The world has its eyes on Mumbai right now. The city made headlines globally after the landmark Dior show at the Gateway of India in March, followed by the opulent opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC), attended by Gigi Hadid and Zendaya, among others, at the Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC), and the launch of Sabyasachi’s 25,000 sq. ft flagship store in a neoclassical building in south Mumbai. The city was recently on the cover of the summer travel issue of Financial Times’ luxury magazine, HTSI. It described Mumbai as “Destination Next”, though summer is clearly not the time to visit it. There is no question that the country’s financial capital, home to Bollywood, seems to be enjoying a renaissance after a period of lull through the 2000s.
Is the spotlight now firmly back on Mumbai, which had been ceding ground to the national capital till the last few years? Certainly, most professionals still seem to vote for it as the city where you come with hopes of making a fortune, a city that has unrivalled creative space—a certain joie de vivre and an inherent style. Delhi, in turn, gets the vote for more affordable real estate, open spaces, better infrastructure and spending power. James Ferreira, the veteran designer, owner of an eponymous design label and a heritage conservationist, believes Delhi is also the cultural gatekeeper.
Mickey Boardman, one of New York’s most prolific fashion writers, who has visited Mumbai and Delhi regularly, says the tag of style capital goes to Mumbai. “Both cities are important. Like New York and Los Angeles. Madrid and Barcelona. Milan and Rome. Both Delhi and Mumbai are important, vibrant global cities.”
Bombay, as it used to be known, emerged as India’s trading capital during the colonial era and the port city became an important manufacturing base. With hard power comes soft power. “We are 21 million of us jostling for space on a peninsula of 650 sq. km, among the densest in the country—with the most wealth in the country,” says Shimul Javeri Kadri, the Mumbai-born and raised globally acclaimed architect who leads SJK Architects. "Interacting with a city that is being retrofitted every day to accommodate representation from every part of the country, trade and profession is what teaches us openness and adaptability.”
From Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost And Found to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it is a city whose bustle and beauty have inspired creativity. This is where you went to make your fortune, in the hope of being the next Dhirubhai Ambani or Jamsetji Tata. It is Dalal Street and the stock exchange.
“Bombay and Calcutta (now Mumbai and Kolkata, respectively) were the fashion capitals during the British Raj and Bombay remained so,” says Ferreira. He cites the example of the opening of one of India’s first multi-brand stores, Ensemble, in 1987 in the city as a marker of the city’s style status.
When Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1995, the city seemed to be at its peak. In 1996, the year I made the city home, Michael Jackson chose Mumbai to be a part of his 83-show HIStory World Tour. India’s first woman of style, Parmeshwar Godrej, held sparkling soirees, ad film-maker Anuradha Tandon hosted monthly addas at Goa Portuguesa, a restaurant in Mahim, where you heard new ideas and debated questions of culture. Mumbai is a welcoming city and there was a palpable feeling that you could make your mark in a city that seemed set to put India on the global style map.
Nonita Kalra, former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 1991 as a rookie journalist. “It was a city for the young. It was a city without cliques. If you were smart, curious, and creative, you were celebrated. It was hard to resist.”
But while Mumbai may be the style setter, Ferreira believes Delhi leads in the cultural field, “especially when it comes to craft and textile, Delhi has always led the way, going back to the 1950s when Pupul Jayakar founded the Handloom and Handicrafts Export Corporation.” Jayakar, a close ally of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, initiated projects with international designers such as Pierre Cardin, who came to India in 1967, years before Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri came to Mumbai.
By the mid-2000s, Mumbai seemed to have lost its sparkle and the initial excitement over Bandra being the new hub for culture and style was waning. The action seemed to have moved to Delhi. Louis Vuitton chose Delhi as the base for its first India store in 2003, DLF Emporio; the country’s first luxury mall came to Delhi in 2008. When the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) decided to launch the India Couture Week in 2008, Delhi was again the city of choice. It became India’s fashion capital. The start of the India Art Fair in the Capital the same year seemed to signal a shift, with Delhi being the city everyone was talking about.
“The scale of what’s possible in Delhi is immense and the institutions thus far in Delhi are unmatched by anything Mumbai can offer. Being the national capital, access to funding, expertise and infrastructure definitely gives Delhi an edge. The large institutional spaces, most of them funded by the Union government, lend themselves to cultural showcases,” says Hena Kapadia, founder and director of the Mumbai-based art gallery Tarq, which is known for its cutting-edge programming of contemporary artists.
Take, for instance, the Made In…India: Samskara exhibition of handmade designer products, organised in 2014 by the creative think tank Be Open and FDCI president Sunil Sethi. More than 300 objects crafted by designers using traditional skills were on display at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi. At this time, it seemed as if Delhi was driving important cultural conversations. Coincidentally, these were the years I spent in Delhi, as the founding editor of a fashion magazine. Being the only international title based in the Capital was a strength. Why would a fashion magazine be based anywhere else? It was home to India’s first luxury mall and next to India’s crafts belt. However, I could never forget the effortless sophistication of my former home, Mumbai.
Mumbai-based Sangita Kathiwada has been involved with the art, craft and textile community for well over 30 years. Among her endeavours is Mélange in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner, one of India’s first multi-designer stories, which launched the careers of designers ranging from Sabyasachi Mukherjee to Savio Jon. In 2020, she opened an art, culture and wellness centre, Kathiwada City House, in Worli. “Mumbai’s limitation is that it is a linear and narrow city, making is difficult to move around and find the space to host large gatherings,” she says. The city’s geography has always been its weak point.
