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Indian fashion: Time for a revival, again?

Thirty years ago, liberalisation opened India up to global brands, propelling the domestic fashion industry to revive traditional motifs and create its own language. Has it realised its potential—and can it ever be business as usual again?

Shweta Bachchan in an Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla outfit.
Shweta Bachchan in an Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla outfit. (Ram Shergill/Courtesy Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla)

When Ritu Kumar opened her first store, in a small room near a Delhi railway crossing, in 1969 to sell garments inspired by indigenous textiles and prints, the fashion industry, as an entity, didn’t really exist.

People would tear pages from magazines and take them to neighbourhood tailors in the hope of replicating the stylish designs in synthetic-cotton fabrics made by Indian mills or printed chiffon from Paris, if one could afford it. For men, big collars on slim-fit shirts and safari suits sewn with pre-matched fabric from Bombay Dyeing and Vimal were in vogue. For women, it was tailored dresses, anarkalis, front-tying blouses and skirts in florals, checks and bright prints.

“Indian fabrics and designs were nowhere to be seen in the late 1960s, early 1970s. It was a desert,” recalls Kumar, sitting in her plush office in Gurugram, Haryana, far from that railway crossing. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Kumar, now 76, the first lady of Indian fashion—she led the revival in the use of Indian fabrics, patterns, print and weaving techniques, incorporating them into high fashion and taking centre stage as the fashion industry came into its own. Her eponymous label is considered one of the building blocks of the Indian fashion industry as we know it today.

Also read: Are you ready for reemergence fashion?

India’s rich heritage of fabric and printing is well known but the thriving handlooms and handicrafts industry was set back centuries by colonial rule, when oppressive and restrictive economic policies promoted British factory-made, finished goods over Indian ones. The British took Indian yarn to London, mixed it with polyester and sold it back here.

Ritu Kumar's clothes are known for incorporating Indian prints and fabrics into high fashion.
Ritu Kumar's clothes are known for incorporating Indian prints and fabrics into high fashion. (Courtesy Ritu Kumar )

The freedom movement took aim at the way Indian industry had been crushed. Mahatma Gandhi’s swadeshi movement and Khadi promotion restored faith in what India had to offer. From independence till the late 1980s, though, the focus was largely on growing the textile sector to feed export demands, not on making fashionable clothing. It was in the late 1980s and 1990s, largely post-liberalisation, that fashion as an industry, as a means of creative expression characterised by the use of local materials, and as a tool to evoke pride in Indian traditions, came into being. But in the 30-odd years since that July 1991 budget speech opened up the economy and helped get the fashion industry on its feet, has the sector been able to realise its potential? The answer lies in the past.

Pierre Cardin, the first international designer to showcase in India, with his muse Anjali Mendes at a press conference in Delhi on 27 March 1986.
Pierre Cardin, the first international designer to showcase in India, with his muse Anjali Mendes at a press conference in Delhi on 27 March 1986. (HT Archive)

The revival

“It was after the setting up of Nift (the National Institute of Fashion Technology; in 1986) that people here started realising the importance of fashion,” says Kumar. “And then, of course, liberalisation happened and the industry started coming into being. The opening up (of the economy) completely changed the game; it continues to do so till today. The next pivotal moment is the pandemic. It’s defining our way forward.”

While Kumar was popularising India-inspired weaves and prints, home-grown brands like Fabindia and Anokhi had begun creating Indian clothing with Westernised silhouettes in the 1960s and 1970s. Cinema remained a style inspiration throughout. On the one hand, parallel cinema and modern progressive art movements drew youth towards Kohlapuri chappals and handloom kurtas; on the other, the emerging urban middle-class was leaning towards hippy, retro trends, made popular by Dimple Kapadia’s Bobby, Zeenat Aman’s Janice and Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay. Indian fashion, as an individualistic sentiment and aesthetic, didn’t arrive till the late 1980s.

In 1979, designer Hemant Trevedi moved from Australia to Mumbai to do “something out of the norm”. He was among the first Indian designers to study abroad. The world of Indian fashion was then restricted to a smattering of design houses, small exhibitions near Mumbai’s Marine Drive, and “goras selling gowns in Taj hotel’s foyer”. “We had (the late French designer) Pierre Cardin show his work in India in the 1960s but fashion was still not a popular word,” Trevedi says. “We were a textile mill market, not an apparel market. There was so much that needed to be done.”

