On stage and under the table

MEHER VARMA

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IN November 2014, Ogaan, one of New Delhi’s first, multi-brand, high-end, fashion stores, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Led by Mayank Mansingh Kaul – a leading textile scholar and curator – a small group of people were invited for a panel discussion. Kaul described the event as a ‘living room conversation’, featuring designers David Abraham and Ruchika Sachdeva, and Bandana Tewari, the fashion editor of Vogue India. Ruchika had just won The Vogue Fashion Fund, a major competition for young designers.

The day of the event, I sat at a small table at the store’s adjoining café where the panel was being hosted. I greeted people in the audience; some were well recognized designers, and others owners of retail empires. Soon, Steve Dube, Sonali Sharma, and Kris Nakul (all pseudonyms), self-described ‘quieter designers’, a description alluding to their relatively small-scale, craft and textile based studios, joined me. They were all classmates who had been in business for many years. This close circle gave me some crucial insights once the discussion began.

Kaul began by declaring that the occasion was a celebration of the industry itself. He jogged the audience’s collective memory: ‘Ogaan was the go-to place for rich, business-family women looking for high quality clothing through the 1990s,’ he began. In order to distance the ‘then’ from the ‘now’, Mayank turned to Bandana, asking her to begin by ‘describing what this moment of Indian fashion was about.’ She readily listed two points: (i) the emphasis on Indian craft and textile as the USP of Indian fashion and (ii) the ‘not-trend-driven attitude’ of Indian designers. She explained the latter: ‘Rather than following season colours, Indian designers do better when they are negotiating the paradoxes of India, such as rural, urban, rich, and poor.’ This quickly led back to her first point that Indian designers did best when working with craft and textile.

A lively discussion followed. Several important questions were raised including how small designers could grow when most retailers only bought on consignment. After accepting applause for her Vogue Fashion Fund victory, Ruchika said she had found ‘a lot more support for Indian designers’ in the last two years. At my table there were whispers about a ‘sudden textilization’ of the fashion industry.

 

The conversation on stage then moved to a discussion of ‘saving’ craft and weavers. When David Abraham made some well articulated statements about the relationship between luxury and Indian craft, many people applauded. Soon, Mayank troubled this easy flow and stopped to point out the trend of the discussion. He asked rhetorically: ‘Can we even talk about Indian fashion without talking about craft and textile?’

David responded by raising a series of provocative questions: ‘Why not use craft if it is the most practical thing to be doing in India?’ Other designers and most of the audience approved of his reasoning and imbibed his language. ‘Why not’ became the frame for a series of questions that followed: Why not take advantage of all that we have around us? Why not go to the market and pick up a piece of textile and have it dyed, handprinted and re-dyed? Why not be Indian and use all this labour and skill if that is what makes the most sense?

As I jotted notes, I observed that being an Indian designer was associated with using the labour, skill and the craftsmen around ‘us’. In the remaining Q&A time, almost all the questions focused on how best to do this.

When Mayank and I spoke the next morning, we noted a few things. For example, many of India’s biggest couturiers were missing from the discussion. I wondered if they had been invited. Mayank reminded me the event clashed with Ritu Kumar’s (the ‘mother’ of Indian fashion) birthday celebration. We talked at length, imagining what that night would have looked like, and what these two simultaneous events meant for the industry. Was there an emerging divide between the ‘old guard’ and the ‘this moment?’ Was something different happening here, and what was it?

 

At ‘this moment’, I was finishing my dissertation in Indian fashion. This was a climate in which championing textile and Indian craft was the hegemonic paradigm in Indian fashion. However, this was also a moment in which a new paradigm was emerging, which Kaul and I have tried to unpack together, in other fashion related publications.

National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Delhi.

Bodice, Amazon Fashion Week.

In my dissertation, I argue that Indian fashion today is, primarily, a craft and textile based industry aligning with an elitist, historical preference of craft over ready-to-wear fashion. While working closely with Indian craftsmen is now propagated as the logical, obvious, and universally good solution to the industry’s historical problems, I argue that the turn to craft occludes the original purpose of Indian fashion as a ready-to-wear, export based industry directed at India’s ‘new’ middle class producers. However, in the conclusion I suggest that the rise of e-commerce signals new possibilities for Indian ready-to-wear.

 

While I found the Ogaan discussion to be among the most engaging gatherings I witnessed during my fieldwork, I also wish to read the discourse on stage with, rather than against, the quieter, under-the-table discussions that took place. Despite the promises of renewal that the contemporary turn to craft offers, there are important effects of portraying Indian designers as exceptional; not trend-driven, but as devoted to Indian crafts.

Given the interests in craft that were temporarily put aside during the practical institutionalization of mass-produced, ready-to-wear clothing as synonymous with fashion in India, I contextualize this moment within a larger context of failure, as many of my interlocutors also perceive it. I suggest that the choices Indian designers are making in the turn towards craft are neither new nor uncomplicated. Rather, for some designers they are an attempt to align with the interests of the old guard elite; it allows a claim to cultural capital that is imagined as predating India’s economic liberalization, as the use of craft and textile is linked to a sense of morality that is viewed as diluted in the current climate.

 

Meanwhile, for historically elite cultural producers – those who have always enjoyed economic and cultural capital – the crisis of Indian couture lies in the industry’s inability to manage the project of ready-to-wear fashion as fashion for the middle class. In other words, there is a perception that couture gave some of the new middle classes the ability to curate – and too easily access – the valued crafts of India. I argue that this feeling of over-curation is what lies behind the notion that Indian couture is marked by an over-the-top, bling, aesthetic.

By reporting the quieter discussions that occur alongside the dominant (the strategic turn to textile by young, award-winning fashion designers), I show how while there appears to be a homogenous celebration of Indian craft and textile in fashion, in this moment, this very question divides designers. The Ogaan event illustrates how privileged, public forums and fashion competitions were embracing the self-described small, minimal and low-key designers who were positioning themselves in opposition to bridal wear designers, ostensibly because they shared an interest in reviving craft. In this forum, amongst many others, the industry showed support for Ruchika’s pared-down design, strengthened by her use of Indian textile and craft. In response, she described her own work as ‘slow and self-conscious fashion’, a description that is, at this time, delinked from ready-to-wear or Indian couture. In general, this turn was applauded. However, for others, seeing this case as evident of an industry-wide ‘sudden textilization’, hinted that perhaps there were strategic interests at work. The table discussion then questioned what was ‘new’ about this moment, if anything at all.

While this event was another example in which a small, privileged audience reasserted its power, it was also powerful because it represented at least a partial shift. This panel addressed the politics of fashion, craft, commercial success and morality with a sophisticated self-reflexivity. Rather than blindly championing Indian craftsmen, there was a consciousness about naturally substituting craft for fashion, and craftsman for designer. I suggest this kind of consciousness was what was actually new and emergent.

 

This reflexive thinking is sharpening. Rimzim Dadu’s show at Delhi Fashion Week (Autumn/Winter 2016) not only questioned the relationship between craft and fashion – and, more centrally, craftsman and designer – but attempted to destabilize a given hierarchy by placing craftsmen on the ramp. However, not everyone applauded this display without question. Within a continuing dialogue catalyzed by her work, and similar attempts at redistributing power, I still find plenty of voices that appreciate Dadu’s display, but note the ways in which it reifies established power structures.

 

* Meher Varma’s PhD dissertation (UCLA 2015) examined the making of the Indian fashion industry over the last three decades.

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