“Delhi’s cheaper rents meant young creatives could start their lives there. Its ample spaces meant luxury malls could set up shop. Women were beginning to reclaim their space and I remember meeting many smart women who were able to live alone in Delhi. Delhi also revelled in a maximal approach to life. Big homes, big spending, big dreams. All of it came together to amplify the city and its people,” says Kalra.
Delhi has a spending power that Mumbai can never rival. Amit Hansraj, a well-known member of the city’s creative community, who lived in Mumbai briefly, is the founder of the fashion label Inca, based in Kila’s Mehrauli. “People in Delhi buy more luxury than elsewhere in the country. So, retailing in Delhi makes the most business sense. Delhi has better curation of stores and areas which are beautifully created and curated for luxury buying, like DLF Emporio, Mehrauli and now the Dhan Mill Compound,” he says. This is a magnet that attracts creative talent to the Capital.
Large retail spaces and thriving markets were among the reasons the Mumbai-born designer Amit Aggarwal moved to Delhi, which he says will “forever be the creative capital of India”. Like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Arora, he is a Mumbai designer who has chosen to make Delhi home. “Let us not forget that India’s first premier institute for fashion, NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology), is in Delhi,” says Aggarwal, adding that “Mumbai can be difficult for many young designers” due to the high rents for both commercial and residential real estate.
Ferreira understands why many creative professionals decide to move to Delhi. “I always had a bouquet approach to fashion and I am lucky to have an ancestral home from where I run a 12,000 sq. ft retail store.” His 200-year-old home, Ferreira House, in Khotachiwadi, a heritage village in Girgaum, has been restored painstakingly and has led to the revival of the locality. “Creators need studios to produce their work in, and labour costs… Mumbai is just very expensive and can be prohibitive,” he says. He says that both cities are important “cultural power platers” but concludes that Mumbai is “India style capital. It always has been and always will be”.
Hansraj, who has a background in fashion merchandising, worked in Mumbai as Ensemble India’s creative head for four years, from 2016 . “Both Mumbai and Delhi are equally stylish but what sets Mumbai apart is that people don’t depend on big brands and labels to be stylish. There’s certain joie de vivre in Mumbai that I find lacking in Delhi,” he says, describing a day when he saw some extremely stylish women—pairing Issey Miyake shirts with jewellery bought from the stalls of Colaba Causeway—stepping out of a yellow and black taxi to shop for a unique Anamika Khanna jacket. He points to the variety of offbeat creative spaces in the city—from Byculla’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum and the Khotachiwadi heritage village to Baro Market’s Gallery 47-A and Sassoon Docks. Spread across the city, this variety speaks to Mumbai’s understanding of the non-conventional. It is able to pivot.
Mumbai holds a trump card: Bollywood is not only a strong influencer of culture in India but also around the world. As Indian cinema gains prominence internationally, it helps shine a spotlight on the city. “Bollywood is what gives India its bling factor,” says Ferreira.
However, to define the city by Bollywood is to do Mumbai a disservice. For there is no question that the city attracts entrepreneurs in the making, whether in food, fashion or finance.
The variety of cuisines in Mumbai is wide, from the street food vendors outside railway stations who serve up delicious vada pav to Masque, which, at No.16 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List, could be counted as the best in India. Masque founder Aditi Dugar says, “I have always thought Mumbai functions as an interdependent ecosystem, not in silos. Food and drink inevitably become part of that, whether in terms of events, shows, promotions or gifting. They are all creative fields and you can draw a lot of parallels—seasons, textures, form. Sensibilities and tastes grow together across fields, developing and playing off one another.” Masque is known for its ingredient-driven menu that pays tribute to India’s cooking heritage while being innovative and global in its outlook. The fact that this restaurant was born in Mumbai has a lot to do with its success, says Dugar. “The community is so accepting of different ideas and concepts. From fine-dining to hole-in-the-wall joints and everything in between, there’s an equal likelihood of success.” The restaurant chain Nobu is believed to have chosen Mumbai as its latest destination, with an announcement expected soon.
The older part of Mumbai, comprising Kala Ghoda, Fort and Colaba in south Mumbai, known locally as SoBo, remains the centre of this style capital despite the rise of areas such as Bandra (home to Bollywood’s stars), BKC (with the NMACC and Jio World Drive), Juhu (with Soho House and Prithvi Theatre). With its eye-catching combination of Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco and Indo-Saracenic architecture, it has a design landscape few cities can rival. Landmarks jostle for attention here, be it the Gateway of India, the Asiatic Library or the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. Brands mass and niche, from Starbucks and Zara to Hermès , have chosen heritage buildings in this area for flagship stores. Their newest neighbour will be the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette. The 90,000 sq. ft store is expected to open in 2024, ahead of a smaller store in Delhi.
Hansraj says Mumbai seems to celebrate style every day, something he observed when he lived in Colaba and worked in Kala Ghoda. “I walked every morning from Colaba to Kala Ghoda for four years, taking in the architectural beauty of the stretch. Every evening, I could hear the piano being played in an apartment close by. The building next door looked like a Wedgwood sculpture and had a 1920s yellow convertible parked downstairs.”
As Kathiwada says, “There is a lot of chatter about Mumbai ‘getting its style crown back’ but I don’t think it ever lost it. Mumbai just has an inherent style.”
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, an author and a mindful fashion advocate.