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New left fashion

Are the socio-political statements on the ramp tempering down fashion's core promise of design innovation and glamour?

The #TagFree show at LFW. Photo: Courtesy Lakmé Fashion Week
The #TagFree show at LFW. Photo: Courtesy Lakmé Fashion Week

Fashion infidelity" sounds sensational but that’s not how French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes defined it. “All new fashion is a refusal to inherit; it is a subversion of the oppression left by the preceding fashion. Fashion experiences itself as a right, the natural right of the present over the past; defined by its very infidelity," wrote Barthes. He argued that fashion was essentially disloyal to itself.

These lines provide an easy argument for fickle trends. But if you use them to interpret fashion’s infidelity to its core—glamour, design innovation or worship of the perfect body—they make complete sense. Dissent in fashion has existed for decades but till lately it was sporadic and lacked en masse industry support. Fashion events were seen as dazzling, gated territories. Now, those boundaries have collapsed. Concerns about racial and religious prejudices, body stereotypes, inclusion of the disabled and the disfigured, feminist causes, they are all being shared on the ramp.

Globally, 2016 was a peak year for glamour activism—from plus-size models to acid-attack survivors, from clothes with feminist messages to support for flat shoes rather than heels at the Cannes film festival. An Indian acid-attack survivor was the showstopper at the New York Fashion Week (NYFW) last season and Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan sent out a hijabi collection after the burkini ban in France.

Leander Paes walks with a victim of trafficking for FDCI. Photo: Hindustan Times

Mirroring such impulses, Indian fashion weeks too are moving beyond a parade of the season’s most wanted clothes to make socio-political statements. It is a bold move but it carries with it the danger of becoming a knotty double bind. To avoid caricature and cliché and navigate this interest in social causes beyond the conscience of the fashion elite, the industry may need to select (and reject) sensitively.

Fashion infidelity, then, was the biggest trend at the recent edition of the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) in Mumbai. There were some good collections and some better ones; there was new mum Kareena Kapoor-Khan as designer Anita Dongre’s showstopper for the finale. What stood out, however, was the “inclusion" of causes. “It is clear for us that fashion is a means, not an end unto itself. It is about something that will lead to a broader understanding of life," says Gautam Vazirani, who curates the LFW’s Sustainable Fashion and Indian Textile Day and works to make the event diverse.

It echoes the mindset of the millennials who are happy with fuss, furore and hashtags.

IMG Reliance, which organizes the LFW, not only chose transgender Nepalese model Anjali Lama to walk the ramp but also came up with the #TagFree show which brought together women from different walks of life—women didn’t conform to the body and beauty standards infamously defined as ideal. The Sustainable Fashion and Indian Textile Day had a show by artisan-designers from Kutch. The LFW also collaborated with Kranti, a non-profit run by Robin Chaurasiya that works to empower girls from Mumbai’s red-light areas. The Bagh Collection by textile designer Mandeep Nagi of Shades of India had the girls showcasing their life phases—childhood, teenage, red-light area, school, NGO and Kranti (revolution).

A look from a 2016 Quirkbox collection

Nagi, who had never shown at any fashion week but got her domestic help and masseuse to endorse her designs, emphasizes that her decision to work with Kranti has nothing to do with the current socio-political situation. She doesn’t believe that the girls who represented Kranti, aged 12-21, were there for the glamour. “It was a mix of excitement and empowerment for them," says Nagi. “While we can’t change people’s entire lives, we can make them diverse and meaningful," she says.

That wasn’t all. In collaboration with SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action), an NGO that works in Mumbai’s Dharavi district, the Godrej India Culture Lab organized “Fashion Funda—A Dharavi Design Dialogue". Moderated by Godrej India Culture Lab’s head Parmesh Shahani, it explored design innovation in Dharavi, the address of artisans who have long worked as the supporting cast of the fashion industry. “The shift we see in Indian fashion has in fact been catalysed by outsiders—curators, writers, moderators who have asked probing questions—from the role of artisans to inviting film stars to share their views on glamour stereotypes," says Shahani. “Our engagement has been provocative. By itself the fashion industry wouldn’t have managed this diversity and inclusivity," he says.

The LFW isn’t the only event to realize that fashion’s vanities and celebrities fall short of symbolizing the world’s current complexities. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), which organizes the Amazon India Fashion Week (AIFW) in Delhi, too is inclined towards fashion activism. Last year, it supported Inclusion Beyond Boundaries, a fashion show for differently abled children from Tamana, a Delhi-based NGO. In the past, the FDCI has collaborated with People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) and raised awareness about human trafficking, with tennis star Leander Paes walking the ramp. Like the LFW, the FDCI-organized fashion weeks also support the “cause" of weavers and artisans from handloom clusters. Sunil Sethi, the FDCI president, says he is cautious about keeping shows like Tamana out of the mainstream fashion week while bringing within its ambit those directly linked to fashion, like body positivity or the work of weavers. He argues that if the AIFW is to have clarity as a fashion platform, it is important to edit and sift instead of echoing every social concern.

