This season, a resonant theme at both Lakme Fashion Week and Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week was a return to traditional Indian textiles and craft. This may seem ironic, given that India is known throughout the world for its beautiful fabrics and unmatched craftsmanship. Traditions like chikankari, ikat, resham and zardozi form the fabric of India’s artisanal heritage, branding its designs as uniquely Indian. Yet, in spite of this rich history, India is just beginning to define its fashion identity.
India’s fashion boom in recent years has given rise to a design industry juggling two worlds: the domestic market made up of the newly moneyed, fashion hungry middle class and the competitive, uncertain terrain of the western market. For years, Indian designers were content satisfying the needs of the local market, comprised mostly of wedding and ethnic apparel and saw very little economic need to retail overseas. However, as India’s fashion prominence has grown, so has the desire to venture beyond the shores of the subcontinent. But penetrating the international market has meant tempering traditional designs to suit the tastes of the western consumer. While European designers like Dries Van Noten, John Galliano, and Giorgio Armani have masterfully blended Indian craft with western silhouettes, it was unfamiliar territory for many Indian designers. The skill of India’s artisans and designers have traditionally been in craft – embroidery and embellishments rather than design. Unlike Western garments, Indian apparel, like the sari, are not of the cut and sew variety so greater emphasis was given to fabric and tactile embellishments. Selling to the Western market, however, meant creating pieces that relied more on fit, finishing and construction and less on sequins, beading and embroidery. It also meant shifting away from fabrics like hand loomed cotton and silk whose raw, coarse texture worked well for unstitched, traditional garments like the sari, dothi, etc. but did not allow for the construction of dresses, shirts and other western apparel. Thus, in adopting Western silhouettes, Indian textiles were discarded for synthetic materials that were easier to work with and in turn made the clothes less ethnic. What this led to, however, was confusion in the marketplace as to what India’s fashion aesthetic was; what set Indian designers apart from everyone else?
It wasn’t until the arrival of Bengali designer, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, whose unabashed use of traditional textiles and local craft produced collections coveted by both Western and Indian consumers that gave credence to the idea that apparel made with Indian sensibilities could have cross-cultural appeal. The objective, as realized by Indian designers, was not to westernize Indian garments but rather modernize styles and shapes to create mass market appeal. And thus, collections shown this season from Mumbai to New Delhi relayed the new found confidence in celebrating India’s design and craft heritage. Seen on the runways were fabrics like chanderi, khadi and handloom silk as well as the use of regional arts such as chikankari from Lucknow and block printing from Rajasthan. In doing this, designers are not only promoting India’s unique arts but are also preserving the livelihood of India’s artisans, who form the backbone of the industry.
India and its designers have something unique to offer the world which is the craftsmanship, heritage, and artistry that have been always been a part of the country’s DNA. India also has the potential to create its own globally known luxury brands due to the enormous pool of local talent and India’s strong tradition in luxury apparel and jewelry. But India’s fashion story is just starting to unfold, so stay tuned.
Image courtesy of: timesofindia.indiatimes.com
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