PARIS, France — Bandana Tewari has made a name for herself as one of the fashion industry's smartest commentators. As fashion features director of Vogue India, she has quickly become the go-to source for anyone who wants to learn about the country's rapidly evolving luxury market. Recently, she was named to Industrie magazine's Fashion Media A-list, alongside other leading fashion commentators including Cathy Horyn, Tim Blanks and Suzy Menkes.
So, I am delighted to reveal that Bandana Tewari will pen a regular column for The Business of Fashion, offering her unique perspective on the Indian luxury market, starting with this interview originally conducted for Industrie.
I sat down with Bandana in between shows during Paris Fashion Week in September to talk about India’s fast growing fashion market, tailoring luxury products to Indian sensibilities, the power of Bollywood and wearing Tarun Tahiliani saris with Manolo Blahniks.
BoF: How would you describe your point of view on fashion, your angle?
BT: Every time someone asks, ‘How do I become a fashion journalist?’ I say, ‘Forget fashion.’ You’ve got to be a social anthropologist first. That for me is the hook. I don’t think I could think of fashion in a uni-linear way. Fashion is like a fantastic hydra-headed monster that is influenced by everything around us – pop culture, state of the economy, global warming, you name it. I can only understand fashion in this holistic way.
BoF: You’ve been working in fashion for eight years now, and India has gone through a massive change in that time. Can you tell us what you’ve observed as India has become part of global fashion culture?
BT: In India everything happened so quickly. In the first phase, when fashion became corporatised and institutionalised into Fashion Weeks, it started off being very Indian. Then the media cried foul: ‘No one’s wearing just these traditional clothes – what are these Indian designers doing?!’ And then suddenly everyone was into – what I think is a reductionist Indian fashion term – ‘fusion-fashion’, as in Indo-Western fusion, which was basically Western silhouettes with dollops of very ethnic nuances and motifs. We were following all the clichés that we punish the rest of the world for using on us. A nice little jacket but paisleyed to death, you know? Or skirts that were too embellished.
BoF: But today, Indian fashion has morphed into something more defined.
BT: The third stage of fashion in India was the period when we reconciled ourselves to the fact that there is a certain DNA that cannot be taken out of the country. We do have a forte that lies in handicraft, in decorative arts, in embellishments, in technique. But what designers started doing was to not use them literally: they took little bits of it and used it in fluid silhouettes. And then we had beautiful collections from designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Anamika Khanna, Varun Bahl, Savio, James Ferreira. They brought this very coherent vision of India, which unfortunately I feel the Western world still hasn’t seen or utilised.
BoF: What do you mean?
BT: Well, here we are at Paris Fashion Week for spring/summer 2012. I look around me there are events promoting all young emerging designers from London. I’ve just come back from a CFDA presentation of American designers. Then, you have the Koreans in ‘Seoul to Soul’ in the Museum of Decorative Arts. It’s phenomenal how much support different countries are offering to these designers. When I went to ‘Seoul to Soul’ I thought, ‘We now need to’ – and I’m definitely going to spearhead this –‘get five, six Indian designers to have a platform like this, where we, as Vogue India perhaps, can support it.’ I saw the emerging talent, and we are no less accomplished.
BoF: But we’ve been through this phase where Sabyasachi and Ashish N Soni were showing in New York and Manish Arora was showing in London. And it seems to me that, except for Manish Arora, most Indian designers have gone back to refocus on the Indian market.
BT: Well we’re at the stage where a top Indian designer like Sabyasachi Mukherjee can sell a garment for the same price as a couture dress by Dior and conclude, ‘I know my forte lies in doing Indian clothes for Indian people and catering to a market that is worth close to 11, 12 billion US dollars per annum’ – which is the Indian wedding industry. Some designers are like Manish, who [has shown] his first collection for Paco Rabanne: he’s very clear he wants to make it in the international arena. But other designers have decided their marketing focus is in India, and they are doing phenomenally well in their own country.
BoF: And maybe that makes sense. Because some global brands have failed to understand that the Indian market requires a really tailored offering.
BT: Absolutely. Not just tailored, but you have to understand India in terms of its spending power and when that money is spent. In a certain month you’re not supposed to be ostentatious, so forget about any grand opening in that month. You have to do full research of the rituals of India. Come August, September and right up to February, it’s the wedding season. It’s also the season with all the top festivals, Diwali, the festival of lights, where money is spent, buying for others and for yourself.
BoF: Do you think global brands are starting to understand this?