Designer Vaishali S., whose show at the NYFW last year had acid-attack survivor Reshma Qureshi as the showstopper, overcame her resistance to showstoppers. “A fashion show brings together the media and the fashion elite, so if a cause requires mass and class attention, it should be given space, if the organizers strike the right balance," says Vaishali.

Ironically, “fashion show" is now a jamboree phrase. There are fashion shows in residential colonies for children that are like fancy-dress outings; there are fashion shows in jails for prisoners. There are shows with the visually challenged in designer garments, and events that ride on fashion to raise money for assorted causes.

But the very profusion of such platforms makes it hard for the fashion industry to make its voice heard. Not only in the credibility of the causes it promotes but in the way it positions itself—is it about short-lived games of publicity or the consistent and burdensome job of staying with a cause? There is also a growing fatigue with celebrity showstoppers. Is ramp activism a rebound effect in fashion’s search for a new obsession?

These questions are crucial. For, it is the politics of protest that defines the current global mood in news and popular culture, in society and liberal arts, for writers and artists, health workers and feminists, celebrities or lay people. The fount may be Donald Trump’s “divided" America, but the flow and fight is everywhere. In the current scenario, not speaking up against indignity, abuse, or biases related to gender and race is not an option. Having a “voice" is the new black.

Fashion is only emphasizing that mood by stripping to show its scars, both real and metaphorical. It has winsomely embraced plus size, making body-positive models famous. It applauds transgender models like the Italian Lea T., and owns up, through design interventions, its responsibility to environmental conservation.

It’s been a long walk to freedom, quite literally. The first collection (Spring/Summer 2017) from French luxury house Dior’s first woman creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, in September made the point quite succinctly. Chiuri’s easy white T-shirts carried a strong feminist message: “We should all be feminists."

At the just concluded NYFW, plus-size models walked for designer Prabal Gurung and Michael Kors, wearing clothes similar to the all other models. One black garment read: Our minds, our bodies, our power. On Friday, two disabled models opened Autumn/Winter 2017 edition of the London Fashion Week for designer Teatum Jones.

In that context, the LFW’s self-identification as an event that transgresses fashion’s boundaries is laudable. But it could be stabbed by what designer Nachiket Barve calls a “double-edged sword". “Undoubtedly, fashion has become a way to communicate social and cultural statements. All the same, if done carelessly, it can end up being superfluous and gimmicky, where the cause highlighted is merely an eyeball grabbing technique instead of something with genuine empathy," says Barve. For him, he says, clothes remain the biggest heroes.

Plus-sized model Ashley Graham (right) at New York Fashion Week in 2016. Photo: AFP; and transgender model Anjali Lama at LFW earlier this month. Photo: Courtesy Lakmé Fashion Week.

Designer Anju Modi is sceptical too. “I believe fashion should stick to its own agenda—a platform for design innovation, creative experimentation and relevant solutions to clothing and couture," she says, adding that she would not agree to bring an acid-attack survivor to her ramp because such crimes require legal and policing solutions, not fashion.

Shahani makes a compelling point. “Biases emerged, of course, around the Dharavi discussion and they exist otherwise too but unless we have spaces where these biases come out, we will never be able to admit or adjust them. And yes, we will have to move beyond the photo-op towards commitment," he says.

The LFW’s recent edition, however, was cluttered with too many causes—Kutch artisans, Dharavi artisans, girls from Kranti, and a transgender model. It led to overemphasis. Audiences may certainly remember some of these outstanding initiatives, but the clothes, cuts, colour palettes or the fabric innovation in other shows may get overshadowed by them in the recall value of the event.

The art of making a strong point lives in an enduring fashion rule: Less is more


Cause and effect

Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan sent out a hijabi collection at New York Fashion Week. Photo: AFP


Through his firm Comme des Garçons (French for “like boys"), Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo expressed criticism of the then prevailing social construct of women and of fashion itself. Comme des Garçons was one of the first firms to stop demarcating merchandise by gender in its stores.


Italian designer Franco Moschino launched a campaign against drugs, animal abuse and violence in 1992. In 1994, he launched Ecouture, his ecological collection.


Indian designer Narendra Kumar mounted ‘The Rise Of Fascism’, with models bruised and bandaged to protest growing religious strife.


The Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week highlighted the issue of trafficking with international human rights organization YouCanFree.Us. Tennis ace Leander Paes walked the ramp with a victim of trafficking.


Italian designer Miuccia Prada commissioned a series of artists to work on themes of “femininity, representation, power, and multiplicity", as a backdrop for a collection inspired by Prada’s approach to feminist politics.


Indian acid-attack survivor Reshma Qureshi was the showstopper for
both Archana Kochhar and Vaishali S. at the New York Fashion Week.


Two disabled models opened the London Fashion Week for designer Teatum Jones this week.

Narendra Kumar’s ‘The Rise Of Fascism’ protested against religious strife in India.

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