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Why can’t the fashion industry go beyond clothes?

Inclusivity and sustainability are constants, but when will the runway reflect real world problems

Payal Singhal's The New Normal campaign tries to raise awareness about covid-19's impact on mental health.
Payal Singhal's The New Normal campaign tries to raise awareness about covid-19's impact on mental health.

Now that the buzz around one of the most awaited fashion events of the pandemic-year calendar has settled, let’s take a look at the conversations FDCI x Lakmé Fashion Week 2021 generated. Gender-neutral clothes. Check. Spirit-lifting bright colours. Check. Covid-19 life inspired casual-meets-luxury wear. Check. Collaborative spirit. Check. Minimalism. Check. Sustainability. Double check.

Each garment at the six-day event, which ended late March, reflected how 2020 shaped the craft of its creator and pushed the industry to think harder about inclusivity, self-awareness and fairness. Yet, most conversations were confined to the usual talking points—the inspirations, the recycled fabrics, the lehngas, the escapist fantasies. Almost none alluded to the impact the pandemic had on the weavers or the karigars, who were among the worst affected, or to political issues. Fashion may have the power to offer comfort even in the darkest of times but shouldn’t it also reflect the real world through its storytelling and the views of designers?

When I asked one of India’s first designers, Tarun Tahiliani, why not too many voices from the industry go beyond the topics of fashion, crafts and design, pat came the reply: “When some crises happen (beyond fashion), we are not the first people media thinks about for quotes.”

Also read: Tarun Tahiliani brings Persian 'jaali' to life

That’s not incorrect. Indian fashion journalism has largely been confined to what has come to be known as Page 3 in newspapers, driven by what the celebrity wore to last night’s party and what the next big trend is. There’s nothing wrong in this but fashion is much more, insists senior fashion journalist Sujata Assomull. “Fashion reflects the culture, the society, the history of the time it was born in. It’s a trillion-dollar industry and it has a lot (more) to say than what someone wore.”

Part of the problem, Assomull believes, is that designers aren’t forthcoming enough in their storytelling. While designers like Anita Dongre, Ritu Kumar, Sanjay Garg, Tahiliani and Rohit Bal do their bit to raise awareness on subjects ranging from animal welfare to the suffering of migrant workers, they are few and far between. “If you look at the press releases, the actual story doesn’t get enough space so the questions asked (by journalists) are limited,” she says.

Shanti Banaras' Akathya puts the spotlight on the lives of trans women.
Shanti Banaras' Akathya puts the spotlight on the lives of trans women.

Also read: Transwomen tell their stories through fashion

The other argument is that fashion industry representatives aren’t obliged to comment, especially when words can be easily misconstrued. “Why talk about things when you don’t have enough knowledge on the topic?” says Archana Jain, managing director of public relations agency PR Pundit. “We are responsible for the PR of the business unit. Anyone can share thoughts from personal (social media) IDs but not from the official account.”

Social media trolling discourages people too, adds Sneha Savla, PR firm Elevate’s chief strategy officer. “Even if a designer uses one plus-size model, people ask, why only one? The attacks get so vicious the real conversation is often lost.... (But) the pandemic has been a catalyst, encouraging designers to talk more, though slowly.”

Payal Singhal, for instance, talked about social anxiety in a post-covid world while presenting her spring-summer collection, The New Normal, through a photo essay on Instagram. It showcased friends debating the idea of stepping out for the first time since the lockdown. “We are staring at a mental health crisis and there’s an urgent need to do something. Limiting fashion to just clothing is a myopic approach,” she says. She doesn’t discuss politics—“opinions can be twisted to one’s advantage and I don’t want to put my family’s safety at risk.”

It’s frustrating to not be able to speak your mind, confesses designer Kunal Rawal. “We do have a lot to say. We are creative thinkers. But the PR, legal, even internal teams suggest not to. In a country as diverse as India, it’s difficult to please everyone, and displeasing someone can come at a higher cost.” Isn’t it time, though, that things changed?

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