Join Shefalee Vasudev, former editor of Marie Claire and an acclaimed fashion journalist, on a deep-sea dive into the gagging depths of Indian fashion. In Powder Room, she offers and insider’s view of people who make the industry what it is – from a lower middle class girl who sells global luxury for a living, a designer who fights the inner demons of child sexual abuse yet manages to survive and thrive in the business of fashion to a Ludhiana housewife on a perpetual fashion high.
Besides candid interviews of Known names in Indian fashion, Shefalee provides a commentary on new social behaviours, urban culture, generational differences, and the compulsions behind conspicuous consumption in a country splitting at the seams with inequalities of opportunity and wealth. From Nagaland to Patna, Mumbai, Delhi and Punjab, Powder Room mirrors how and why India ‘does’ fashion.
Shefalee Vasudev has been a journalist for the past fifteen years, writing on popular culture, social trends, and fashion. She was the first editor of Marie Claire in India and currently works with The Indian Express as Associate Editor. Power Room: the Untold Story if Indian fashion is her debut book.
When I quit my job in January 2010 as editor of Mane Claire,
I didn't suspect that I was on my way to becoming its
apologist. I had found the editorial climate of fashion magazines
handcuffed by Bollywood and advertisers, from where fashion
appeared to be a hostage to celebrities and the upper class. It
seemed a very narrow matrix compared to the way the idea of
clothing varies in India-from the barely clothed who spend their
entire lives in hand-me-down rags to those who spend millions
of rupees on wedding garments. Between the two classes lies the
thriving middle class for whom 'fashion' is no longer a spectator
sport. It, too, has begun to assess its worth through clothes, even
as the rich look almost exhausted in their search for competitive
ways of spending. There is a rising inequality between the middle
class and the rich in education, employment, and entertainment
in new India. Curiously, there is rising inequality in fashion
affordability between these two classes. Further down, the lower
middle class is just a disillusioned, sometimes resentful viewer
of this unequal game. Featuring a luxury watch worth a million
rupees alongside a lehnga, embroidered by a craftsperson who
could not afford to send his children to school, would rattle my
world view. I looked for conflict resolution. As a popular culture
writer, I observed that divorce and fashion were two defining
factors in the last decade. If 2000-2010 was the divorce decade, it
was also India's dress-up decade.
Till I was in Class 12, I hadn't heard of Coco Chanel. Born
and brought up in a middle class, liberal Sindhi family in the
small town of Gandhidham in Kutch, I was raised simply. My
parents, both teachers and Sindhi writers, had participated in
India's freedom movement when they were young and carried
the scars of Partition. In the India that remained, they wanted
me to join the administrative service. Guided by Gandhian
beliefs, my mother shunned expensive silks, precious jewellery,
make up, perfumes, and everything 'artificial' (her favourite
word for fashion). Even now, she doesn't know who or what
Louis Vuitton is and what I mean when I rave about couture.
Yet, she would indulge my childhood craze for new frocks and
stitched them herself on an Usha sewing machine. I would cut
out patterns from Eve's Weekly and Pemina, choose the fabrics,
and hover around while she sewed. No excess was permitted.
Formal clothes were kept aside for weddings or festivals only.
Old clothes became nightwear and a careful differentiation had
to be made between 'home' wear and 'outside' wear. My parents
would wear old clothes while travelling in trains (we always
travelled Second Class) as clothes got 'spoilt in the train'. The
recycling would never end, and after clothes were too worn out,
the cotton ones would be cut and hemmed to make dusters. Yes,
once in a while, my father who travelled often would pamper
me with 'heel-wale sandals' from Bombay. Even so, 'fashion' was
considered inferior to academic excellence and showing-off of
any kind was plain bad manners. As an adolescent, I was scolded
every time I asked if I could thread my eyebrows.
Later in life when my peers in fashion would tell me that their
mothers had always used Chanel No. 5 or that they had grown
up in a world of Estee Lauder powder and French chiffons, I
would keep quiet. I still recycle my worn out clothes to wear at
home and till this day haven't bought clothes or accessories from
a single luxury label. Spending recklessly on clothes still makes
me feel guilty.
So what am I doing writing about fashion? To be honest,
curiosity drove me to research this book. I looked for threads
that could stitch up the story of fashion in India through people
who lived for and by it-from designers to weavers. What were
the private lives and frustrations of designers like? What did
their families think. about them? Does fashion really help distract
people from everyday problems?
The narrative of clothing and fashion in modern India seems
to be a close indicator of new social behaviour, rifts inside families,
generational differences, and the compulsions behind fanciful
consumption. If the financial independence of Indian women
has led to a large societal change and their sexual liberation,
fashion has certainly added to tangible liberties. It appears to be
India's biggest fantasy at the moment-the great new escape.
