Thursday, August 15, 2013

Exclusive: Indian Fashion's Hits, Trends & Milestones

By Jacky Maker / INN Bureau

Fashion isn’t just about stars wearing a label on the red carpet. It’s also about that one piece in your wardrobe you have in common with your aunt and your neighbour. That iconic leitmotif in which the fashion vocabulary of a generation is written. In the past 25 years of Indian fashion, there’ve been trends that originated on the ramp and permeated down to the local darzi. We spoke to insiders and fashion historians and came up with our list of Indian fashion’s greatest hits.

The Corset blouse
Introduced by Suneet Varma in 1992

It was the ’90s and India was trending on the global fashion scene. Madonna had discovered mehndi (cue the 1998 video of Frozen); Gwen Stefani, with an Indian boyfriend as her favourite arm accessory (Tony Ashwin Kanal, co-member on the band No Doubt), was taking a go at bindis and saris; and Indo-Western was the cultural scrawl on every wall. It was an opportune time for Suneet Varma to showcase his metallic breast plate (with a sari) which soon morphed into a corset blouse. “I showcased it in my first collection in 1992, inspired by my corsetry training in France,” recalls Varma. “It really struck a chord at that time because I realised that women like things that celebrate their sexuality, yet contain them perfectly. And that’s exactly what the corset blouse did.” 

Amidst a storm of banjara skirts, tie-and-dye shirts and jackets with bells, the corset blouse stood out like a beacon. 

An entire generation wore it with saris, lehengas, skirts, jeans and shorts. (It’s still around). But its biggest success lay in the wedding market, where it became the blouse-that-wasn’t-a-blouse. Every actress wore it. And it spawned numerous clones, generating websites like (which deals exclusively in delivering custom-made corsets). 

This Victorian undergarment, originally viewed as a form of bondage, turned into a trend that altered the Indian wedding costume forever. Twenty five years later, Varma still includes at least one corset in every show even though the material has changed from metal and satin to polyester taffeta and stretch lace (the latter’s lycra-esque properties effectively eliminate the stiffness and discomfort associated with a corset). “There are so many badly made copies floating around in the market that I often feel bad for the women wearing them. They end up flattening the bosom as opposed to enhancing it like corsets should,” says Varma.

It really struck a chord at that time because I realised that women like things that celebrate their sexuality, yet contain them perfectly: Suneet Varma

The Sexy Sari
Introduced by Manish Malhotra in 2000

The sari is back in fashion. Not that it ever really went out. But it did get banished to the neglected recesses of women’s closets, only to be aired at weddings or formal functions. And then it came out, in a slinky, glamorous reincarnation as the sexy sari – worn with deep-cut, cleavage-baring blouses – in fabrics like net, satin, chiffon and lace. The man responsible for its rebirth was Manish Malhotra, who, after giving Cinderalla-esque makeovers to Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela (1995) and Karisma Kapoor in Raja Hindustani (1996), showcased his sexy saris on the runway in 2000 and gave India its hottest party outfit. “I was really inspired by the delicate saris of the ’60s and the chiffon saris in Yash Chopra movies,” says Malhotra. “So when I started doing clothes, I removed the clutter of embellishments that we saw in saris of the ’80s, made them sensuous by using fabrics like chiffon, satin and net and brought in pastel colours, tangerine and icy blue. It changed the way people looked at a sari.” 

That Malhotra’s biggest endorsement came from Kareena Kapoor, who is often seen wearing slinky cocktail saris, helped too. Today, a sexy sari doesn’t necessarily come from his brand anymore. With net, chiffon and satin gaining immense popularity on their own, armies of women are getting customised saris, with Malhotra’s designs (that are all over the Internet) providing the requisite mood-board. 

I made saris sensuous by using chiffon, satin and net and brought in pastel colours and shades like tangerine and icy blue. It changed the way people looked at a sari: Manish Malhotra

Zardozi Embroidery
Introduced by Ritu Kumar in 1973

If it wasn’t for Ritu Kumar, our elaborate, lavish, ethnic costumes would be embroidered in plastic thread on cheap base fabric. Because that’s how zardozi looked in the early ’70s, when Kumar chanced upon the original technique in miniature Mughal paintings. Zardozi was actually fine embroidery in gold and silver thread on fabrics like satin and silk, favoured by the kings, queens and the 
aristocracy of the Mughal era. 

By the time Kumar stumbled upon it, karigars had resorted to using plastic thread for the embroidery and zardozi was on its way to becoming a dying art. “At that time, there was no ready-to-wear bridal range of clothes,” says Kumar. “People went to Benaras to source saris or to Rajasthan to get lehengas. Back then, there were almost no garments for us to refer to, apart from a few museum pieces or clothes that people had inherited. So we were like barefoot doctors, venturing into the interiors of the country, looking for craftsmen and experimenting with techniques. But we didn’t know where we would sell. There were no set parameters.” 

Little did Kumar know that this style of embellishment would eventually become one of the biggest fashion exports of the country, launch industries and become the source of livelihood for thousands of karigars. Zardozi might be synonymous with wedding finery, but it has now made its way to every swathe of fabric you can imagine, from home accessories, bags and shoes to even furniture.

