Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004





In Fashion…Valaya wear

The House of Valaya lies half way between New Delhi and Jaipur at a place called Manesar, well beyond Gurgaon. Designer Valaya’s secretary, Maria Sandberg, warns me good humouredly that I have to drive almost up to the Pink City. “Really”, I ask her. She laughs, and says not quite.

But the drive, long though from New Delhi, is well worth the effort. Valaya is royal in many ways. Courteous to the point of making me feel absolutely charmed, the Sikh designer (has there been any other in his community, I wonder) grew up in Jodhpur and found his inspiration in the bygone era of royal India, where leisure led to luxurious yearnings. One of them was the cultivated taste in costumes. We know the elaborate time that kings and queens took to decorate themselves with ornaments and the finest of silks and brocades.

Valaya drew his inspiration from these. But he fortified his style with a liberal dash of contemporary culture. The House of Valaya, opened in 1992, swears by this mantra, “The Future of the Past”. He works with traditional methods, borrowing from all over the country: His colours, texture and hand embroidery unite in sheer bliss. One can see Bengal’s Kantha, Rajasthan’s mirror work and Punjab’s flower patterns among other eclectic array of cultures in Valaya’s wear.

His high points are the sari, evening jackets for women and men’s suits and waistcoats. In these, he synthesises the ancient with the modern, the local with the global. In fact, he has often been hailed for fusing overtly Indian styles with a bold international look. One writer goes to the extent of saying that he has integrated the Indian village into the global arena. Valaya’s work “beholds further relevance as it signifies the emergence of local tradition within the global economy. Valaya has rejuvenated and redefined age-old Indian crafts as a profitable niche within the cosmopolitan market, allowing the valued artistic processes to live on despite the pressures of globalisation”.

And these, Valaya, tells me, have found many, many takers not just within the country, but beyond. The Gulf is a big market. People there are our cultural kins. Europe and the U.S. are also becoming increasingly interested in Indian styles. “We were the first to enter Dubai, which means the Gulf, 14 years ago. About two years ago, we opened our first flagship store in Dubai. We usually like to sell through our own shops. We do not like to retail through multi-brand outlets”, Valaya explains to me.

Women in the Gulf love our Kaftans, long tops and kurtas, and the region has an enormous buying power. Do women there wear fancy clothes, I ask him. “You would be surprised at the kind of stuff they wear under the black abhaya…Women have exclusive all-women gatherings, where I am told you can see the most fabulous fashion in the world happening. And only women get to see it. The men never.”

What the world also likes about India is its access to craft and mind-boggling array of fabrics and colours. You cannot get these anywhere else. And its weavers weave pure magic.

But having said this, “I must place a rider here. Indians love a lot of embroidery on their clothes. The Americans and the Europeans appreciate such decorations, but would not necessarily wear them. They would like a very modern, toned down version of the same thing”.

However, the awareness for Indian clothes is certainly on an upward spiral. Valaya gives me one example, which is but an important indicator of the trend and the mood. A group of Indians and Canadians has got together and opened an 11000-square-feet store – Indiva -- on Toronto’s plush fashion avenue, Bloor Street, and it sells only Indian designer wear. This is not the only instance: today you can go anywhere in the world and see prominence being given for Indian garments.

Valaya tells me that Indiva caters for an exclusive Western clientele. The trick is not to try and sell a sari, expecting the world to change its dress preference, but to offer Western silhouettes with Indian specialities: fabric, cut, embroidery and technique. You have to be smart about it. “You cannot play silly”, Valaya’s code to crack the Western mindset is clear.

Ultimately a designer has to create a unique signature which is recognisable, which people can relate to and want to come back to. “We can borrow from our history. It is so rich. So is our craft: Jamdhanis, Kantas, Kalamkaris, Phulkaris, and Zardosi. The possibilities are endless. Thank God, we are born Indians”, Valaya looks up!

Stepping back on Indian soil, the scene is superb, far brighter than the international one. The fashion weeks in New Delhi and Mumbai have managed to put up a semblance of organised retail in the country. Even B cities like Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Pune have now become aware of labels. The rise in spending power has something to do with the desire to sport designer wear. There is a greater aspiration to dress well, thanks to the economic boom that is sweeping the country.

Yet, prêt or ready-to-wear has not taken off as well as one had hoped it would. This is because prêt has been misinterpreted as “cheap stuff”. It is not, the other word for prêt is mass production. Prêt happens only if it can be backed by volumes. “We do not have, in the true sense of the word, a prêt designer”, Valaya rues.

The “sweet spot” that Valaya now sees is the one between couture and prêt. It is called the diffusion line. It is pretish, but not prêt. It is couturish, but not quite couture. The factors determining the diffusion line are price and numbers. Some affordability can be seen here.

But, then, Indian designer wear still retains an aura of mystery that creates a chasm between a possible buyer and the seller. What one still hears in the marketplace is that style labels are so stylish that they seem unwearable, and so pricey that they appear terribly snooty. Over to Valaya and other stylists.

(Webposted July 10 2007)