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Indian Fashion Formidable Soft Power

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.

Written by The Indian Express | Updated: September 3, 2014 1:33:02 pm

Indian crafts and textiles are as old as we remember but the organised fashion industry has only been around for 25 years. This makes the cause of Indian fashion more complex than colourful. The latest edition of Express Adda in Delhi,presented by Reid & Taylor in association with Olive Beach,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,The Express Group,and Shefalee Vasudev,National Features Editor,The Indian Express,brought up issues that surround fashion in modern India. Rigorous interjections from an engaged audience that included important members of the fashion industry led to a multi-dimensional discussion


The Change

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 didn’t 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 it.


Craft is beautiful but it’s very difficult to manage and maintain. As we moved towards making clothes,as opposed to just textiles,the government didn’t support weaver centres to update technology and make modern,versatile fabrics. Look at how poorly khadi was projected. Also,why weren’t the costumes of the Royal India exhibition,which 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 departmental stores abroad; no one taught about our culture. But now,there’s great scope for revival. We should shrug off our socialism and colonialism.

Evolution of Style

People are now beginning to find their style identities to match their personalities. There isn’t one thing that can be defined as truly Indian,except maybe the Indian wedding — that has become completely over the top.

Media on Fashion

It was great fodder for journalists who didn’t have much to write about — to paint this industry as wild. I’ve 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. The big actresses have all used modeling as a stepping stone to Bollywood.


Evolution of Style

India hasn’t 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 won’t say we’re 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 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,it’s hardly ever passed.

Each designer in the business for 10 or 15 years should’ve had the courage (and the responsibility) to build a business that did not necessarily depend on government support,or for that matter,one that was in competition with a Zara,a Marks & Spencer or a Home Store — as we all knew they would be coming here. About 10 years ago,I woke up and realised 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 won’t wait for government support.

Passing on the Legacy

Yes,there is a well-defined succession plan. We are talking to some very serious investors and if some of that comes through,they will take franchise 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 but they want to know where I’m going and who I’m meeting. The story about my hard work is boring for the media.

Retail Competition

We should overcome the problem of scalability — whether it’s through investments or by raising our finances or through debt — so that we can build an infrastructure to have a more ready-to-wear line,which is more accessible.



I strongly believe that being swadeshi is a very interesting part of our roots,something we should not deviate from,because we have a 2,000-year-old textile tradition. Cotton and pashma have mention in the puranas as well. Modernity is imposing textiles on us which haven’t been a part of our culture,traditionally. Instead of looking inwards,we are doing away with things that have taken years to evolve.

Very few understand the making of a craft. Perhaps now there is an awareness about hand-made. You have the craft mark,you have various logos that bring attention to what the craft is about. Twenty years ago,it wasn’t the case. In 2003,we introduced bamboo fibre as an alternative textile and no one even knew that India was the second largest bamboo-producing nation in the world — the North-East being the major centre.

Working with the Government

In the last 10 years,I tried several times to work with the government on a lot of projects,and each time,it was nothing short of a nightmare.



Pay and competition is all fine,but I am not too sure if there is more professionalism now. In our days,we were more committed,had more drive and passion than today’s models. It was completely choreographed; I used to take my cue sheets home,study them at night — it was like going for an exam. You miss one cue and throw the whole ship out of balance.

Media and Fashion

Showing a frivolous image of fashion models gets more readership as opposed to their 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,something’s got to give because fashion shows did happen and were successful when we models (not the stars) were show-stoppers. We need to get back to ensuring that the garment becomes the star of the show instead of Bollywood. It’s about fashion after all.


After Independence,there was a ban on all kinds of imports —a button,a zip or anything — which 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 we had,and we did a great job unlike other countries where MNCs were so strong that they wiped out indigenous choices. Now after 40-45 years,India has a fairly strong and individualistic fashion industry. It will face problems in scale because it can’t grow without support. I don’t think anybody quite understands what the Indian designer is up against. If you have a Zara or a Mango versus an Indian designer who’s selling modern westernised clothes in that price bracket,it’s a huge war. They don’t have the finances or infrastructure,and they still exist! That,to my mind,is the miracle of Indian fashion.

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