It was with some astonishment that I read the piece ‘For a Leading Light of Indian Fashion, All That Glitters Is Not Gold’ in The New York Times that details the rise and fall of Paris-based Indian fashion designer, Manish Arora. In the midst of a pandemic and right after a contentious election, the mighty NYT deems him worthy of a 2,000 plus word article (even as it holds him up as a shining example of spectacular failure). No Indian newspaper would have given him so much space. However, the professional obituary it wrote required a more nuanced framing, in the larger context of international fashion.
For the uninitiated, before leaving his business in tatters and accumulating a trail of debt, Arora had been a trailblazer for Indian fashion, his vividly theatrical outfits blending the best of Indian tradition with an aura of ecstatic rebellion. The first time I met him was in 2001, when he ran up to me squealing, since I was wearing a white shirt with a red leather-embossed rose, his interpretation of Nehruvian style. Arora himself was wearing black jeans and a black T-Shirt that said “Ladies Tailor”, a wry ode to the anonymous tailors operating in every crowded gully of this country. In an interview in those early days, when asked whether there was a market for his unapologetically flashy clothes, he replied unfazed, “If nobody buys them, I’ll wear them myself.” Arora drove a bubble-gum pink Ambassador and when he found out that the Amby was going out of production, he bought a second one as spare, saying he couldn’t imagine himself in any other car.
I’m not sure this provides a sense of Arora’s unique sensibility but he did what no other textile designer has managed to do: Take ancient Indian embroideries, jazz them up, and find them a centrestage in the global marketplace. Two of his creations were showcased at the World of Wearable Art extravaganza held in New Zealand. One of those caught the eye of Katy Perry, who wore his carousel dress, shaped like a circus merry-go-round, to the MTV awards in 2008. It was mad and it is unforgettable. I remember meeting his Japanese buyers from Tokyo, dressed head to toe by him, proud to be identified as Manish groupies. Arora’s fashion shows were reminiscent of the Aurora Borealis, a spectacle of dazzling neon on the ramp, exactly the way those stars dance across the sky. But that’s the thing with meteorites, one minute they’re lighting up the universe, the next they’re crashing down to earth, burnt out, washed up and over.
History is replete with examples of football legends turned penniless and pop stars running through a fortune because of bad decisions and megalomania. Fame is a funny beast. There is so much pressure to be the star the world thinks you are that you lose track of what’s important.
Arora’s clothes are dramatic showstoppers but they’re not sexy. Only those blessed with slim good looks and a penchant for the extraordinary will gravitate towards them. When you’re running a business, you can’t afford to be so stratospherically cool that only Lady Gaga gets it (She is a fan). Arora’s biggest blunder was not hiring a bespectacled IIT/IIM grad, the kind who’d sit behind a glass cubicle and sip green tea, to decide his business plan. He needed a partner who’d complement his creativity, not a combustible alter ego. It must be said that none of the other Indian designers referenced by the NYT and benchmarked against Arora are relevant anywhere, except among a small bubble of elites in Delhi and Mumbai. To his credit, Arora made it to Paris, he just didn’t have the wherewithal to survive there.
What’s amply clear is that behind all the glitz and glamour, India’s fashion industry is largely a mom-and-pop enterprise, operating in a haphazard and unstructured manner. It is a matter of national shame that crores of talented people employed in unorganised sectors (not restricted to fashion) lead desperately precarious lives, entirely at the mercy of whimsical bosses; who, depending on their mood and their own expenses, may or may not clear dues. This appears to be a deep-rooted cultural malaise. It is common practice for event companies to employ one person dedicated to chasing payments. Just weeks ago, a prominent TV anchor was in jail because an interior designer he owed money to died by suicide citing financial difficulties. Will the wealthy and privileged ever stop asserting themselves over the downtrodden? No. We are like this only.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 21, 2020 under the title ‘A star goes out of style’. The writer is director, Hutkay Films
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