This week on The Business of Fashion we welcome several guest contributors to give us the scoop on recent fashion weeks, the IHT conference and local market trends in India. We're calling it our own India Fashion Week, but as you'll see, that might be the last thing India needs.
NEW DELHI, India — Bollywood, Cricket and Fashion. Everyday these three topics bring to life the popular culture pages of India's leading national newspapers, The Times of India and Hindustan Times. And of this colourful ménage à trois, fashion is the relative newcomer, but is growing fast.
In the last year alone, the local scene has exploded to include three major prêt-a-porter fashion weeks, a bridal couture week, a regional fashion week in Kolkata, a proposed men's fashion week and enough corporate sponsors to power each one. Multi-brand fashion boutiques and über-luxe malls featuring international brands have also recently opened. Local fashion media has reached critical mass, with Harper's Bazaar, which launched an Indian edition last month, Vogue India, and countless other magazines all aimed at India's it-bag aspiring middle classes.
But, let's start at the very beginning, to see how it all began.
India's first ever fashion week took place in New Delhi in the Autumn of 2000, organised by the newly created Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), the international talent agency IMG, and title sponsor Lakmé, a leading Indian cosmetics and beauty brand. This edition ran until the big split in 2006. Since then, Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) by IMG is held in Mumbai, home of Bollywood and "filmy" glamour, while the FDCI continued as Wills India Fashion Week (WIFW) in New Delhi. Add to this Delhi Fashion Week (DFW), only two seasons old, created by the FDCI's defecting former executive director.
Which brings us to the Autumn/Winter 2009 shows last month, where over 180 fashion and accessory designers in 80+ runway shows, unveiled their collections across three events in two cities, between March 18 and 31, with a record number of corporate sponsors including Hewlett Packard, Audi, Grey Goose, Carlsberg, Yahoo, Reliance, Kingfisher airlines and Fedex.
As FDCI president Sunil Sethi told The Business of Fashion: "Even in these times of recession there is a definite buzz around brand India and a special place on the rack for us. It is all about continuity. If a customer has come to us once, whether they add another designer or replace one with the other, they nevertheless carry brand India forward. Let us get the international fashion community here first. Let them see our creativity, our warmth and the hunger we have to be part of the world of fashion."
But that is easier said than done, and there is a long way to go before this is achieved.
If only these fashion weeks did not shift venue every year, resulting in constant logistical reprogramming between glitzy five-star hotels, a spanking new luxury mall, a drab industry trade venue, and a crumbling performance arts hall, creating an image problem, which never helps in fashion
What's more, designers are split and often conflicted, especially the younger ones, as to which week they should participate in. On one occasion designers even fought publicly, one accusing the other of delaying his show on purpose.
For media and buyers, the three fashion weeks are no treat either. Media outlets are forced to deploy larger teams to simultaneously cover all events comprehensively. The all-important front row of international buyers, such as Julie Gilhart, fashion director of Barneys New York who attended WIFW last month, must choose between fashion weeks or face the impossible drive across Delhi between venues, in the deadlock of peak traffic hours.
What the Indian fashion community needs to do instead is create a single organisation to interface between designers and related government bodies, retailers, manufacturers and financial institutions. We should aim to make a global imprint with our craft and textile heritage, creativity and colour at global standards of competitiveness; marketing India as a design hub. Indeed, the craft and colour of India has caught the imagination of the world, not just-a-bit helped by the phenomenal success of Slumdog Millionaire.
To outside commentators this is more than apparent. A few days ago bigwig fashion journalist Suzy Menkes wrote in a New York Times article, "As the vast country's designers take Indian style beyond the draped sari and its woven fabrics to Western cut and sew, a local industry is now doing more than making low-cost clothes for export overseas. [Yet] in spite of a vibrant market across the subcontinent, the rallying cry of those 150-plus designers is this: "Can we make it internationally?"
Manish Arora has made it, with critical acclaim, if not commercial success. Pieces by Rajesh Pratap Singh have been stocked at Colette in Paris. Other designers including Anamika Khanna, Sabyasachi, Ashish N. Soni and Namrata Joshipura, are also making their mark internationally. A couple of other promising up-and-comers including Gaurav Gupta and Varun Sardana are waiting in the wings but need seed investment to take off.
As for the crowded show calendar and multiple fashion weeks, some industry participants think it might be too early to tell whether three really is crowd. "I think we should reserve judgment for the time being," says Nonita Kalra, Editor-in-Chief of ELLE India. "I don't think the calendar is crowded. Just compare the numbers to the burgeoning middle class. India is a big country with big tastes. What seems like an explosion to the rest of the world is just a small party for us."
Either way, while the dust has settled a bit this year, the chaos of fashion week in India is not a pretty sight. That said, the threat of recession has turned quite a lot of people rather more serious in bringing Indian fashion from fraternity to industry, not gang war. And that can only do us some good.
Sita Wadhwani is a writer, fashion stylist and trend scout based between New Delhi and Mumbai.