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Powder Room (The Untold Story of Indian Fashion)

Item Code: NAG357
Author: Shefalee Vasudev
Publisher: Random House India
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788184001617
Pages: 352
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 520 gm
Fully insured
Fully insured
Shipped to 153 countries
Shipped to 153 countries
More than 1M+ customers worldwide
More than 1M+ customers worldwide
100% Made in India
100% Made in India
23 years in business
23 years in business
Book Description
About The Book

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.

About The Author

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 global brands.

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.


1. Dry Clean Only1
2. Price on Request33
3. The Ludhiana Ladies65
4. Walk, Don't Talk91
5. Boy, Interrupted139
6. The Raja and the Yuvraj169
7. Ladies Tailor205
8. In the Red233
9. Peanuts as Salary, Free Trips to Paris261
10. In the Wings307
A Note on the Author334
A Note on the Type336
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