The Rise Of Indian Fashion And The Designers To Keep Your Eye On Right Now
Dusty pink stone façades lining the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh, central India, glowed warmly against the first rays of sunrise. Long boats in a rainbow of hues dotted the water, some gliding serenely behind a young Indian model dressed in sheer, colour-blocked layers with an asymmetrical neckline and ruching, like a shadow of a modern sari. The dress was by Supriya Lele, who debuted at London Fashion Week last fall.
Lele, a British-Indian designer who was born and raised in the town of Ipswich in Suffolk, travelled to her ancestral town in India last December in what began as a creative journey with photographer and friend Jamie Hawkesworth. They wanted to shoot her latest collection—a vibrant amalgam of modern minimalism and Indian codes—against this scenic backdrop, but the trip soon became a deeply emotional one as well. “We visited this holy river where my father’s ashes were scattered and it was so moving to see my work and interpretation of my heritage, which has previously only been shown in Europe, resonate and retain the same narrative there,” says Lele. “In a way this river became a metaphor of sorts—it was like a homecoming.”
Lele is a 2020 LVMH Prize finalist, one of two Indian designers in one of the most diverse classes in the seven-year history of the prize. The other is Nigerian-Indian menswear designer Priya Ahluwalia. Their nominations speak to greater recent global interest in the subcontinent’s fashion talents, in no small part thanks to India’s booming apparel market. McKinsey’s 2019 State of Fashion Report highlighted India’s rapid ascent, predicting that the market will be worth US$59.3 billion by 2022 and that its economic growth will soon outpace that of China, Brazil and Mexico.
In the last year, this has led more than 300 international brands, including Uniqlo, which opened its first India store last October in New Delhi, to flock to feed on its fertile ground. Embroidery exports are also up 500 per cent from two decades ago, fuelled by demand from European fashion houses with a penchant for its rich history of textiles and plethora of craftsmen. Growing interest has also magnified the spotlight on design talents like Lele, revealing not only their skills but also their respect for craft and sustainability, something that has long been a part of India’s heritage.
Through The Generations
Lele remembers buying her first saris with her mother. “You’d go to the fabric shop with your mother and sister and friends, and you sit down and sip tea while the tailor brings out roll upon colourful roll for you to look at,” she says. “It’s a long, beautiful, intergenerational process to make this dress that is meant to be passed down.” Lele aspires for her designs to have a similar thread of timelessness.
Anaita Shroff Adajania, celebrity stylist, costume designer and fashion director of Vogue India, similarly sees the unique value in India’s heritage. “We’d wrap our clothes in muslin cloth and spices so that moths don’t eat them, as they’re passed on for generations and generations. Our clothes have always held our stories.”
India’s embroiderers were first officially called karigars (from the Urdu word for “artisan”) in the 1500s. They were skilled in sequin, beadwork and chikan embroidery and congregated in Mumbai, while places like Gujarat became known for jacquards, moss crepes and georgette sheers. Move 100 km in any direction and you’d find artisans who were masters of a form of weaving specific to their locale. While that diversity forms a magical mosaic for creativity, it also historically posed problems for creating systematic approaches to commoditising or unifying the market. Even today businesses in India have to take into account fashion tastes as varied as the spices in their dishes.
“In the south, they’re very much textile-driven, more about gold than diamond, whereas in the north, the only region with a semblance of winter, they like uncut, bulky jewellery to go with embellishment, and then in Mumbai you’ll find people to be more experimental and cool, and Calcutta is very much the intellectual hub so clothes often follow that,” explains Sujata Assomull, author and founding editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar India.
Through the Seventies, there were really no designers, models or fashion labels to speak of. The value of a garment was judged solely by its composition and the skill of the tailor. “The master cutter was like the god of the shop,” says Adajania, who recalls the atmosphere around the man who worked in her grandfather’s bespoke tailoring shop.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that India saw the arrival of fashion schools—the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi being the first, opened by the Ministry of Textiles in 1986 with the help of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. A formal education system played a pivotal role in training and producing the country’s first fashion designers. The economic boom and liberation of the Nineties also saw the influx of garment businesses from the West, and that, coupled with a rise in women joining the workforce, inspired designers to shift from a made-to-order business model to the production of full ready-to-wear lines. International fashion magazines also landed in India, Elle being one of the first in 1996, followed by the likes of Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar within a 10-year window.
As modern fashion began to flourish, the first Indian Fashion Week hosted by the Fashion Design Council launched in 2000 as a platform for aspiring designers, but the 20th-century invention that most significantly shaped India’s perception of style was Bollywood, where fashion was beamed into every person’s home, complete with a song and dance.
“There are two things that matter in India: cricket and Bollywood,” says Assomull. “When we first got television in people’s houses, we only had the Doordarshan (the government-owned, public-service broadcaster), and every Sunday the families would gather to watch the one Bollywood film it showed. That was when the tradition began of film being the landscape where people saw beautiful fashion.” By extension, and still today, stylists to the stars like Rhea Kapoor and Adajania wield enormous power in dictating trends. “In one of the films I styled, called Dhoom, I put the lead character John Abraham in a leather biker jacket—bizarre in our hot climate, I know—but once the film was out I saw tons of boys dressing like that in 35-degree heat,” says Adajania.
For the average Indian woman, her Bollywood moment and chance to show off her fashion choices was, and still is, on her big day. “Remember, our weddings are like multi-day theatrical productions,” says Assomull. “It’s our debutante ball, Met Gala and Oscars night all rolled into one.” This tradition has fuelled India’s US$50 billion bridal industry, a part of fashion rather unique in its scope to the country. As a result, the most successful bridal-couture designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Manish Malhotra became the pinnacles of what it meant to be a fashion designer in India. “It’s an Indian designer you’ll go to for an Indian wedding or occasion,” adds Assomull. “So they’ll never have to compete with the international designers.”
