India’s fashion weeks have grown up. And the show’s only just begun.
Fashion choreographer Lubna Adams still remembers India’s very first fashion week (Lakmé, in association with the Fashion Design Council of India), which was held in Delhi in 2000. She had flown down from New York to take part.
“All the designers sat around a table deciding what sets will be put up, how the models will walk, everything,” she recalls. “All energies were devoted to making sure the first fashion week was brilliant. Ranna Gill was the first show, and it was a massive three-designer finale – with Tarun Tahiliani, Wendell Rodricks and Raghavendra Rathore.”
Sumant Jayakrishnan, the set designer, recalls dozing off in yet another meeting about what the finale would look like. He’d designed 23 different sets for it but something sparked when he heard Tahiliani say “kaleidoscope”. “That’s what I took off with,” Jayakrishnan says. “The stage was a giant 3D kaleidoscope with wings that moved side to side, and a roof that could move up and down. It was all about making a statement.”
But in 2008 the single fashion week in Delhi split into two: Mumbai’s Lakmé Fashion Week and Delhi’s Wills India Fashion Week. Today India has 12 fashion weeks (and counting), held in cities as far away as Kochi, Guwahati and Dehradun.
The coming week marks 15 years of fashion weeks in India. As the Mumbai version kicks off on March 18, you’ll see how much has changed, even as the excitement (and yes, the statement-making) has remained the same. Fashion is now a legitimate business – designers are no longer glorified tailors.
Indian talent is playing up the country’s design heritage to give modern India something they can wear proudly anywhere in the world. Fashionable people know which designer to buy, or copy from, for a vintage, nerdy vibe (Sabyasachi Mukherjee), for a kitschy sari (Masaba Gupta), or for an anti-fit silhouette (Kallol Datta).
They also look to designers not just for their trousseau, but for on-trend everyday wear rooted in Indian sensibilities. Somewhere along the way, as fashion turned a corner, it stopped playing safe, it also started turning a profit.
Revolution to evolution
Wendell Rodricks, the legendary designer known for his flowing white creations, says there have been two big developments in the last 15 years of fashion.
Senior designers have found the discipline to show twice a year (not as and when they please), and new talent has been nurtured. “If it was not for the fashion weeks, we would not have seen the likes of Sabyasachi, Rahul Mishra, Masaba, Rimzim Dadu, Kallol Datta, Pero and many others,” he says.
Saket Dhankar, vice-president of fashion at IMG-Reliance, points out that the Indian customer’s increased purchasing power has made all the difference. “How we consume fashion has changed – it’s not just for a wedding, but for everyday wear.” In the process, fashion has become more democratic.
Prêt designers have blossomed, bloggers get coveted front-row seats, younger designers get dedicated platforms at every fashion week and the trends themselves are trickling down the retail chain.
Masaba Gupta says it’s because the focus of fashion weeks all across India has shifted from the foreign buyer to the Indian customer. “We have stopped looking for global credibility,” she says. “We have fashion weeks according to our own seasons – Spring/Summer during India summer time and Autumn/Winter in our winter. It’s all focused on selling locally.”
This shift in purchasing power has influenced brand power too. Big brands scramble to be a part of fashion weeks and be associated with designers, old and young. “When the fashion week started, everyone only associated it with glamour: beautiful models walking down the ramp,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India.
“Today the India Fashion Week is worth several crores. We have as many as 100 designers and about 200 people writing about it. Every store in the country will make it a point to attend the fashion week to conduct business.” He adds that the Wills India Fashion Week becoming the Amazon India Fashion Week is an indicator of the fact that the fashion business is growing.
All this means, of course, that the way we dress has changed forever. We’ve found that well-cut, comfortable outfits need not be separate from traditional wear, garments serving a function need not be dull, formal clothing need not be in Western-approved navy and neutrals.
New design ideas need not come from looking through an American magazine. Tarun Tahiliani explains it well: “Indians now understand cut and construct, fit and finish and we will have to deliver.”
Even established designers agree that 15 years on, we’re still a young industry that hasn’t received serious international recognition. “The worst is that there is absolutely no government support,” laments Rodricks. “There’s chaos. Senior designers on fashion week boards squabble over shows. That kind of politics stops younger talent from blooming.”
What stands in the way of success is also the way we look at our bodies. “They are still catering to a size 6. Indian women are not usually size 6,” says Adams. They are usually size 8-12.
Fashion models themselves have some concerns. It may have become easier to get a gig as a runway model with established modelling agencies, but salaries are still low, says model Noyonika Chatterjee, who also owns a grooming school.
“We need to be paid better. Also, there is no one to look after the models. I have been treated badly and not been paid, and there is nobody I can go to,” she says.
The way ahead
Things are looking up, and changing even as some issues continue to plague the industry. “Interestingly, these days many designers request us not to give them the premium slot of 9.30pm as they prefer to be present at their stalls most of the time,” says Sethi. “The volume of business has gone up. Designers these days take up multiple stalls as they want to showcase collections.”
Online sales have started to matter, even for designer wear. It’s made a designer outfit in a faraway big city more accessible, and curated discount sites like Pernia’s Pop-Up have made pricing competitive.
Designer Raghavendra Singh Rathore says that online retailing has changed the production cycles of fashion – no one wants to wait for two collections a year. “Brands churn out smaller but more cycles per year, without context to season. The emphasis on design is now immense because that determines success.”
Rodricks sums it best, “The best part about this industry is that it has the colour, diversity and talent to override the problems that plague us. I am forever the optimist.” We are too.