In the early 1980s, being a fashion designer meant organising shows for textile mills, which were known for printed saris and fabrics. “Runway shows at that time meant shows for textile mills like Garden and Bombay Dyeing,” says Trevedi, who finally launched his own label earlier this month, after decades spent creating clothes for other brands. “You only had simple skirts, dresses, saris and kurtas. There wasn’t anything out of the box in terms of fashion and aesthetics. As an industry, we could see some progress but it was scattered.” In the 1990s, as ramp shows and pageants took off, he dressed beauty queens for international competitions, including Miss World 1994 Aishwarya Rai, Miss World 1997 Diana Hayden and Miss World 2000 Priyanka Chopra.

Anna Bredemeyer remembers that time as “a time of complex choreography, rehearsals for days on end, and we did everything ourselves... hair and make-up. Still it was very organised”. The former supermodel, who has spent close to five decades in the glamour world, used to be a regular part of the textile shows. Much like other models of the time, she would carry a suitcase filled with make-up, shoes and lingerie of every colour. “My hair was flat so I would wear pink sponge rollers around sets. It became a joke,” she laughs. Unlike today’s models, walking the runway with an expressionless look, the textile shows had men and women dancing in chiffon, cotton and silk clothes—a routine that could take 15 hours a day to perfect.

“There was nobody standing in the wings telling us what to do. It was all over the place. During the mid-1980s, shows became organised. We had make-up, hair,” she recalls. “Things became more professional with the entry of Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla in the late 1980s.”

These designers entered the scene after the Rajiv Gandhi government decided to set up Nift, a fashion and design school modelled on New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, in 1986. It’s widely considered the start of India’s fashion industry. From that first institute in Delhi came some of India’s most prominent fashion designers, like Bal and J.J. Valaya, who took the country to a global stage, and initiated the fashion week concept.

Also read: How a girl from Madhya Pradesh reached the Paris couture week

“Nift was first set up to train future generations of fashion ‘technologists’ who could become a part of the apparel and garment manufacturing sector, which India relied on hugely in the 1980s for the business of exports,” says Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a Delhi-based writer and curator with an interest in the post-independence history of textiles, design and fashion. “From the first few batches till now, Nift graduates have become some of the well-known fashion designers in the country, most of them having helped develop the Indian bridal sector, which plays a significant role in the Indian economy.” Culturally, he adds, “institutions like Nift have helped create a mindspace for the role that fashion plays at a social level, and in popular culture, media and the national consciousness at large. It also led to the emergence of professional roles such as models, fashion stylists, photographers.”

The lowering of trade barriers in 1991, 30 years ago this July, defined the shape and direction of the fledgling industry as global brands flooded India and home-grown ones saw the potential in differentiating themselves. Since then, the number of brands of apparel and accessories has increased 30-fold, according to research by management consulting and services firm Third Eyesight. A 2019 McKinsey report says “more than 300 international fashion brands are expected to open stores in India in the next two years”, banking on the purchasing power of the middle class and the strengthened manufacturing sector. Small wonder then that the Indian textiles and apparel industry, expected to be worth $59.3 billion (about 4.12 trillion) in 2022 despite the pandemic, contributes 2.3% to the country’s GDP.

“Liberalisation was an exciting time for everyone. Better-quality players, increased competition, more exposure, more opportunities…they brought along a lot of things. But they also made the Indian designers sit up and work harder to build what they knew best: telling the India story through clothes,” says Anil Chopra. He’s the former chief executive officer of the cosmetics brand Lakmé Lever, which, starting 2000, sponsored the Lakmé Fashion Week at a time when there were no fashion events in the country. Has the Indian fashion industry realised its potential in these 30 years? “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe not.”

Kaul references the 1993-94 postscript to anthropologist Emma Tarlo’s book Clothing Matters: Dress And Identity In India to explain the transformation liberalisation wrought not just on business but also on outlook—crucial to the growth of an industry like fashion, categorised as “luxury”. “I was struck immediately by the change of atmosphere. The opening up of India’s previously tightly controlled trade barriers had encouraged a new wave of international spirit and an increased emphasis on things foreign, whether clothes, computers, luxury bathrooms or fast food.... Debates in the press were no longer internally focused on questions of ‘ethnic identity’ but were externally oriented towards how best India should make its mark on the international stage,” wrote Tarlo, who had been a regular visitor to India through the 1980s and 1990s. It was a mindset that would fuel consumerism and aspiration, and with it the careers of numerous designers, models, artisans, choreographers and photographers.

