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Fashion designer James Ferreira stretches his wicked measuring tape on the Indian fashion industry

Fashion weak Raima Sen, Indrani Mukherji and Katrina Kaif at a show

FASHION MIGHT seem frivolous, inconsequential and far removed from the gritty realities of life. High fashion, especially, might appear to be the domain of the froufrou. But the truth is, fashion is, at its core, an activity that combines the intellectual and the sensual. It springs from that unfathomable centre of our being that appreciates art, feels moved by music and is transported in a quasi-religious way by the presence of beauty. It is the product of that dark, rich and unknowable realm where memory enmeshes with dreams and allows fantasies to flower. QED, fashion and its close study is worthy of the greatest attention.

Humankind has always been preoccupied with fashion. Among the Indus Valley artifacts displayed at the National Museum in New Delhi is a pair of exquisite shell bangles on the wrists of a female skeleton. Were those bangles an indicator of the woman’s marital status or were they trinkets she thought of slipping on just before she died aeons ago? You’ll never know the answer to that ancient mystery but you do know that the modern Indian continues to be fascinated by fashion.

Ever since the nation emerged out of the Cold War years, shed its Nehruvian carapace and plunged into the liberalised world of the 1990s, the Indian fashion scene has been growing apace. As a designer who came onto the scene in the early 1980s, I have been a part of this change. Some of the twists in my life have been triggered by moments of creative stasis as a designer. For instance, as I became more successful, I found myself losing the joy I once took in my work. I had stopped cutting my designs and had left it to cutters. This period of sterility continued until four years ago when I took a sabbatical.

At that point, I was tired of the fakery of the fashion world and the compulsions of redesigning a whole look to go with each season. This pressure to create has led to the current retro period where we are constantly reworking old ideas in our clothes. The truth is that fashion reached the heights of originality in the 1960s. After that, everything has been a rehash.

Japanese designers like Isseye Miyake who brought eastern techniques to western garments are the exception. The Japanese instinctively kept on being Japanese and put their sensibility into their clothes. Internationally, India now seems to be the flavour of the month, season, even era, and our designers should give more importance to their Indianness. The Indian fashion industry has great potential but it is not being handled in a way that could take India onto the international scene. Manish Arora is a superb example of a homegrown designer who has used his Indianness in a way that appeals to the international market. That’s why you see so many celebrities wearing his clothes.

However big other commercial Indian designers like Tarun Tahiliani or Sabyasachi Mukherjee might be in our own country, they don’t appeal to an international audience. Perhaps it’s because in a strangely converse twist they are not in touch with their essential Indian character. They might be in touch with the NRI brand of Indianness with its elements of costume drama but they don’t have what is needed to be a success outside. A lot of the new designers like Savio Jon, Varun Sardana, Astu, Ansh and Jason are fabulous. They are business oriented and well prepared, which will definitely help them break into the international markets.

High on hope Model
Tinu Varghese
Photo: Tarun Sehrawat

Indian designers, especially those of us who are successful in India, should be worshipping our embroidery men. The large Indian bridal clothes market is entirely based on embroidery. Tarun Tahiliani has 200 karigars working for him and JJ Valaya in Delhi must have similar numbers. Sabyasachi has a fivestorey building in Kolkata full of karigars. A karigar in Mumbai might make about Rs 7,000 a month while a cutter can make about Rs 20,000. Most of these skilled workers are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have enduring traditions of hand embroidery.

Our cutters, tailors and embroiderers need to go through formal training. If you don’t set your hand to crafts like carpet weaving and embroidery as a child, it’s really difficult to get into it later. So, instead of going completely against child labour, it’s important to have schools that educate these children and at the same time teach them a craft. There is no point in training hundreds of designers if a similar effort isn’t put into training karigars.

We need to ask ourselves a number of questions: Why has the Indian fashion scene become so designer-oriented? Why don’t we have sizing charts for Indians? Why aren’t we giving textile designers and embroiderers prominence? Why aren’t designers sharing the platform? For the fashion industry to grow, the textile industry too has to be involved. Strangely, the big textile names are not taking an active interest in fashion and there are few fabric developments. The Fashion Council needs to be looking at these issues before anything else.