Today the West’s relationship with India’s vibrant fashion history is fraught at best. In 1700 and 1721 the Calico Acts banned the import and sale of cotton textiles into England to protect British wool and silk industries, which spoke to how the West at once acknowledged the value and quality of Indian fabrics but also saw them to be a threat. Centuries later, India continues to be one of the largest sources of fabrics and accessories for Western fashion houses like Christian Dior and Saint Laurent, companies that reportedly tapped the country’s profusion of craftsmen but took advantage of its lack of legal infrastructure.
Artisans were sometimes marginalised and exploited, leading to tragedies like the notorious 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in neighbouring Bangladesh, killing 1,100 workers. Relationships continue to be strained—just in March, The New York Times published an investigative report, exposing the Utthan (Sanskrit for “upliftment”) pact signed by members including Kering and LVMH to ameliorate worker conditions; the report found that the pact was not legally binding and most brands did little to comply.
But things are changing, if slowly. “Recently there’s been more willingness to admit that [these brands] have been sourcing from India forever, and there’s a coolness factor in transparency, especially in a time where diversity is one of the biggest conversations in fashion,” says Assomull. The Chennai-based embroidery firm Vastrakala, part of Chanel’s Maison Lesage in charge of ornamentation of its couture collections, is one of the few that does it right, highlighting and facilitating an equal exchange of knowledge with its Indian artisans. High-profile collaborations like that of Sabyasachi x H&M launching this autumn, and International prizes like the LVMH Prize and International Woolmark Prize that seek out, award and provide financial backing for budding designers from around the world have also been crucial in putting Indian designers on the map.
One of its greatest success stories is 40-year-old Rahul Mishra, who became the first Indian designer to be invited onto the Haute Couture calendar just this year and showed his first collection in Paris in January. Mishra has an impressive rags-to-riches story, complete with a childhood of mud-house classrooms and matchboxes or shoe polish cans as toys. “My father understandably wanted me to be an engineer,” he says. “He saw how artisans would struggle to sustain a livelihood; the last thing he wanted was for his son to be a lady’s tailor.” Mishra went on to prove him wrong, becoming a designer of many firsts for the country, winning a scholarship to Milan’s Istituto Maragoni, then the 2014 International Woolmark Prize (beating out tough competition like Altuzarra and Ffixxed Studios), which earned him a spot on the Paris Fashion Week ready-to-wear calendar for the last 11 seasons, and now couture.
Mishra is renowned for delicate sheer overlays with fluttering appliques mixed with fluid tunics in modern shapes, reminiscent of Indian kurtis. Having reached the top, however, he began to see holes in the fabric of European fashion and was determined to weave a new narrative.
“My success gave me confirmation that my clothes have a global appeal, but being in Europe and learning the business side of fashion taught me that fashion has lost its way,” he says. “It’s become about opening up more stores or creating more advertising, and I just didn’t want to succumb to the fashion forecast—I wanted my clothes to have a purpose.” The designer has become a lauded figure in his home country for providing jobs for almost 700 people in villages from Hooghly, West Bengal, to Delhi, each reportedly earning 20 per cent more than other equivalent jobs. “I didn’t get into fashion just to fuel business—otherwise, why would I bother fighting my father? I could have just been a trader.”
Across the board, Indian talents today are incredibly proud of and eager to use their hard-earned attention to expose their roots, take the best parts of their heritage and share them in modern ways. “There used to be a huge cachet in India to have that Western tag, but in recent times that’s receded,” says Assomull. “There’s this realisation that attention is on India because that’s where the market is now and these young designers take pride in creating clothes that don’t necessarily scream India but that tell stories of our home country and values.”
I didn’t get into fashion just to fuel business—otherwise, why would I bother fighting my father? I could have just been a trader— Rahul Mishra
Sustainability is the key
Menswear designer and Lele’s fellow finalist in this year’s LVMH Prize, Priya Ahluwalia, also paid pilgrimage to her ancestral countries, first to Lagos, Nigeria, her father’s city, where people on the streets wearing the 2012 London Marathon and Korean T-shirts piqued her interest. Then she visited India, her mother’s homeland, specifically Panipat, 90 km north of Delhi, to photograph one of the largest global garment recycling hubs in the world.
This became the spark behind her sustainability-focused eponymous label, where she applies traditional textile techniques to overflowing supplies of vintage and deadstock fabrics to create her streetwear collections. “Culturally India and Nigeria are quite similar in the way that people are encouraged not to waste things, and this has definitely influenced my work,” she says. “I think something can become sustainable if the person buying it is attached to its story, which will stop them from throwing it away and encourage them to pass it down to someone else. I hope people will want to hold onto my clothes forever.” Filled with nostalgic, patchwork tracksuits and checkerboard prints, Ahluwalia’s fall-winter 2020 collection dived deep into 1965, the year her stepfather was born.
Similarly, Lele sifted through her parents’ pasts for inspiration. When she first sought to design a top based on sari blouse silhouettes, her mother offered up one she no longer wore for her daughter to dissect. Lele opened up the pattern and looked inside, finding that the seam allowances were so large it meant people could let it out and alter its shape as much as they needed. “This malleability gave me such a strong sense of how people approached their clothes—it was never about buying one thing after another, tossing the old things out,” she says. “It’s about cherishing them, which is part of the sustainability that people are just talking about now.”
In the dying embers of sunset that spilled over the Narmada River, Lele’s clothes seemed to take on new colour. Though daringly modern in cut and style compared to those on the ladies in the small village who looked on with curiosity, their resonance with the scene was overwhelming. “I really consider myself a proud hybrid of two worlds and times,” she says, “but seeing one side of me meet the other, it felt like the completion of a circle.”
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