The Roaring 1990s

When designer Ritu Beri started her own label in 1990, after graduating from Nift, fashion design had become “an acceptable career option”. “Fashion wasn’t as accessible as it is today but it was much better than the 1980s. There was coverage in the newspapers and, of course, we had Fashion TV in the 1990s. It was another major outlet for creativity and inspiration for Indian fashion enthusiasts,” she says.

Long before younger designers Rahul Mishra and Vaishali Shadangule reached the Paris couture week, Beri had made a mark on Parisian runways—in 1998. Two years later, she was heading French fashion brand Jean-Louis Scherrer, another first for an Indian designer. “The 1990s were the time when dreams could come true,” she says. “You could actually work hard and achieve things. The world had suddenly opened up and you could really bring a change with your vision.”

That’s what Anita Dongre wanted to do when she entered the fashion scene in 1995 with two sewing machines and a loan from her father. More women were entering the workplace and she was keen to create everyday clothes for them and move away from the “chatka matka bridal clothes” that had become the norm during the 1980s.

Anita Dongre (left) teamed up with actor Dia Mirza to pay tribute to artisans through her ‘Grassroot’ collection, presented at the 2015 Lakmé Fashion Week.
Anita Dongre (left) teamed up with actor Dia Mirza to pay tribute to artisans through her ‘Grassroot’ collection, presented at the 2015 Lakmé Fashion Week. (Courtesy Anita Dongre)

In the decades that followed, she would launch five brands—two high street labels, a prêt label, a couture label and a jewellery line. “The entry of global brands in the 1990s really had the community thinking differently. You had to offer something global brands couldn’t—and it was our Indianness,” she says. “I think that has really worked in our favour.”

What also worked, according to Chopra, was the setting up of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), an association of designers that works to further the business of fashion. “Its creation made it clear to the world that fashion was a serious business. Designers and models started working closely. People like Manish Arora took the world by storm with whimsical designs and prints. Then Sabya’s (Sabyasachi’s) work was getting attention in fashion capitals,” says Chopra, now a management consultant. “Fashion shows weren’t the big productions they are today but they offered a real sense of Indian fashion with a twist.” The start of the Lakmé India Fashion Week in 1999, and the Amazon India Fashion Week and India Couture Week in the 2000s, offered bigger platforms to upcoming designers.

The Indian silhouette

What helped the 1990s and 2000s become a sweet spot was that international brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci couldn’t really crack the domestic market, either in terms of price or styles. “If you noticed, people mostly bought bags, shoes…basically accessories, from the big foreign brands. If they wanted clothes, Indian brands were the first choice. It wasn’t really much about the price but about our taste. At the core, our taste was very Indian and those brands couldn’t really figure out the Indian size and silhouettes,” says Chopra. “In time, with greater globalisation, the proliferation of the internet, and, more importantly, the growing Bollywood obsession, Indian fashion changed.”

Bollywood has always had an influence on what Indians wear but it’s couturier Manish Malhotra who really brought film to fashion and vice versa in the 1990s and 2000s. He started his eponymous brand around the same time as India introduced its economic reforms. When asked what his journey might have been had he launched five years before or after 1991, he says it might not have made much of a difference since he was “too besotted” by the world of Indian cinema. “I was lost in the magic of movies, working in boutiques introduced me to sketching. In 1989, I made some clothes—a light denim kurta with a white salwar. I hired a tailor and suddenly clients started coming home to order, but I was keen to change the looks in cinema for my pure love for the movies,” he says. “So in 1990 I got into movies, and I am still here.”

Malhotra’s grand trademark creations, made famous both on and off screen by Bollywood celebrities, cultivated a new brand of Indian wedding fashion, one rooted in Indian aesthetics but embellished with modern sensibilities. “This speaks of a market segment which has been difficult to ignore for Indian-wear fashion companies. It is an integral part of the larger, burgeoning wedding industry, which includes travel to exotic destinations and ambitious budgets spent on events, entertainment and catering,” says Kaul. “With the amount of money being spent on a wedding emerging as a key signifier for India’s aspirational economic strata, this industry’s growth has mirrored the rise of purchasing power and wealth from the so-called two- to three-tier cities, to the hinterlands of most parts of the country.”

