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Letter From India: Costume Drama

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April 2007
Letter From India: Costume Drama

Who are you wearing? Indian celebrities and socialites are only just beginning to address this red carpet question for a fashion savvy audience. There was much ado about Preity Zinta, Kareena Kapoor, and Malaika Arora's choice of "designer" gowns at the recent Filmfare awards. Sartorial preferences have altered from stuffy to stylish.

I flipped channels after Hrithik Roshan walked away with the best male actor award. There were numerous fashion related programs on "Zee," "MTV," "FTV," etc. Homespun style gurus—some of whom were no more than socialites with deep Prada purses—belted out dress-up advice. I often scan though Indian editions of Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and Elle. Replete with eye-catching photographs of trendy clothing and accessories, the magazines appear to be very popular. Interestingly they don't recommend simply pulling back hemlines and westernizing one's appearance to look hip. Not everybody is Parmeshwar Godrej, the iconoclastic style diva.

Nothing has morphed quite as much as the sari. Net saris with Kanjivaram borders, crepe bandhanis with threadwork, tissue with sequin and Swarovski. A snip here, a stitch there, and the sari blouses go from chic to bizarre. I've seen a woman wearing coconut shells fastened together to serve as a blouse!

Men, too, are experimenting with their attire: Wendell Rodricks linen shirts in addition to run-of-the-mill Tees, Shahab Durazi's classic lines in lieu of your regular darzi's handiwork. Even the label-oblivious find their standard shops offering smarter silhouettes. Clothing stores like Wills Lifestyle that cater to the burgeoning middle class offer exclusively tailored collections by premier stylesmiths like Rohit Gandhi-Rahul Khanna and Bollywood favorite Manish Malhotra. A person who buys a Zodiac shirt wants the Zegna cut and quality at affordable prices.

I caught up with an ex-colleague recently—the former editor for Elle India. He talked of how the industry had matured since the time he graduated from NIFT. Back then there were only a few established names like Ritu Kumar who retailed in London and New York as well. Indian weaves and motif surfaced sporadically on the international scene. On occasion one saw a Hollywood celebrity—such as Oscar winner Judi Dench in an Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla—wearing exquisitely embellished desi drapes. More recently, we bought kurtis at Macy's and juttis at DSW. I even purchased a bandhani dupatta or "scarf" at Target.

Indian designers are finally getting their due. Apart from showcasing their ensembles at the Indian Fashion Weeks, they now participate in the London and Paris Fashion Weeks as well, on the ramp with Armani and Versace. Not only is Indian warp and weft being appreciated overseas, international brands now view India as a huge market to be tapped. I never imagined Burberry originals being retailed three blocks from my apartment in Mumbai, or the average person being able and willing to pay the (absurd) prices for haute couture. I, however, couldn't bring myself to spend Rs 7,500 on an embroidered cotton shirt by the venerated Tarun Tahiliani.

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a senior marketing executive for Calvin Klein Asia. Unable to identify an exclusively up market area worthy of a CK showroom, he asked how squalor blended seamlessly with splendor, why there were roadside stalls a few feet from the uber luxurious Louis Vuitton boutique? Perhaps that is how we Indians like it—a patchwork of rich and poor, old and new, kitsch and classic. It is our own desi-ish style.

By Reetika Khanna Nijhawan


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