Runway looks from Pankaj & Nidhi
Runway looks from Pankaj & Nidhi

Indian Couture Week: Looking beyond bridalwear

  • Couture in India is often associated with bridalwear but the 2019 edition of India Couture Week saw a number of designers showcases designs for alternate occasions
  • Pankaj & Nidhi, Rahul Mishra and Gaurav Gupta showcased short dresses, crop tops paired with skirts, sleek gowns and pantsuit-inspired ensembles

In preparation for Mosaiq, their debut couture collection, Pankaj and Nidhi Ahuja, co-founders of the prêt label Pankaj & Nidhi, sought inspiration from mosaic making—an apt pick for a duo known for their experimental textures.

“We did our own version of couture, one that appealed to our sensibilities," says Pankaj. Unveiled during the India Couture Week 2019 (ICW; 22-28 July), the showcase saw models—and showstopper, actor Aditi Rao Hydari—take the ramp in ensembles embellished with faux leather appliqué and custom-made crystals on a palette of mother-of-pearl, chromatic yellow, rose gold and silvery white.

What set the collection apart, however, was the distinct lack of a bridal aesthetic—featuring empire-line dresses, form-fitted silhouettes, asymmetrical tunics teamed with pants and jackets or crop tops paired with skirts of varying lengths.

Runway look from Rahul Mishra
Runway look from Rahul Mishra

Pankaj & Nidhi is not the only label extending the sartorial possibilities of couture beyond the altar this season. Gaurav Gupta’s sculptural creations are for new-age brides: his asymmetrical dresses, blouses paired with flared trousers and a black suit-inspired ensemble would also make for dramatic red-carpet looks.

Amit Aggarwal, who made his couture debut in 2018, launched a bridal collection this year—but his signature industrial take on textiles and tailoring techniques lends itself naturally to outfits that fall outside the purview of weddings. Rahul Mishra’s Malhausi Monaco had elaborately embroidered lehngas and saris sharing the runway with short dresses and separates featuring 3D embroidery.

A short dress is an anomaly in Indian couture shows, where one is more likely to see ornate ensembles for brides. Much has been said about how bridalwear has evolved in recent decades, offering new pastel hues, structured silhouettes, prints and new textures—think Swarovski crystals, ruffles and feathers. But limiting couture to bridalwear offers a one-dimensional perspective. To paraphrase Yves Saint Laurent, what sets apart couture from prêt are the fabrics, craft and fittings. Some of the dresses in Mishra’s collection take up to 4,000 hours to create. Every appliqué in Pankaj & Nidhi’s ensembles is hand-cut and stitched on to the fabric. Isn’t this the very definition of couture?

THE ART OF SEWING

Couture is a derivation of haute couture, Parisian nomenclature to describe the process of making dresses for wealthy clients, allowing them to choose colours and fabrics. Along with specially commissioned dresses for operas and balls, wedding ensembles have traditionally been part of the couturier’s atelier.

Runway look from Gaurav Gupta
Runway look from Gaurav Gupta

Yet, today couture shows in the West rarely feature bridal ensembles . “While a few designers at the Paris couture season still include love-and-marriage outfits, the big names mostly ignore the concept of putting weddings and their dressy surroundings publicly on the runways," critic Suzy Menkes wrote for British Vogue in July, offering examples from luxury houses like Dior, Valentino and Chanel.

The examples Menkes offered, of couturiers focusing on bridalwear, came from India—Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Mishra, who showcases his prêt wear at the Paris Fashion Week, and made his couture debut in the French capital this year. “In the West, occasionwear is for red carpets, hence a designer is more likely to target that segment," Mishra says on email. “Whereas in India, due to cultural influences, most occasionwear is directed towards weddings and one cannot overlook that. As a designer, it is important to design clothes that people want to wear."

Marriage is a momentous occasion for Indians—a 2017 KPMG report estimated the wedding market to be worth between $40-50 billion ( 2.7-3.4 trillion now) and growing at an annual rate of 25-30%. The bridal trousseau is integral to wedding preparations.

According to Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), which organizes the ICW, the potential of the bridalwear market cannot be ignored in India. “When we started (ICW) in 2008, we had a cashmere collection by Ashish N. Soni. We also had Monisha Jaising and her gowns," he says. “But we soon realized there was also a customer out there who wanted traditional designs and bridalwear. Had I known this then, I would have perhaps named it India Couture and Wedding Week."

Despite this, Sethi says Indian couture is not restricted to weddings. “There is something on the ramp for bridalwear, cocktail and red carpet," he says. “The designers are addressing not just brides but the modern Indian woman and the occasions she wears couture for."

NEW OCCASIONS FOR COUTURE

The sight of a pantsuit on the ICW runway—or other couture platforms—does signal a growing demand for bespoke ensembles for occasions other than weddings. “As we transit into a new phase of informed consumption, couture, as part of luxury fashion, is most likely to penetrate markets outside of bridal and weddings," Mishra says. “We see the new-age luxury consumer as someone who is able to appreciate couture on a daily basis...from a Sunday brunch to a late-night event and from formal official meetings to a joyous solo vacation in Europe."

The increasing presence of Indian women at international black-tie events offers plenty of opportunities for couture. From Cannes to Paris’ Le Bal Debutantes to the Met Gala and the Animal Ball co-hosted by the duke and duchess of Cornwall, Indian movie stars like Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Deepika Padukone, and Indian style influencers like Natasha Poonawalla and Isha Ambani, are in the spotlight for their choice of clothing.

Indian couturiers have an opportunity to capitalize on this growing segment. “There has been a vacuum in the market for women who may want something special to wear, but neither traditional (Indian) nor Western," Pankaj says. “An author could wear these to her book launch, a movie director on the red carpet or someone for her milestone birthday." Pankaj adds that the initial response from longtime clients and retailers has been overwhelmingly positive. “We would of course be happy to have brides wear our couture, but I am hoping that couture extends itself to alternative occasions."

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