Bollywood fever had reached the runway by the 2000s. Celebrities were getting more space on the ramp as showstoppers than models, further blurring the lines between the film and fashion industries. Aparna Bahl, one of India’s leading choreographers, isn’t too happy with the shift towards Bollywood on the runway. “Till the 2000s, films were not seen as the go-to for fashion choices,” says Bahl, who runs Preferred Professionals, a ramp show production agency, with her sister. They have produced shows for brands like Hermès, Dior, Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Malhotra. “Manish changed everything. People’s fashion choices were dictated by Bollywood stars. But the introduction of celebs on stage took away the charm of clothes. You saw the wearer, not the garment,” she says. “During the 2000s and 2010s, more fashion shows were organised and more designers came to the fore but it also led to an increase in plagiarism in India and the West, using our karigars’ work without credit. It’s even continuing during the pandemic.”

Bahl is referring to the Italian luxury house Gucci coming under fire recently for selling an embroidered kaftan, which looks a lot like a kurta, for $3,500. Indian artisans have been doing intricate beadwork and embroidery for global luxury houses like Chanel and Oscar de la Renta for years without any acknowledgment. “Nobody wants to talk about it (the exploitation) and nobody raises a voice because there isn’t enough unity in the Indian fashion industry,” says Sandeep Khosla, one half of the label Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. The duo is known for highlighting the intricate work of karigars, which reflects in signature styles that blend traditional Indian craftsmanship with modern silhouettes.

Kaul says this inherent unfairness is largely built into the way the industry itself is structured, and how it grew in India. “The present international system—largely North America- and Europe-centric—has fundamentally built itself over seasonal changes…. Conceived through trend forecasts for yarns, fabrics and garment styles, also largely in the West, their manufacture is outsourced primarily to the developing countries,” he says. Export houses discovered a global luxury market for Indian artisanal talent in the 1970s and 1980s—this exploitation continues.

In a May interview with Mint, Maximiliano Modesti, the founder managing director of India-based embroidery atelier Les Ateliers 2M and the Kalhath Institute, which has produced garments for labels like Hermès, Chanel, Isabel Marant and Oscar de la Renta, said the annual value of crafts work done in India for international fashion houses is $200-300 million.

The pandemic learning

Hit hard, designers see the pandemic as a temporary setback. “After 40 years, I am launching my label. It says a lot about how resilient a designer can be and the potential of our industry. We don’t need validation from Westerners,” says Trevedi. “What we (as an industry) need is a clear map to move forward. We haven’t reached our true potential yet.”

Dongre agrees: “This pandemic has been a reminder that we need to focus more on ourselves rather than look towards the West. We have to pivot now to stay relevant more than ever. Fashion is not frivolous…the pandemic has made that clear. People will step out eventually and they want to look good, and that’s why we have fashion. And our industry generates so many jobs.” The next chapter in the story of Indian fashion, she adds, is “trying to be much more conscious about the planet and talking much more about our karigars. It should be all about Make in India.”

As millennials and post-millennials, the biggest consumers of luxury right now, become more vocal and aware of the politics of fashion, Indian luxury brands will need to become more transparent about their values and ethics, insists Chopra. “You can’t get away with just saying words like ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ without following through. We have become global citizens; it’s so easy to call out brands now.” Indian fashion has traditionally been far more environment-friendly than the West, he argues. “We need to perhaps look less at the West. We really have the best to offer. Why do you think international brands come to us for work?”

That’s already happening, believes Rahul Mishra, who recently showcased his travel-inspired collection at the Paris couture week. “Young designers are working towards creating less, and focusing more on local textiles and prints. Some are working on seasonless fashion. It’s an interesting time: On one side you have these e-commerce sites encouraging overconsumption and on the other, you have these brands becoming conscious,” he says. “Who the consumer will choose is anybody’s guess but people realise now, with the pandemic, with increased talk about the climate crisis, with labour exploitation, that good fashion matters. And that’s where we are moving.”

Ritu Kumar laughs when confronted with the same question as other designers: Have we realised our potential? “We are nowhere close,” she says. “If you notice, we are slowly and steadily moving towards our roots. It’s a circle of life; we have moved forward (in terms of technology) and are now realising that our past was better for us. We were creating clothes that were good for the environment, good for the wearer, good for the karigar. They showed real India. That’s where we have to reach back to. That’s our true potential.”

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