What do you think is India’s contribution to the fashion world? Is it our embroidery, which has elevated the outfits of top luxury houses, including the House of Dior? Or is it the fluid sari that has been reimagined repeat-edly by designers like Yves Saint Laurent? Perhaps brocade and the famous chintz that continue to be visualised in different shapes and styles?
It’s all of the above, and more. That’s the takeaway from the India In Fashion exhibition, on till 4 June at the newly opened Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) in Mumbai that “aims to preserve and promote Indian arts”, according to Nita Ambani, the founder and chairperson. “I hope our spaces nurture and inspire talent, bringing together communities from across India and the globe.”
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The exhibition, curated by Hamish Bowles, Vogue global editor at large and The World Of Interiors editor-in-chief, features over 140 iconic costumes and pieces from India, global brands and fashion houses, tracing more than 200 years of the subcontinent’s contribution to the global fashion sensibility. The costumes, from Chanel’s long brocade coat and matching trousers and dresses created for Lady Mary Curzon, to Christian Louboutin heels with phulkari work and Sabyasachi’s embellished lehnga-choli, are either completely or partially made in the sub-continent. They have either been loaned by museums like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Toronto’s The Royal Ontario Museum, or belong to private collections.
What makes this exhibition unique is that India has never hosted a show that brings together so many India-inspired costumes under one roof. “It’s really the first time something like this has happened. An Indian can see India-inspired work that has walked the international ramp. How often does the public get such a chance?” says Deepthi Sasidharan, an art historian, a curator and founder director at Eka Archiving Services, a cultural advisory, who works on heritage and museum. “Just from the perspective of humidity and temperature control... this is the first kind of a setup that allows suitable space for archival material. None of our national museums has been able to do it till date; they don’t even have 24x7 airconditioning.” She visited the exhibition on the first day it opened to the public, 3 April.
Designer Gaurav Jai Gupta, who was present on the day of the cultural centre opening, says, “This show is extremely educational for fashion students and also general public. It reminds of the distinct contribution of India to the story of global fashion. It's a truly a special exhibition in that sense.”
As soon as you enter the dimly lit space, which is divided into 10 zones (like “The Hippie Trail”, “The Long Shadow of Muslin”, “The Journey of the Sari”, “The Great Exhibition London 1851”; each zone has a dedicated background sound), you meet the Alexander McQueen Jellyfish ensemble that graced his spring-summer 2010 collection: It’s a dress embroidered with paillettes accompanied by matching leggings and “Armadillo” boots, a contemporary take on the short kurta-pajama. Ten steps ahead, you are greeted by the chirping of birds to suit the name of the zone, “Gathered in a Mughal Garden”.
With about five costume displays, including a chintz dress made in 1750, the space documents how the Indian chintz, painted and printed glazed cottons, has long fascnated Europeans. In the book When Indian Flowers Bloomed In Europe: Masterworks Of Indian Trade Textiles, 1600-1780, In The Tapi Collection, Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis writes, “The brilliant natural dyes that did not fade even after repeated washing, the exotic designs and lightweight cotton fabric made Indian chintz an immediate success in Europe, which by the late 17th century became a craze that would last for well over a century.” Such was their popularity that Europe banned its import in the 18th century. To present its contemporary interpretation, there’s a Rahul Mishra dress that presents chintz in an embroidery form.
That’s also one of the favourite zones of architect Rooshad Shroff, who has designed the show with Patrick Kinmonth. “The past and present just stand out so strikingly in this zone—and everything is India-inspired,” says Shroff. “It’s moving, actually.”
Each zone has been designed to offer a peek into the next zone. From the “Valentino” zone, for instance, which houses the famous lehnga the luxury house made for Isha Mukesh Ambani, you can get a glimpse of “The Journey of the Sari”, which investigates the story of the garment’s constant reinvention, from Paul Poiret’s creation in 1922 to Schiaparelli’s in 1939, and, more recently, to Balenciaga, Madame Grès and Jean Paul Gaultier.
“The Great Exhibition London 1851”, which highlights the fashion for Kashmir shawls and their status in international fashion as a marker of sophistication, leads to “The Hippie Trail” zone, with eccentric designs from YSL to Manish Arora, presented against a background inspired by the Jantar Mantar’s observatories and buildings in Jaipur and Delhi. “We chose this background because it’s this iconic location with fascinating structure. The hippie era was a time when more people were coming to India, especially Delhi and Jaipur, discovering yoga,” explains Shroff.
In between the zones, there’s a sprinkling of costumes by Manish Malhotra, Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla and Sabyasachi to reinforce their contribution to the Indian design story.
The show ends with three garments from Mishra’s couture collection that he presented recently at the Paris Haute Couture Week. The set behind and on the floor where the mannequins stand replicates the moon. “That background signifies how far Indian fashion has come,” says Shroff. “It also says how Indian design and craftsmanship have sealed their space in the global world.”
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India In Fashion is on till 4 June at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai. Tickets start from ₹199.