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Why can't Indian fashion get over the lehnga-choli?

There is no escaping the traditional attire. But is the emphasis on it taking a toll on the creativity of fashion designers?

An Anita Dongre outfit.
An Anita Dongre outfit. (Courtesy Instagram/Anita Dongre)

A quick look at any of the recent fashion collections, festive or otherwise, will tell you how popular the lehnga-choli is. One with a corset blouse, one with an asymmetrical skirt, one with a denim shirt, one that resembles a gown... Clearly, Indian designers are listening to their customers, who want lehngas—but the profusion does leave you wondering if the single-minded focus is taking a toll on creativity.

Take the FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week, held in Mumbai in early October. Fashionistas, style gurus, influencers and journalists found a lot had changed. Vaccination certificates were being scanned. Glass water bottles had replaced plastic ones. Comfy sneakers were the popular choice of footwear. What had not changed was the fashion.

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Designers, who were returning to the physical format after over a year, had pretty much the same story to tell, apart from some innovative collections like Rajesh Pratap Singh’s play of shapes and colours for Satya Paul and Cocccon’s imaginative designs. The lehnga-choli remained the undisputed queen bee.

That may not be surprising, given that Indian bridalwear is a billion-dollar industry, forcing just about every label to move inexorably into traditional attire. As a fashion stylist, who attended five shows through the FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week, said: “It’s the same thing mostly. The same cholis with different necklines. There has to be more to Indian fashion.” The stylist, who would like to be termed a fashion influencer, wishes to remain anonymous for fear of being “cancelled”.

But is there really more to Indian fashion? And is it even fair to expect it or to make comparisons with the West given our cultural norms and textile heritage?

M. Vasantha, chair of the textile design department at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, says established designers are playing it safe “because it pays. They can’t risk things; they have an image to maintain. Until a Deepika Padukone wears something out of the ordinary, the customer will not demand something out of the ordinary. Unlike the West, we are pretty set in our ways. It will take years for us to really push things creatively.” She points to the example of Indian TV dramas. “It’s the same kind of fashion we have been seeing for years. Nobody is pushing in terms of creativity.”

Most designers declined to comment but the two who did not shy away from a public comment on the question don’t really see a problem. “The fact that the designers are coming up with a collection after that horrible second covid-19 wave deserves a lot of credit,” says Anita Dongre, who has given the lehnga-choli many a form and shape.

To her, any suggestion of moving away from lehnga-choli seems irrelevant. “It’s something we are good at. It’s something we are known for globally. It’s our tradition. Why shouldn’t we celebrate it?”

Rina Singh of Eka says: “The amount of effort that is put into developing prêt collections is not equal to the kind of commercial gains and profitability that you make out of it. Bridal has always been caught up with nostalgia for our royal past. For that one day all the brides would want to be the princesses. So that nostalgia is carried forward. Plus, it’s also Bollywood inspired.

“Couture in India is largely lehnga-choli. Prêt couture essentially doesn’t have any commercial value,” she concludes.

Certainly, the Indian fashion industry wouldn’t have been what it is today had it not been for the bridal market. 

Sunil Sethi, the head of the Fashion Design Council, looks at the question a little differently. “Our creativity has reached a new medium. Now you have designers making fashion films. Look at the creativity there. They are finding new outlets to showcase their work, their inspiration.”  

He does believe, though, that there’s a need to offer platforms to emerging designers. “Our country has so much talent but we need to find more ways to push them forward. There’s no dearth of creativity among the young talent.”

Also read: Why more fashion labels need to follow the ‘herd mentality’



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