Bollywood is its face, and the Indian wedding its alter ego. Its
relevance and use as an end-goal in life may be a debate, but it
drives a lot of what we see around us as urban culture. Also,
there seemed to be a serious clash in the way media represents
the fashion industry and what it actually is. We lampoon its
malfunctions, allowing fantastical assumptions to gloss over the
fact that clothes that reach mass brand retail stores or fashion
collections we see at fashion weeks, take months to create. They
are the culmination of serious business strategies combined with
fiery creative imagination. Not all designers have had formal
training; some have created large businesses by giving a free reign
to their imagination. Anamika Khanna, one of the country's most
critically applauded designers, never went to a fashion college,
nor did the younger Anupama Dayal who managed to double
her turnover between 2010 and 2011. Behind 'designer clothes'
are armies of people: designers, karigars who sew crystals on
saris for eighteen hours a day, tailors, and stylists.
Paradoxes leapt out of every subject I explored. Not only
is India now a powerful retail destination for luxury and mass
brands, but Manish Arora, the former creative director of French
brand Paco Rabanne is one of the most popular designers at Paris
Fashion Week. His design leadership has planted the words 'Indian
Fashion' firmly onto the world stage. As have numerous showings,
appearances on the Cannes red carpet and retail tie ups of other
designers, some younger ones included. Our designers not only
sell to bling-obsessed NRIs but also dress global celebrities.
Indian fashion sells in the Middle East countries as much as
it does here. The world's terms of engagement with India as a
manufacturing hub of fashion are still more or less the same-a
sourcing centre for beautiful embellishments, embroideries,
and affordable tailoring. At the same time, India's manufacture
influence has inflated. Local designers and collectives now create
entire pret collections for brands like Kenzo, Ralph Lauren, and
Tommy Hilfiger. In an opposite pursuit, Sabyasachi Mukherjee,
one of the highest selling Indian designers has a vision of starting
a clothing company that will make affordable garments for the
middle class. Suneet Varma, an industry veteran, emphasizes
the diversification of his expertise into design consultancies
as one of the survival strategies in a market challenged by
The words 'fashion' and 'designer' are now conversational
staples. They are bandied about in popular lexicon like a cloud
burst, splashing every nuance. Stories of men and women I
met in different towns strengthened the suspicion that outside
magazines, fashion was hardly about the rich and the under-
occupied. The black Sadri worn by BJP veteran Sushma Swaraj
as her clothing statement; Mayawati's faux leather handbags;
and the dramatic increase in the sales of black and coloured
lingerie (as opposed to the stiff, white Libertina bras of our
growing up years) in tier two cities; or Rajesh Pratap Singh, the
Master of Minimalism in India fashion, designing the uniforms
for the staff of Indigo Airlines-all provide insights into the way
we have evolved.
While writing the book, I met and interviewed more than
300 people, from Nagaland to Ludhiana, designers to sponsors
and directors of fashion weeks, and even those who have never
opened a fashion magazine in their lives. The youngest weaver in
the Salvi family that weaves the rare and now dying Patan Patola
sari in Patan, Gujarat, told me he had quit a full time job as an
architect to become a full time weaver and set up a private Patan
Patola museum recording its history since the eleventh century.
A gay stylist explained how fashion had helped him come out of
the closet. A ladies' tailor told me that she dreamt of her masterji
(cutter) and not her husband even when she was going through a
messy divorce. In a memorable interview, an East Delhi girl told
me how her priorities changed after she began working as a sales
executive for a luxury brand at Delhi's Emporio Mall.
Equally compelling are the personal stories of designers who
rebelled against their families to pursue their calling--regarded
as 'not a lot better than a darzi's'. Young designer Rahul Mishra,
a formidable talent, also a poster boy of responsible fashion, was
born in a mud house in Malhausi near Kanpur. He was not sent to
school till he was e-years-old. When his father could afford seven
rupees a month as school fees, Rahul's teachers realized he was
too bright for Class One and promoted him to a higher class in a
matter of months. By the age of nine, Rahul was in Class Six and
scored full marks in mathematics. His father soon packed him
off to study at the Maharashi Maheshyogi School in Lucknow.
Many years later, when Rahul secured a seat at the National
School of Design, Ahmedabad, his father was stung with shock.
'Darzi banoge?' he asked him. 'Yet it is because of my humble
upbringing in a village that I respect the condition of weavers:
says Rahul who now ensures some of his weavers can afford
laptops and save enough to buy a plane ticket when they travel to
cities for collaborative projects. 'I don't mind if they plagiarizse
my designs, they too need to get on with their lives: he adds.
