind yourself to personal allegiances if any and do your job. Next question: Do you even know your job? Answer: Maybe some, but never shortchange your homework, constantly read fashion history, update yourself on events, news, celebrity dressing, trends, silhouettes, forecasts, present contexts, see fashion collections in the light of India here and now, look at fabrics and materials from a creative, commercial and economic point of view, see fashion weeks as packages instead of fiefdoms of fashion politics, ask about inspirations, double check yet again, send that “please check your quotes" mail yet again, ask, ask, ask. Be original. Form an opinion. Stand up and voice it. A usual checklist I would say. Most of us in the trade follow this de rigueur.

Could you still get it wrong? Of course. Who can get it right all the time anyway? But can you avoid and diminish errors? Oh yes. Can you cultivate the art of review? Oh yes. Will you end up offending those you critique? That’s an unfortunate outcome. You can’t cloud your work or your observations because of that.

Some months back, when a researcher called Meher Varma interviewed me on aspects of the Indian fashion industry for her project on Ogaan completing 25 years, what I pointed out was that a critic—fashion or otherwise—is not a self-created institution and should never be a self-serving diva. She must have worked long and well enough for a publication to publish her. Editors of powered publications don’t just allow any hack to review or demolish anyone for the heck of it. You become a reviewer because of the body of work you do. It must include reportage from the field, cultivation of networks and sources, an eye on emerging trends, society, culture, textile history, economic policies, interviews and essays on socio-political threads of fashion. Only then a writer gathers the bandwidth to write a review and the publication allows you to do so.

A model walks for Sanjay Garg’s show at Lakme Fashion Week’s Winter Festive 2014 edition.
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A model walks for Sanjay Garg’s show at Lakme Fashion Week’s Winter Festive 2014 edition.

Last year, Aishwarya Subramanyam, editor of Elle India invited me to write a piece in Elle’s anniversary issue on why fashion magazines don’t do fashion journalism. Why the industry is incestuous in some way. I was delighted with the opportunity Aishwarya gave me and wrote that as long as fashion magazines are on the same side of the fence as advertisers there can be no journalism. Newspapers have an advantage there. Also, while some designers do turn away and snap connections after a not-so-glowing review, eventually they might still respect independent, unbiased opinion. Many, in fact, do pick up the phone and thrash it out, disagree strongly, talk and finish it. Best way. Like Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango did after my review of his debut collection at Lakme Fashion Week earlier this year. We ended up talking about his collection in great detail. It was a very educative conversation for me. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my writing. Why should they and what about the highs of idea democracy that I thrive on.

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Manish Malhotra walking the ramp with Alia Bhatt and Aditya Roy Kapur at India Couture Week 2014.

My biggest fashion lesson at the end of 2014 is this then: Keep at it. Polish your writing and do more reportage. Try not to make close friends in the industry so that you don’t lose sight of objectivity. At the same time, accept that all of us journalists have biases; what’s a journalist without a bias, as my former boss the editorial director of Outlook Group Vinod Mehta used to say? Only, learn to wear those biases in a loose fit. Most of all, remember that you are only a small part of a publication. So you must work hard every day to earn the power to upset some people. Hello 2015.

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