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Indian Fashions Appeal to Foreign Clients

February 2005
Indian Fashions Appeal to Foreign Clients

By Siddharth Srivastava

Well-known Indian exports to the West include software, textiles, outsourced customer service (as in call centers), teachers, nurses and even doctors. And now Indian fashion, making its mark in a highly competitive field, has gathered a global momentum that cannot be easily dismissed.

This Indian influence is beginning to be seen at fashion hot spots around the world. American designers who have sporadically been inspired by Indian motifs in the past are increasingly embracing the eastern look. It includes saris, of course, but also bandgala (high neck jacket for formal occasions), choli (embroidered blouse), lehenga (Indian wrap-around), kurti (loose cotton tops) and more. Fashion diva Suzy Menkes has proclaimed that India will be hot in the coming season while leading style magazine Vogue has commissioned a piece on India's style statement that is catching on.

If Roberto Cavalli's T-shirts depicting Indian Gods made international headlines last season, and even generated controversy among Hindus around the world, this year his secondary line ?Just Cavalli' repeated the Indian theme at the Milan Fashion Week. In the U.S., hot new designer Zac Posen has drawn inspiration from India in his ?tribalite' selection while in the U.K., young fashion designers like Matthew Williamson are drawing accolades for their zari (gold threads) work inspired by the traditional attire of Jaipur in Rajasthan. At this season's Milan fashion week, Giorgio Armani showcased Jodhpuris and Roccobarocco paid tribute to Bollywood with his prints of hand-painted posters on shirts. Six months ago when Bombay Dreams debuted in Broadway Armani dressed the troupe in Indian attire.

Western designers inspired by Indian dresses come at a time when several Indian designers too are beginning to leave their mark at the international level. Ashish Gupta has been hailed as an exciting prospect among the new generation fashion designers at the London Fashion Week. Gupta, who dabbles in Indian embroidery and traditional sequins, has a client list that includes actors Sharon Stone and Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker. 32-year-old Orissa-born Bibhu Mohapatra has taken over as the design director of French fashion house J Mendel in New York, bringing about an India-inspired transformation to the company's line. Indian fashion designers such as Ritu Beri, Rina Dhaka, Suneet Varma and Sabyasachi are regularly invited to fashion meets around the world.

According to Rohit Bal, one of India's leading fashion designers, the West is looking at Indian fashion more seriously. "Some critics say there is too much hype about Indian fashion. Every time I show my clothes in the West, the positive feedback is that it's beautiful and that it's like being re-born as a princess. But the negative feedback is, 'Oh my God, I cannot carry off such clothing.' What we are witnessing is a conversion of this negative feedback into, 'Oh my God, I want to wear that and I can wear that!"' Bal's clothes have been modeled on the ramp by leading tennis star Anna Kournikova and actress Pamela Anderson.

Sabyasachi, who was invited to the Milan Fashion Week, has said in an interview with India Today that the Indian influence on western fashion is part of an anti-technology campaign. "Fashion was getting very plastic. We are going back to the power of the human hand, even as imperfection ? distressed pants and unfinished edges ? continues to rule the runway." Indian dresses, he added, gives a "very anti-Matrix look." Sabyasachi uses hand washed techniques, vegetable dyes and hand made crochet to highlight the Indian difference.

Indeed, there is a feeling that the Indian influence will help generate business as well an interest beyond design to buy end products from here. The Indian clothing industry is estimated to be worth $12 billion, half of which is exports. But the fashion design industry is still nascent and the estimated worth of $75 million shows that it's been growing at a fast pace in the past couple of years. Though the figures for designer apparel are still quite measly, the popularity of traditional Indian clothing is increasingly becoming a global trend. Many expect the rub-off increase in turnover too.

A Fashion Design Council of India-KPMG study has put the Indian designer market at a measly 0.2 per cent of the total branded apparel market. But if the interest shown by corporate buyers at the annual India Fashion Week (IFW) is anything to go by, Indian designers need not fret. The IFW is India's largest fashion and business event and generates much interest. Over the last few years it boasted of participation from over 200 domestic and 50 international corporate buyers

According to FDCI executive director Vinod Kaul, the Indian fashion industry is making global inroads. "In the past, representatives from Selfridges (U.K. store) came for Fashion Week, which led to the immensely successful Bollywood promotion. We have had important guests such as the President of Celine (a major French fashion house). It can only be the way up from here."

The buyers have started to troop in from all across India and from the U.S., the U.K., France, the U.A.E. and Hong Kong and include names like Raymonds, Ebony, Pyramid, Lifestyle, Shoppers Stop, Ensemble, Origins and Madame Butterfly from the domestic market. Leclaireur, Maria Luisa, Zingara, Kikis London, Aesthetics, Pegasus Fashion Imports, Sanskrit and A J Collections make up some of the names from the international market. Foreign buyers look to identify good designers and promote them in the European/U.S. markets. Creativity, low production costs without compromising on quality, and pr�t and ready-to-wear designs are some of the factors that are drawing the labels. In any case, given the lower costs, much of the beading and embroidery work is being done out of India.

"The idea is to identify a good designer, take him to Europe/U.S. and then promote his designs under our label. We have a store on Bond Street and for an Indian designer to be on Bond Street will be all the international exposure he could hope for," said Ajay Mirpuri of A J Collections at last year's IFW.

From being a source of inspiration to business generation, from just an influence to a source of export of Indian fashion, the Indian designer industry has come some way ? yet it has plenty more to go.

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