Not everyone is enamoured of fashion after all. Fashion
magazines and their editors may well wield front row clout but
fashion journalism is still considered inconsequential by a majority
of mainstream Indian editors. No space is made for fashion in the
main sections of newspapers as it might be good for Page 3 and
the snippety glitterati pages of news magazines, but seldom for
insightful, investigative big stories. It probably takes a Rohit Bal to
have a heart attack for fashion to share front-page space.
Sociologist Prof Ashis Nandy who I met to make sense of the
polarities that soaked my research, said he found these paradoxes
germane to the narrative. 'It is those who forget that besides
business, trendiness, and liberty, fashion is about aesthetics,
become hostile towards it,' he said. To some extent this explains
why issues around moral policing in our society are related to
dressing. Farah Aziz of Aligarh Muslim University was assaulted
in 2006 because she wore jeans to college without a sobering
dupatta; the principal of a Chennai college accused young girls of
distracting male teachers by wearing tight-fitting clothes. There
have been so many such instances.
Somehow, the larger-than-life, uber-glamourous image and
reasonable profitability of Indian fashion does not translate into
an organized industry. Designers like Wendell Rodricks, Ravi
Bajaj, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal,
Suneet Varma, and JJ Valaya have been working for more than
two decades; Ritu Kumar, the matriarch of Indian fashion, has
been around for more than thirty-five years, even official fashion
weeks are more than a decade old. Sunil Sethi, the President of
Fashion Design Council of India, is now on most annual power
lists of various publications. Yet, neither the Ministry of Textiles,
nor the Fashion Design Council of India officially monitors the
worth and growth of the fashion industry and its many scattered
but worthy mini-revolutions inside and outside fashion weeks.
There are selection committees for fashion events but despite
a burgeoning collective, there is no industry ethic, code, union,
or agenda to live by. In the absence of norms, there is little
accountability on pricing, quality or issues of plagiarism, copying
and derivative design, and these are rampant.
Powder Room got written only because people (especially a
couple of designers) shared their private experiences and realities
with me. They left me a changed person and I must admit that if
I was driven to this work out of a superiority complex as a fashion
journalist, I have been cut down to size.
Real people still amuse me a lot. The term used by fashion
media often hints at those who need makeovers to qualify as story
subjects but still amuse a fashion magazine reader who might get
bored with the details of Sonam Kapoor's wardrobe. These people
too are driven by fashion, without being aware of its seasonal or
technical perfection. Their stories fascinated me as much as those
of socialites. I was curious to find out what fashion did for those
who wore Dior gowns compared to those who could only afford
Big Bazaar or Fabindia.
Chapter One charts the journey of Raakesh Agarvwal from
being sexually abused in his childhood to becoming a commercially
successful designer. Chapter two follows the story of luxury
brands in India throughJennifer, a sales representative at the DLF
Emporio Mall in Delhi. Chapter Three set mostly in Ludhiana
highlights the Punjabi culture of 'show-sha' or conspicuous
consumption and how it plays itself out through luxury labels.
In Chapter Four, I have tried to examine the role of models and
why male models are not the superstars of India's modelling
business. The story of emerging designer Imcha Imchen and his
bi-polar disorder runs as a metaphor to deconstruct the duality
of :1ttit•udc$ in f,"1$hion ;n the North Ea$t in Chapter Five. Chapter
Six profiles Rohit Bal and Sabyasachi Mukerjee who have left an
indelible impression on Indian fashion. In Chapter Seven I throw
light on the darzi culture in India and the role of boutiques in our
lives. Rahul Salvi the youngest weaver of the rare Patan Patola
sari in Gujarat helps me recreate the story of the cocooned
Salvi family that doesn’t want anything to do with the designer
lobby, fashion weeks and government 'support' in Chapter Eight.
Chapter Nine is about fashion media, how they operate and their
role in Indian journalism. In the concluding Chapter Ten I have
tried to examine the politics that exits within the fashion world
and the various players involved in it.
My editor Milee Ashwarya found editing Powder Room quite
challenging as the multiple layers within the fashion industry had
to intertwine with stories of common people; we wanted to find
a balance so that the book could find resonance not only with the
fashion elite but also students and a regular Indian shopper.
I was often asked in this pursuit, whether my book will
be controversial or negative. It is neither. I worked on it like
a journalism assignment and have attempted to report the
perplexities that clothe those who live by fashion in different
cultures of India and through them reveal why the industry is not
a mere sum total of designers, models, and fashion weeks. If at
all, Powder Room might tell you why fashion is a form of zeitgeist
and why the industry should not be judged by its clothes.
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