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Alt+Fashion

Switch to Bungalow 8 in Mumbai and though it may be large and contemporary,there’s a similar sense of independence and freedom from the tried and tested.

Written by Shefalee Vasudev | New Delhi | Published: October 14, 2012 2:41:31 am

Switch to Bungalow 8 in Mumbai and though it may be large and contemporary,there’s a similar sense of independence and freedom from the tried and tested.

Switch to Bungalow 8 in Mumbai and though it may be large and contemporary,there’s a similar sense of independence and freedom from the tried and tested. This is the motto that Maithili Ahluwalia,the woman behind the hugely-succesful store,lives by. It is modern and edgy,but minus the tyranny of clichés like ‘pink is the new black’ or why an autumn-winter collection is incomplete without straight trousers that sets it apart. Ahluwalia says she feels blessed that she has managed to interpret fashion on her own terms.

Garg and Ahluwalia are two prominent examples of a growing tribe of indie fashion promoters in India. What began in a small but determined way with Mumbai’s Melange in the late Nineties (run by fashion entrepreneur Sangita Sinh Kathiwada) and later got a contemporary shot in the arm from Priya Kishore’s Bombay Electric (now six years old) is now a visible movement. It may not be formally called indie fashion but like independent documentary films,new Hindi cinema,indie musicians who sing,produce and market their own music or the character artiste who often delivers a punchier performance than the star,this,too,is a contrarian movement. It attracts artisanal-minded designers who are willing to pay the price of walking the alternative path. They neither create nor favour what’s known as commercial fashion — sexy,fitted,synthetic,over-embellished with logos sticking out. You won’t find them participating at fashion weeks because they have freed themselves from the pressure to create for “editorial and media”.

Ahluwalia says fashion weeks are not her destination as a fashion buyer. She uses words like non-conformist,independent and alternative to articulate her position. “There is a mismatch of vision. The Indian market is looking for something intimate,smaller and special — a unique voice which is what my customers come to me for,” she says. Her store works as a tool box to fashion a distinctive look. Similarly,Garg’s Raw Mango has not only made him a recognisable name amongst the glitterati and the heritage-conscious,but also makes him a mentor to a new generation of Chanderi weavers. Garg’s dilemmas are as intense as his convictions that have kept him away from mainstream fashion. He wonders,whether the growth of a design label must be mapped through the number of retail destinations or visibility through shows and advertisements. “I am not even sure whether I want to become ‘big’ in the conventional sense of the term. I want to learn how to be consistent instead of changing with seasons and occasions,” he says.

Garg has not mounted his reinterpreted Chanderi weaves at any fashion week so far. The only time he went to see a fashion show,he left midway. He doesn’t have a flagship store though he retails from Good Earth and other multi-brand stores in various cities. “Growth is about champions who walk slowly. I don’t want to run,” he says. These days,he says,he is reading about Japanese design label Muji to understand the processes behind logo-less fashion.

Vinita Passary,owner of Hyderabad’s only alternative fashion store Anonym,and another member of the tribe,doesn’t even stock India’s “established” designers. “I have never worked with big names like Tarun Tahiliani or Rohit Bal. I find Bal too ruled by fashion’s commercial interests to suit the sensibility of my store,” she says.

These style-makers of indie fashion are bored with the overdone formula of cinema stars as showstoppers and sponsored shows where collections are created as surrogate advertisements for alcohol or mobile phone companies. They refrain from sourcing or producing repetitive,easily-available clothing. What Ahluwalia calls a “a kind of backlash to global fashion week platforms” and Garg sums up as “narrowing down the sari to a crocodile on the pallu with tassels,crystals and accompanied by a backless choli” is to Savio Jon,Goa’s independent designer,“all about following one’s heart.” Jon is not averse to fashion weeks in principle and has even participated in a few but says his instincts are distanced from an industry drawn to sponsorships. “I gravitate towards anti-establishment concepts,not towards the popular. So I only mount collections when I have something to say. I have come to be associated with resort wear but even inside it,when everyone is doing colour,I find myself doing non-colour,” says Jon. Though he retails from multi-brand fashion stores,the reason he doesn’t have a flagship store is because he is not comfortable seeing his name on a store billboard.

Each of these designers has a self-defined purpose and also seem to be on the same track. Like Bangalore-based Chandrashekhar,42,who owns the label Metaphor. His fashion is about rip,mend,recreate,rework. His Rag line,he says,symbolises his philosophy as a designer,which he creates from discarded material and leftover fabrics. Without worrying about shape,fit,form or flavour of the season as he calls it,he “buys” leftover fabrics from local cloth stores to recreate them into pieces of art. “Art is empathetic,craft maybe about imposing something on a piece. I am an anti-brand person,” he says. Chandrashekar’s Rag line is hand-sewn without any intervention of pedal-machine needles. “Different and passionate are surface words,they are for big people. I am a nobody,” he says,admitting that he is free from the “institutionalised” aspects of the fashion industry because he is not into mass clothing. “I don’t even know how to finish a garment.”