Then, there’s the unthinking jettisoning of the traditional. Mainstream design has totally ignored the khadi and handicraft industry. Now, China has taken over the fabric market. Bihar is a mess because nobody is buying the stuff from Bhagalpur. Shockingly, no one is buying tussar today and we have already lost the dhakai voile. The Himru weave is gone — there are only two weavers of Himru left. Khadi is such a versatile fabric but nothing is happening in the khadi industry. Our Khadi Bhandars should be thriving design centers. Instead, these are dead properties. They gave the one in Mumbai to Jaya Bachchan and Devika Bhojwani to do something and all they did was sell 20 kurtas to their friends. Perhaps I’m being nostalgic but it would be wonderful if India were still part Gandhian and Nehruvian in its values. Now we seem to be losing all our wealth of weaves, embroidery motifs, and vegetable dying techniques.

Everyone’s buying the same crepe. If a fabric costs Rs 300 per metre, how do you justify charging Rs 95,000 for a dress?

I HELP SEWA, Lucknow as much as possible by improving cuts. I want them to go beyond the 28 handstitches that comprise the vocabulary of Lucknowi chikan. It would be truly and dynamically Indian if they could fuse chikan with phulkari and other Indian embroideries to come up with something that’s new while also being rooted in tradition. The design future lies in blending urban and rural perspectives in a sophisticated way to create a truly Indian aesthetic. India is throwing away everything that’s lovingly created by hand while the whole world wants to learn what India is throwing away. I tried to incorporate Indian crafts in my first collection at the Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) after I came back to the fashion scene in 2007. The collection was based on Mumbai and I used elements of Sholapur blankets and Maharashtrian saris. Unfortunately, there was not a single buyer!

Why our fashion weeks are not pushing all these things is a mystery. Of course, fashion weeks are not indicative of the maturity of an industry. Today, there are no rules in this industry. Rohit Bal and I may agree that peach is the colour of the season but that doesn’t permeate down to the rest of the country. If the ideas are passed down it’s only through knockoffs. You can pick up knockoffs of every designer at Chandni Chowk. Fashion TV has made it easy for some lady in Khar to make a copy of a Sabyasachi design for you at 1/5th the price. At the other end of the spectrum, you have couture. Internationally, couture means creating a single piece that’s then worn by those who can afford it. You do not make copies. Here, the bridal market is the closest you have to couture. Yet, when you go for a wedding you often find the bride and one of the guests in the same outfit. There are no rules as yet in the Indian fashion industry. That’s why some designers get away with charging ridiculous prices. Everybody’s buying the same crepe and georgette. So if a fabric costs Rs 300 per metre, how do you justify charging Rs 95,000 for a dress?

These Lakme Fashion weeks are useful for young designers who want to break into Bollywood and want the visibility. But if you cater to the international market and want buyers, the LFW will have nothing for you. In contrast, the Emporio Fashion Week where I showed last year, had a lot of international buyers. Even the post-show events were designed to help designers and buyers interact. Sumeet Nair was a great host and the South African choreographer was an expert. It wasn’t about who was modeling what, who was in the front row and who had come to your show. The clothes were what were important.

Another indication that our fashion industry has yet to come of age is the absence of intelligent fashion journalism. Rookie journalists are usually sent to cover events and interview designers. Most of these youngsters have no background in fashion. So, I have been ‘discovered’ at least 20 times over the last few years! Also, the focus is always on a brassiere falling off or Katrina Kaif ending a show. We still don’t have a Suzy Menkes who will treat fashion with the seriousness it deserves.

Rookie journalists are usually sent to meet designers. I have been‘discovered’ at least 20 times over the last few years!

Then there are the vulgar society women who wear dresses by international designers that could cost Rs 10 lakhs. Most of them do not wear Indian designers. The money these women spend on international designers could bring vibrancy to the Indian fashion industry. My friend Nathanial Goldberg, who came down to Mumbai some years ago to shoot Indian socialites for Vogue Italy, told me how he was plied with incredible caviar and the best champagne. Each woman was trying to outdo the other in entertaining him! Today, Indians are the richest community in the world but I don’t know what has happened to Indian taste.

It is time for Indian designers to amalgamate those elements of our heritage that set us apart and infuse them with a modern dynamism. It’s only when we are able to forge a look that’s as uniquely Indian as it is contemporary that our fashion industry will be able to take its rightful place alongside Italy and Japan, those other nations known for their inspiring and original design sensibility.

James Ferreira lives in Mumbai. His clothes retail under his own name

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