It's now or never
THERE is nothing Indian anymore. It is global. It is got to be. At least, Indians have to compete internationally to be not just recognised, but even taken a cursory note of.
Indian fashion appears to be in a dilemma. Must it give up what is essentially Indian to find a place on the ramps and roads of Paris or Milan or London or New York or anywhere else? Or, can Indian designers style ethnic stuff in a way that it will mix and match with clothes outside our own borders?
The answers to these may not be simple or easy. But Indian stylists have realised, albeit a little too late in the day, that whatever they create must have class and quality. While, it may not be hard to reach a degree of class, Indian fashion gurus have often found that excellence in workmanship — sometimes as basic as hemming or sewing a button on a garment — is extremely difficult to achieve.
Gitanjali Kashyap, a designer based in New Delhi, has always lamented that tailors tend to let her down. And, they do make the ultimate difference. She could conceive a brilliant idea, get the right fabric and embellishments, but the man who sits at the sewing machine or with a needle and thread can virtually destroy her dream. This is not the only hurdle that India's fashion industry meets. Whether anybody likes it or not, the fact is that there is very little originality in the clothes that one finds in boutiques. A lot of labels reveal the same old cuts one has seen for years, stylists do use a vulgar amount of garish colours and embellishments to try and distract the eye from the finer details of a garment.
Rina Dhaka, another designer from New Delhi, agrees with this and says with a touch of finality that minimalism and simplicity are essential to make a mark, particularly if one were to hope for a berth in the West.
Ravi Bajaj, also one who works out of New Delhi, sounds a note of alarm when he avers that it is now or never for Indian fashion to catch the global eye
"Admittedly, our industry is only 15 years old. We were mere fabricators. Yes, we moved on to become weavers. Now, we are embroiders, and this is our country's contribution to the world. This is our strength. Let us capitalise on this," Bajaj suggests.
Instead, Indian stylists are clamouring to win accolades by designing Western wear. Can they even hope to beat a John Galliano or a Tom Ford at what both are masters at? The scene seems very much like Indian cinema: get hold of a Hollywood blockbuster, change it a bit to suit the desi environment and garnish it with Indian actors and have a film ready.
Dhaka's latest attempt at creating a bikini collection for the West may look bold and provocative for an average Indian still steeped in Victorian morality, but to expect a French or an Italian woman to be attracted to these swimsuits may well be like chasing water in a desert.
One has not forgotten the Ritu Beri (also a New Delhi stylist) experience in Paris: she began with a bang and although it did not quite end in a whimper, her designs did not make the kind of impression that the Indian fashion press had once predicted.
Bajaj explains here: "It is, of course, difficult while being an Indian to create something for the Western market. You have to be there to feel the pulse. You have to know what the woman there wants. You have to understand her lifestyle."
This is pretty tough. May not even be feasible.
So, then, why not take a closer look at our craft of embroidery and fabrics to visualise a silhouette comparable to the best in the world in quality and finish?
It is not imperative to make great stuff only to sell it abroad. It is time we got out of a mindset that encourages duality of standards, one for Indians and the other for foreigners. Let us design perfection for ourselves, and who knows, this may be the best way of luring others.
But, before this, Indian fashion needs to reexamine the kind of reach it wants to strike. India has a very large market of millions, but most of them still cannot afford the kind of expensive fare most designers are offering.
Dhaka feels that it is the pret or ready-to-wear market that has immense potential in India. She has a store now in the capital which concentrates on this segment.
Some others of her ilk are also trying to switch over from being specialists in what they call "couture" (the more appropriate definition here will be "bridal costumes") to being generalists or turning out clothes for the masses.
Dhaka regrets that "we have not even penetrated a millimeter of the vast, vast Indian fashion market".
This can be tapped only if textile mills and financiers support individual stylists. The big houses of Paris or Milan or elsewhere work with mills to place on their conveyer belts thousands of pret creations.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated January 11 2004)