BT: Absolutely, and to respond to it too. Gucci did a limited-edition ‘Made for India’ series, which you can only buy in India. And it catered the Indian sensibility, which is a little bit bling. The India Knot clutch, which is by Bottega Veneta, was a sell-out, inspired by the architecture of India. Then Hermès recently launched six or seven beautiful saris – an extension of the scarves they’re doing, and I can tell you now, it is going to fly. There are so many customisations happening, on a small level: Jimmy Choo does bridal shoes for the Indian wedding industry. All these brands realise that just a bit of tailoring for the Indian aesthetic goes a long way for them to establish themselves in the hearts of the Indian consumer.
BoF: You have this interesting dichotomy between these big local Indian designers and the international superbrands. How does this divide represent itself in Vogue India, in terms of editorial and advertisers?
BT: When you flick through Vogue India, everything is customised for the Indian reader. So we put Indian designers alongside all the international designers irrespective of who’s advertising and who’s not. Because if you walk down the streets in Bombay, go to cocktail parties, go to dinner parties, we’re still wearing Tarun Tahiliani saris but with Manolo Blahniks. We are taking international fashion the way we want to. Not necessarily getting into gowns yet, because that’s something to be talked about and discussed further. The way we are indulging in [Western] fashion is really through accessories.
BoF: And so the consumer has created their own fashion fusion in the way they dress.
BT: Absolutely. So there is no way Vogue India would not put designers together. You know, we don’t care that Tarun Tahiliani doesn’t show at New York Fashion Week. He shows in India Fashion Week and that’s good enough for us. And he sells and he’s loved by his consumers and our readers. So if he’s doing a black sari that becomes the It-sari of the season and we do a ‘Midnight Black is Back’ page in the front of book, you’ll see a Jil Sander black shirt with that Tarun Tahiliani black sari, with a Dior black clutch and a black dress by Gaurav Gupta, who’s a young Indian designer.
BoF: Do you also Vogue India as playing a role in educating consumers about international fashion? Because before Vogue fashion magazines in India were not nearly at the international level.
BT: When we launched we said ‘education first’. Every brand story we did was almost like a profile: the legacy of Louis Vuitton, of Bottega Veneta. We’d customise it for our Indian readers. So if it was Gucci, it was about what Frida Giannini thinks about women all over the world and what she thinks about Indian women. And we’d weave the brand story with it so they get to know about the brand. A few seasons later, the next stage was to engage international designers properly with the Indian consumer. So it was about going back to the designers and saying, ‘How are you engaging out customers? What is it about India?’ So all our stories would revolve around that.
BoF: Condé Nast set up Vogue India as a fully owned subsidiary, so Condé Nast India operates as part of Condé Nast International. How does that relationship work?
BT: We were the first international magazine in India to be 100 per cent owned by the parent company, Condé Nast, and it makes a huge difference when you don’t have another partner. Your marketing strategy, your sales strategy, your editorial strategy is in tandem with the rest of fully-owned Vogues all over the world. In terms of the quality and content we want to bring to the consumer, I’d say it’s as good as even American Vogue, British Vogue. And that happens because we have full control of our magazine’s destiny.
BoF: Do you have interaction with the other Vogue Editions? Do you take content from time to time from British Vogue or American Vogue?
BT: We do that all the time. Because someone picking up Vogue in India wants to know what’s happening in the rest of the world too. So we take syndications, not just the English-language magazines but from Vogue Japan Vogue, Portugal, Brazil. We are global citizens. But globalisation is a dirty word today: I think the international community is getting so tired of everything that’s globalised. So we’re not homogenised – we have such an intrinsic indigenous quality to our lifestyle and we celebrate that. Because that indigenous quality is absolutely imperative.
BoF: You mentioned cultural clichés earlier. I wanted to talk about the power of Bollywood. There’s a lot of Bollywood in your covers. Is it is still very powerful force?
BT: Bollywood is by far the biggest marketing tool for anything that you do in India. I’d prefer to call it Indian cinema, but Bollywood is what it is right now. And we took a conscious decision to Voguify the Bollywood styles.
BoF: How do you mean?
I mean all these young actors and actresses are gorgeous. Whether you like the kind of movies they choose to act in… that's a subjective choice. But we took these amazing women who are successful and extremely powerful. And there were a lot of designer gowns and designer saris, and they’re on the cover with the top make-up artists and photographers: Patrick Demarchelier shot our first cover. We’ve had Gisele on the cover wearing an Indian-style bikini done by Tarun Tahiliani and a Balmain jacket, and we’ve had Bollywood stars in Gucci dresses. So we’ve brought that Vogue element to Bollywood. And it has changed the way people now want to present themselves in public. Because the whole red carpet thing didn’t exist in India then, but it does now.
A version of this interview first appeared in Industrie magazine.