Champagne is flowing. Attendees are air-kissing, embracing in delight. Whispers of who's wearing what are drowning the sound of stilettos clicking on the steps of a Delhi luxury hotel. There are more shades of black in the waiting area than on a colour card. Paparazzi are clamouring for shots of influencers. Mutual admiration with “oh my god, I love what you are wearing” can be heard.
A week of India Couture Week was like watching a college reunion.
It’s true, there’s something magical about the energy of a physical fashion show that just can’t be replicated on the screen of a smartphone or a laptop, as was the case for the past two years. While that energy has remained intact, a few things have changed. This year, the front row, for instance, had more beauty bloggers and influencers than Bollywood stars, hinting at how designers' publicity strategies have changed. The phone cameras obstructed the view of the ramp. Perhaps, the biggest change of all was someone’s quiet absence—the showstopper.
The showstopper is a unique India-only concept where a celebrity, mostly someone from the Hindi film industry, walks arm-in-arm with the designer towards the end of the show to applaud their genius. Rahul Mishra, J.J. Valaya and Amit Aggarwal were among the designers who chose their clothes to do the talking instead of a celebrity.
Tarun Tahiliani was also one of them. On 22 July, as the 60-year-old couturier clapped for his models and walked with them to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s A Natural Woman, you knew who he wanted to be the hero of the show. “Why would you want to take away the focus from the garments,” Tahiliani asks. He’s among the few Indian designers who has not had too many celebrity showstoppers for his shows in the past. “It’s self-defeating, to be honest. Once I had an actor walk for me and the press asked them more questions about their films, their workout routine, instead of the clothes. I prefer not to have them, but my public relations team gets hyper, so sometimes I give in but it’s something I’m definitely not in favour of.”
Garment and craftsmanship should be the highlight of any fashion show, insists Mishra, who has just returned from showcasing his Tree Of Life collection at the Paris Haute Couture Week. Full of bling and intricate embroidery (a personal favourite was a black sheer bodysuit with golden embroidery growing out like mushrooms), the same collection with some changes was presented inside a French embassy hall in Delhi on 23 July.
“Instead of investing money in a celebrity or a set, I can utilise it to better pay my artisans. All these costs are paid by the customer at the end of the day. Why would I want to increase my price to give to an actor? It’s not fair to the consumer,” he tells me. Mishra insists he’s not against the idea of having a showstopper, but he “never had a reason to use one. Celebs come with their own baggage and demands; it becomes difficult to concentrate on your work because you know you’ve to take care of them as well. These are things driven more by the sponsor; they want a celeb face to grab eyeballs. But it’s a clothes show. The next day, you want people to talk about your clothes and not which celebrity came to the show and what they were wearing.”
In a country obsessed with Bollywood and cricket, having a celebrity showstopper can be a double-edged sword. It might help draw a bigger crowd and get more likes on Instagram but, as both Mishra and Tahiliani pointed out, it can restrict a consumer to remembering only that one outfit Tabu wore as a showstopper from a collection of 30 garments.
J.J. Valaya has often had actors close his shows. Not this couture week, though. “I have realised that it’s not a right practice. I’m open to the idea of having someone with a refined fashion style that matches my brand ethos but in the end, clothes are the champion. My collection (this time) was also a celebration of my 30 years (in the business). I knew it was a powerful collection. Some garments took eight months to make. Having a showstopper would have been distracting,” he says.
The concept of the showstopper began to take shape in 1990s, with designer Shahab Durazi being largely responsible for it. In collaboration with watch brand Longines, he presented a collection with Aishwarya Rai walking the ramp. At the same time, Rohit Bal presented a line with another watch brand, where Shah Rukh Khan closed the show.
“I’m vehemently opposed to this idea,” says Durazi when I ask him about the close affection the fashion industry has for celebrities as showstoppers. “It takes away the essence of the show. It’s defeatist to fashion. You take away all the charm of the craft, the brand, the tailors. People end up coming to the show to watch the actor.”
There are designers, however, who believe that having a celebrity adds to their brand. Anju Modi, for instance, had Aditi Rao Hydari close her show on 27 July at Taj Palace hotel. “For us, as a brand, celebrity muses/showstoppers have been integral. This helps us connect to the audience, which is driven by Bollywood. While there are shows and shoots without celebrity faces, each designer or brand has its own halo. Most of us designers bring celebrity showstoppers on board to make our shows more popular,” Modi says.
When selecting a showstopper, she ensures the celebrity matches the “vibe of the brand. I choose my muses on the basis of my story and the characteristics, their whole persona should match the narrative my collection is taking."
Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna, too, follow the same strategy. “We have ventured into full couture zone. We thought it would be a good idea to have a face that matches what we believe in,” say the designer-duo. Malaika Arora Khan walked the ramp of their show on 27 July.
In a world where getting likes and views on social media has become essential, it’s important to remember whether those numbers add value to the quality of fashion. In the end, the garment and the craftsmanship are the star of fashion brought together by the designer as medium. Anything beyond that is just a frill.
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