This group of designers and retailers,who speak of a “unique,individual voice in fashion”,seem to share a vocabulary — one that emphasises the freedom to choose and live by that choice. Ahluwalia says they are fortunate as the youth of post-liberalised India to be able to make these choices.

Ritika Tickoo,39,the co-founder of Pune’s Either Or,an alternative design and fashion store,calls indie fashion a celebration of the “alternative inside the mainstream to provide a platform to sustain and nourish craft,fashion and design for its sake,not for validation.” She says,“Fashion weeks tend to stereotype and demand a distinct format,including trends and colours. That is not our agenda. To do your own thing is definitely more liberating.” Like Passary and Chandrashekhar,Tickoo is not trained in fashion. “None of our founder members are trained in design or fashion,yet we bring a story together. We are self-taught. Our inspiration is the chaos that is India,” she says.

What sounds inspirational,even flush with freedom’s lightness,still needs to be commercially viable. Garg seems to have found a way. He admits that financially he has grown “350 times in the four years of inception.” Jon,on the other hand,says that working independently is daunting in the initial stages “as the big daddies try to stamp you down” but if you stay there long enough,a comfort level emerges. “It is a phase,” he adds. As for money,he styles on the side to support his freedom. “Even in styling,I go by my guts,” he says.

There is little doubt that indie fashion has a sturdy future especially because of the emerging indie consumer in India. These are people who are more interested in style than in trends and sustainable ideas. They repeat their clothes instead of dumping them each season. You can see them at airports and markets,in libraries,in corporate houses,wearing fashion in their own way instead of being dictated by a brand’s advertisement or ramp look. They certainly don’t shop in Dubai; for them,malls may be great as places to hang out,but they will not touch a crystal-encrusted tunic to wear it with a pair of black tights. Which is why retailers like Ahluwalia,Passary,Kishore or Tickoo are busy finding ways to offer the indie fashionista a clear “voice”. “Either Or is about discovering your own unique flamboyance and style. We are here to support you in your aesthetic and sartorial journeys ,as co-travellers,not an overwhelming brand or designer to make you something you are not,” says Tickoo. Ahluwalia stocks lesser known fashion labels like A Peace Treaty by Dana Arbib and Farah Malik and Deepa Gurnani,who makes jewellery and accessories (both labels work out of the US but only with Indian textiles or materials),as well as Chinar Farooqui,the former partner of Aneeth Arora in their joint label Gaba,among others. Passary added the Translate Ikat project to her portfolio this year,with clothing solutions made from handwoven Ikat for men,women and children.

Each of these designers and retailers favour the handmade over the mass-manufactured. That,in fact,is their raison d’être. “It is about the hand indeed,as it is about sensitive unique clothing. This is our subtle way of rebelling.

The anti-trend is the trend,” says Ahluwalia.

But handmade is a painstaking processes — it involves longer hours,fewer pieces,can be expensive if you are (as you should be) into fair trade practices and can not compete with designers who sell multiple consignments to fashion week buyers. Amit and Richard of Amrich would agree. The two met as students of National Institute of Design,Ahmedabad. Richard,29,is from Ahmedabad and Amit,35,from Kolkata. They moved to Delhi after debuting at Lakme Fashion Week’s GenNext show in 2006. They have not gone back to a fashion week since and don’t have a flagship studio. “Not that we are against it,but we wanted to learn the logistics of craft before plunging into the industry,” says Amit. Their first collection was non-embellished,non-embroidered and had Shibori and other dyeing techniques as the signature. “We were warned that fashion stores will not respond to our work,but they did. Today,we don’t show at fashion weeks but are stocked by at least 14 stores across India,” he says.

Ahluwalia,Passary and Tickoo may have it slightly easier to pursue their choices being store owners themselves,but indie designers like Garg,Chandrashekhar,Jon or Amrich need retailers like them to make a point. “Initially,we used to chase stores to consider stocking us,now they do the chasing,” says Chandrashekhar. He,like Garg,stocks from Melange and Ensemble among others. Indie fashion isn’t just being pushed by alternative stores but also by mainstream fashion buyers like Tina Tahiliani of Ensemble whose vision hasn’t allowed her store to become just a hunting ground for predictable fashion. She understands the impulse of the changing market and the transition is reflected in what she stocks in her stores.

Considering the fact that mainstream fashion itself is engaging with the alternative (a majority of designers now emphasise the handmade and the textile legacy of India),the two paths may become mutually more tolerant of each other soon. They may,in fact,compete as well as feed into each other. That’s why Garg is so confident when he says. “One day I will become a trend,” he says. He may be right.

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