We were like barefoot doctors, venturing into the interiors of the country, looking for craftsmen and experimenting with techniques. We didn’t know where we would sell: Ritu Kumar 

God-printed T-shirts
Introduced by Manish Arora in 1997

It was so bad that it was cool. When Manish Arora burst on the Indian fashion universe with various saturated prints of technicolour Indian gods and wild street art in 1997, everyone was taken aback. “They would say, ‘This is all good but who’s going to wear it?’” says Arora of the initial reactions to his controversial  T-shirts, the Big Bang moment for Indian kitsch. It is a movement that has since exploded to overcome almost every area of design in the country, from restaurant interiors to theme weddings and home furnishings. 

Brands like Happily Unmarried (beer mugs, coasters with catchphrases in Devnagari script), Purple Jungle (bags, accessories with vintage educational posters), clothing stores like Bombay Electric (which gave us faux vintage, ‘maharaja punk’ and ‘disco shanti’) and designers like Nida Mahmood (who mixes classic with the street in collections called Must! Qalandar) have since translated the everyday around us into kitsch art.

Arora recalls that it all started with a trip to Kinari Bazar in Delhi. “It was so colourful with god statues and their big eyes, groom garlands made out of rupee notes, synthetic materials and bright fabrics. I put all of that on the ramp. It was a big risk, no one had done it before.”

The Indian streets were so colourful with god statues and groom garlands. I put all of that on the ramp. And people said, “This is all good but who’s going to wear it: Manish Arora

The Anarkali
Introduced by Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla in 1988

If, a few years ago, someone had mentioned the word ‘Anarkali’ to you, your mind would have conjured up images of a beautiful Mughal courtesan. But today, what comes to mind is an inverted pomegranate-shaped silhouette that is ostensibly the Indian version of a ball gown. 

Popularised by Hindi television shows, worn by every socialite on carpets of varied colours, hawked on fashion e-commerce websites as the fastest-selling item of the day, the Anarkali has moved into India’s wardrobes as a resident staple, at least for now. 

Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla showcased the contemporary Anarkali at their first show in 1988. It was constructed by cutting three gold-bordered Kerala cotton saris and was 52 inches long. “We were hugely inspired by Meena Kumari’s costumes in Pakeezah and created floor-length Anarkalis which were worn by Jaya Bachchan and then later by Shweta (Nanda),” says one half of the duo, Sandeep Khosla. 

“They were an instant hit because of the grand statement they made and the ease of movement they allowed. Then magazines and newspapers picked it up and the trend took on a life of its own.” The trend has seen variations by almost every designer, most notably by Manish Malhotra, whose red-carpet Anarkali appearances by Bollywood actresses created a new level of frenzy for the garment.

We were hugely inspired by Meena Kumari’s costumes in Pakeezah and created floor-length Anarkalis: Sandeep Khosla 

 The Kurti
Introduced by Monisha Jaising in 1998

No matter how often they deny it, all Indian designers want to go international. But when they do, their collections differ wildly from what they show at home. Lengths, shapes and silhouettes are never the same, because what works locally usually doesn’t work in an international market. Except when it comes to the kurti. Adapted as beach wear, a barbeque party staple and termed as the ‘Indian embroidered tunic’, the kurti, which was reinvented by Monisha Jaising, has been fashion’s greatest hit not just in India but all over the world.

Liz Hurley wore it, so did Karan Johar (he reportedly had 30 of them), as did about every Indian woman who wanted to wear something modern yet modest. “In 1998, I was sitting at my drawing board trying to come up with something that women could wear with jeans to a temple,” says Jaising. “And then I came up with a kurta-like silhouette which had the same embroidery as you would see on a kurta but was shorter in length and cut closer to the body. The first kurti was in mul fabric.” 

Once she started retailing her kurti at a store called Scoop in New York, the figure-forgiving silhouette was picked up everywhere. It has since evolved into kurti dresses, kaftans with belts and was one of the biggest trends of early 2000s. “It became like a classic white shirt or a little black dress. Everyone had their own version,” grins Jaising. 

It became like a classic white shirt or a little black dress. Everyone had their own version: Monisha Jaising

The pintucked kurta
Introduced by Rajesh Pratap Singh in 1997

Brocades had taken over, embroidery was creeping into every wardrobe and clothes were swimming in a mad swirl of colour. Then in 1997, the quiet, powerful minimalism of Rajesh Pratap Singh’s pintucks took over. 

Inspired by the classic banker’s stripes, he created a series of shirts and kurtas for men and women with 3D strips of pintucks (narrow folds of fabric sewn in place) running along their length. It soon became the uniform of the working woman in India. “People were looking for a cleaner texture, an alternative to embroidery that worked well as daywear (cotton) and evening wear (silk). Pintucked kurtas filled that space,” says Singh. Popularised by Fabindia, pintucked kurtas also surfaced as the no-fuss choice for students in Delhi and Mumbai, worn-down versions of which hung proudly alongside college sweatshirts in undergrad cupboards, including this writer’s. 

I think people were looking for a cleaner, calmer texture which was an alternative to embroidery: Rajesh Pratap Singh

It’s no surprise that all the hits we picked were ethnic garments. It simply confirms what everyone has suspected all along: Indian fashion’s quarter life crisis has only just begun. The industry might be trying hard to break out of the traditional costume mode with edgy designs and silhouettes, but it’s clearly not ready yet. What works best are trends that are Indian in design, origin or form. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.