India is the land of contradiction. Imagine a place where freshly imported luxury cars battle unperturbed cows for prime positions on dirt metropolis roads, unyielding traffic rendering them equal to their Bovine counterparts. Likewise in fashion, this country has provided Western designers with reinvention via its 3000 year-old history of craftsmanship and textiles, acting as both muse and manufacturing mecca, whilst at the same time India’s own fashion industry remains rooted in tradition. However, things appear to be changing with the new school of local designers who are veering away from the strict and traditional; polishing society’s mirror to reflect its gradual breakaway from cultural norms.
An industry in its infancy
“Ten years back, I don’t think I would have survived. Back then, it was so much about how fashion should be. Today, I feel there is a growing space for individuality,” says Priyanka Ella Lorena Lama. Launched in 2015, the twenty-five year old designer behind the brand P.E.L.L.A caught the attention of India’s fashion elite for her organically draped garments, inspired by explorations of the human psyche in connection with the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.
Lama is one of India’s top emerging designers, alongside Kanika Goyal and Urvashi Kaur, a class of creatives evolving from an arguably rich, yet short legacy. Despite the country’s vast aesthetic history, Indian fashion was only formalised in 1999 with the inauguration of the country’s first fashion week. With it came the launch of one of India’s leading designers, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, as well as widespread recognition for established designers such Manish Malhotra, Rohit Bal and Tarun Tahiliani; all specialists in traditional Indian garments and wedding couture.
A world of weddings
Weddings are an integral part of India’s cultural identity, with the wedding industry valued at approximately $40-50billion. In India, it is estimated that one fifth of a person’s accumulated lifetime earnings will be spent on a wedding ceremony. Deepika Gehani, the Creative and Marketing Director of Genesis Luxury, India’s leading distributor of international luxury brands, says that traditional fashion design has reigned supreme specifically because of the cultural values surrounding weddings. “Indian designers survive on the wedding market. That’s why they prefer to focus on Indian wear with embroidery. The demand for Indian is larger than Western, and if they were to purchase Western, they would rather buy it ‘cheaply’ from a Western designer,” says Gehani.
East meets West
European leaders in luxury such as Hermès, Dries Van Noten, Emilio Pucci, Aquazurra and Isabel Marant all employ embroiderers in India, whilst in turn, India has inspired recent runways at Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, Marchesa and Louis Vuitton. It is ironic then, that Western designers enjoy an elevated status among Indian luxury consumers, while India, the world’s second biggest producer of textiles, continues to provide Western fashion with an endless source of inspiration and craftsmanship.
Changing consumers, changing designers
Responsible for bringing Giorgio Armani and Bottega Veneta to India, Deepika Gehani splits the Indian luxury consumer into two specific segments. The first type are the ‘Maharajas’ or ‘old money’, who have always lived a life of wealth, travel and luxury. The second type are the ‘Nouveau Riche’, the aspirational luxury shoppers who gravitate towards monogrammed European brands highlighting their social ascent. For this second kind of consumer, there has been little appeal to purchase Western clothing from an Indian designer, as it is often perceived to lack the prestige of European luxury. Things are changing, however, with smaller segments emerging as this decade-old set of ‘Aspirationals’ grow and experience more of the world, inspiring a new wave of design ideas at home.
Launched in 2014, Urvashi Kaur’s eponymous label emphasises a ‘glocal’ approach to design. Educated at Esmod in Paris with stints at Issey Miyake and Marcel Marongiu, Kaur focuses on fusing Indian and Western silhouettes, mindfully muting the boldness of the Indian colour palette to increase versatility, whilst paying homage to the rustic decadence of indigenous Indian weaves such as kota, mulmul and chanderi.
“There are many Indian designers creating exceptionally beautiful, almost couture-like masterpieces. The massive Indian wedding market ensures that this will be an enduring aspect of the Indian fashion industry,” says Kaur, “but the phenomenal growth of the industry and the ever increasing numbers of upwardly mobile Indians has created a space for Indian-made Western wear. As the world shrinks, the desire and need for strictly ethnic clothing also changes and this makes way for the cross pollination of various cultures.”
This cross-pollination derived from cultural exchange is particularly prevalent with Indian youth. Currently, India holds the world’s largest youth population, with 365 million 10-24 year-olds, making up 28 percent of the country’s total population. Indian youth have become increasingly influential within the country, holding the power to sway political outcomes due to their vast numbers and progressively frustrated and publicised opinions on culture and politics. Simultaneously, there has been a surge in Indian students studying overseas, moving from 12.4 percent in 2014 to 17.8 percent in 2015. This is in part due to the extremely competitive entry into Indian education institutions, as well as the belief that a foreign degree is superior and will increase job prospects.
This sense of ‘validation from the West’ carries through into the Indian fashion industry, with young designers noticing the difference created with a brush of international exposure. “It’s so prominent,” says Kanika Goyal, whose eponymous label launched in 2015 after cutting her teeth with roles at Bibhu Mohapatra, Prada and Marchesa. “If you look at someone like Rahul Mishra, he was never given any importance in India until after he won the Woolmark Prize, outside of the country. But there has been a major change, I noticed it when I was in New York, there are so many young designers changing the scene, totally moving away from what you would call ‘Indian fashion’, and people have taken that in a really positive way and for me it’s definitely growing,” says Goyal, whose brand is favoured by rising Bollywood stars for its synthesis of sports-luxe and relaxed tailoring.
Art imitating life
It would be remiss and impossible to observe Indian fashion without commenting on its intimate relationship with Hindi Cinema, otherwise known as Bollywood. “In India, Bollywood is royalty… It’s like a religion,” Goyal says with a laugh. The nation’s top actresses double as supermodels, gracing the covers of leading fashion publications and landing the coveted position of the ‘showstopper’ in designers’ shows during fashion week.
Fourteen million people go the cinema every day in India, with the movie industry churning out approximately 2000 films every year. Famous for its colourful song and dance sequences, love stories and escapist storytelling, Bollywood is popular with all of India’s social demographics. As society shifts, so too has Bollywood’s famous ‘boy meets girl meets marriage’ formula, wielding its immense influence over aesthetics in the process. “The movie industry in India has also evolved and there are several different aesthetics that are now considered mainstream, leading to a wonderful synthesis between Fashion and Bollywood where there are opportunities for various different kinds of work to be featured,” says Kaur.
Top Indian designers such as Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tarun Tahiliani have all successfully made names for themselves internationally, thanks to burgeoning Indian communities around the world, but their designs remain traditional. Conversely, Indian-born-USA-based designers such as Bibhu Mohapatra and Naeem Khan have completely relocated to cater specifically to Western audiences. In India, the youth are looking to bridge this gap. “Ten years back when I used see the Fashion Week, it was something like 90 percent of designers showcasing traditional clothes, and when I look at it now, it’s almost 50-50, and that’s a major shift. The world is shrinking and there are Indian designers that want to get on the global map and take it out there,” says Goyal.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Change is the only constant in life.” In Indian fashion, the change is only just beginning.
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Title illustration by Max Anish Gowriah