Given that Indian crafts and textiles are as old as we remember but the organised fashion industry has only been around for 25 years makes the cause of Indian fashion more complex than colourful. The latest edition of Express Adda in Delhi in association with Olive Beach and Reid & Taylor debated the challenges for designers who have given the industry a strong impetus despite little or no support from the government. An informal and intense conversation between veteran designers Suneet Varma,Tarun Tahiliani,Madhu Jain and India’s first supermodel Anna Bredemeyer with Shekhar Gupta,Editor in Chief of Express Group and Shefalee Vasudev,National Features Editor,The Indian Express brought up issues that surround fashion in modern India. Rigourous interjections from an engaged audience that included important members of the fashion industry led to a multi-dimensional discussion.
If I was parachuted down 150 years back into India,I could tell which part of the country I was in because people draped fabrics in different ways. We didnt have a tailoring tradition; it was lots of layering through fabric and beautiful crafts on textiles. We have gone from the drape tradition towards structure. Some of it we have taken from the West but also our lifestyles have changed and that demands this because we live differently today.
Craft is beautiful,but its very difficult to manage and maintain. As we moved towards making clothes,as opposed to just textiles,the government did not support weaver centres to update technology and make modern,versatile fabrics. Look at how poorly khadi was projected. Also,why wasn’t the costumes of royal India exhibition that went to New York and Tokyo shown in India? When NIFT was set up,it took a western orientation,they didn’t have an embroidery course for 15 years. They taught pattern-making,how to export little frocks for big department stores abroad,no one taught about our culture. But now theres great scope for revival and we should shrug off our socialism and colonialism.
Evolution of Style
People are now beginning to find their style identities to match their personalities or their way of life. There isnt one thing that can be defined as truly Indian,except maybe the Indian Wedding,that has obviously become completely over the top.
Media on Fashion
It was great fodder for journalists who didnt have much to write about,to paint this industry as wild. Ive seen the images myself.
Bollywood in fashion
We use Bollywood because we are guaranteed that you will put it on top of your paper the next morning. It works with NRIs as well. Bollywood is a powerful thing and people are obsessed with stars. Look at the big actresses,they have all used modeling as a stepping stone to Bollywood.
Evolution of Style
India hasnt had a style statement for a very long time it was best defined as bad style. In mid to late 80s and early 90s,it was probably bad style well done because it was camouflaged like that. Now there is true,good,Indian style. I wont say were responsible for all the current good style,but it has a lot to do with fashion education,internet,TV,travel,exposure and international brands coming in here.
Working with the Government
We have all been invited by the government to do shows abroad. At that point it suited them very well-they wanted someone who could speak English properly and project India in a positive manner. However,when it comes to India and asking for a particular loan,its hardly ever passed.
Each designer in the business atleast ten or 15 years shouldve had the courage (and the responsibility) to build a business that did not necessarily depend on government support or for that matter,build a business that was in competition with a Zara,a Marks&Spencers or a Home Store as we all knew they would be coming here. About ten years ago,I woke up and realized that my business was going to go astray and I was not going to be able to do anything. So I decided to start consulting because I was professionally qualified to be a design person. Today my consulting business is possibly as large as my retail. I decided several years ago that I wont wait for government support. I was going to build my own career.
Passing on the Legacy
Yes,there is a very well-planned succession plan. We are talking to some very serious investors and if some of that comes through then they will take franchisee of a particular part of my name and I will focus on the couture and consulting and hopefully in five years they will buy the rest of the business out and take it forth.
Media on fashion
Someone wrote in the cover story of a magazine-Suneet Varma gels his hair-which is fine because I do-and purses his lips for magazine covers. Then I wrote to the editor How do you think I pay 200 people their salary every month? Gelling my hair? I might work from 9 am to 9 pm. They want to know where Im going and who Im meeting. The story about my hard work is boring for the media.
We should overcome the problem of scalability whether its through investments or raising our own finances or though debt- so we can build an infrastructure to have a more ready-to-wear line so that its more accessible to the people.
I strongly believe that being swadeshi is a very interesting part of our roots,something we should not deviate from because we have a 2000 year old textile tradition. Cotton and pashma have mention in the puranas as well. Modernity is imposing textiles on us which traditionally havent been a part of our culture. Instead of looking inwards,we are doing away with things that have taken years and years to evolve.
Very few understand the making of a craft. Perhaps now there is an awareness about handmade. You have the craft mark,you have various logos that bring attention to what the craft is about. Twenty years ago,this was not there. So it was very difficult to explain to consumers what a particular craft was all about. In 2003,we introduced bamboo fibre as an alternative textile and no one even knew that India was the 2nd largest bamboo producing nation in the world,the north-east being the major centre.
Working with the Government
In last 10 yrs,I tried several times to work with the governement on a lot of projects,and each time,it was nothing short of a nightmare.
Pay and competition is all fine,but is there more professionalism? Im not too sure about that. In my days we were more committed,had more drive and passion than todays models. It was completely choreographed,I used to take my cue sheets home,study them at night,it was like going for an exam. Because you miss one cue and one step and throw the whole ship out of balance.
Media and Fashion
Showing a frivolous image of fashion models gets more readership as opposed to work on the ramp. To a large extent,it is about the press. If you have an event,the press will only cover if they know who all will be there. However somethings got to give because fashion shows did happen and were successful when we models (not the stars) were showstoppers. We need to get back to ensuring that the garment become the star of the show instead of the Bollywood. Its about fashion after all.
After Independence,there was a stoppage on all kinds of imports a button,a zip or anything that gave us those 20-30 years to understand the crafts,our only alternative. We did not get highly professional,because we had to do with all the beautiful textiles that we had,and we did a great job unlike in other countries where the MNCs were so strong that they wiped out indigenous choices. Now,after 40-45 years,India has a fairly strong,individualistic,fashion industry. It will face problems in scale — because it cannot grow without support. I dont think anybody quite understands what the Indian designer is up against. If you have a Zara or a Mango versus an Indian designer whos selling modern westernised clothes in that price brackets,theyre up against a huge war. They dont have the finances,they dont have the infrastructure,and they still exist! That,to my mind is the miracle of Indian fashion!