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East meets West at Bangalore Fashion Week

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A model showcases the 'show stopper' piece of Ramesh Dembla's collection 'Couture Oceana.’ (Courtesy of Pepper India PR)

India is known for its colorful landscapes and vibrant people — and for producing some of the most high quality fabrics in the world. But even with these ingredients, the country is still not considered one of the major fashion producers internationally.

Prior to this weekend, my own knowledge of Indian fashion existed at two ends of the style spectrum: On one side, the spectacular costumes of Bollywood actresses; on the other, my own drab wardrobe of cotton tunic tops and leggings. Thus, I had no idea what to expect when I attended Fashion Week – in Bangalore.

Like similar events in New York, London or Milan, Blender’s Pride Bangalore Fashion Week: Winter Festive 2012 is a four-day event (July 27 through July 30) that allows designers to showcase their collections to buyers at the national and international level. When I showed up at the after party at the Ashoka Hotel in Bangalore Saturday night, the first thing I thought was, “This is so Miami.”

Parties like this one shatter the common misconception that Indian women are forbidden from wearing certain things. India and its fashion have become synonymous with conservatism and tradition, but these girls wore short skirts and tight dresses and the men wore slick blazers and fedoras. Mash-ups of Western and classic Bollywood songs played over a crowd of nearly 700, all enjoying the scene — complimentary drinks in hand.

I might as well have been in South Beach!

Designer Shilpa Singh, left, with her ‘show stopper’ design at day two of Bangalore Fashion Week. (Courtesy of Pepper India PR)
“What’s appropriate is different than what’s allowed,” said Shilpa Singh, a 25-year-old designer who debuted her collection, Thea, on day two of BPBFW. “Wearing something revealing isn’t necessarily fashionable — this is true of fashion everywhere,” she said. “It’s about feeling empowered.” Singh was wearing an outfit she designed for herself: an intricately patterned cotton-mull Kurta (tunic top) belted over leggings and bright red heels. It was a modest outfit that kept all the attention on her new collection.

Girls who wear less traditional clothing in more conservative areas sometimes risk their sense of security. I for one am happy to blend into the crowds in Bangalore, especially in bustling bazaars where groping hands target women in "western" clothing.

“You just have to watch what you wear," Singh said. "You can wear something fashionable — just maybe not a short skirt.” As native of Hyderabad, Singh buys most of her materials in Charminar, the city’s largest bazaar. The market is located in an old Muslim area built around a 420-year-old monument. “I won’t wear to Charminar bazaar what I would to Bangalore Fashion Week, because it’s not respectful of the culture — not because I’m not allowed,” Singh explained. “India does need to open up a little, but we’ve already come so far.”

In a March 2012 interview, Dr. AKG Nair, director of New Delhi's Pearl Institute of Fashion, echoed some of Singh's sentiments. "A lot has changed in the last two decades," he said. "The rigidity in industry has gone; there is more tolerance towards fashion." He also cited the growing maturity of India's fashion industry, which he said now "requires expertise of fashion forecasters, fashion merchandisers and fashion journalists, besides the designers, stylists and textile designers." 

In 2007, The Times of India reported that the Indian fashion industry was projected to grow from $48.7 million to $135.2 million (Rs. 270 crore to Rs.750 crore) by 2012. The industry is currently estimated at $129.8 million (Rs.720 crore), nearly tripling its value in the past five years. According to a report by the U.S.-based research firm NPD group, America’s fashion industry grew 1.9 percent in 2010, after a 5 percent decline in 2009, topping out at $192.7 million in revenue. The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) told The Economic Times in February that “the booming designer wear industry” is expected to cross the $1.98 billion mark (Rs. 11,000 crore) by 2020. 

Pakistani designer Rizwan Ahmed sits backstage after his collection debuts on the catwalk. (Photo by Vishaka Makharia)
"The designer wear industry in India is driven by higher disposable incomes leading to rising purchasing power, emergence of mall culture, changing sense of style, dressing and growing fashion consciousness among urbanites," said Mr. D.S. Rawat, secretary general of ASSOCHAM while releasing the findings of the group’s study.

Much of the growth in India’s fashion industry is due to the growing exposure of domestic designers who have gained international recognition. BPBFW hosted two international debuts over the weekend, Italian designer Claudia Antoni and Rizwan Ahmed of Pakistan. (The live introduction to Ahmed’s line included an added note from the presenter, mentioning BPBFW’s delight in hosting a Pakistani designer, despite India and Pakistan’s strained political relationship.)

“Coming to Bangalore Fashion Week is exciting for a designer from Karachi,” said Ahmed, whose collection, VIBGYOR, was named after the acronym for the colors of the rainbow. His garments capture the feel of South Asian elegance. Swarovski crystals adorned the brightly colored, ankle-length gowns. Most of his dresses included leggings — an authentic Indian touch with Mughal roots — with elaborate embroidery around the ankles. His collection was by far my favorite (and not just because Rizwan is a total babe). “India has the attention of the whole world right now,” he said. “If you make it here, you make it everywhere.”

The boom of the Indian apparel industry can also be attributed to the number of large fashion events — like Fashion Week in Bangalore — which increased from one in 2004 to five to 2008. Roshan Mohan, the Director of Pepper PR, which handled the press for BPBFW, said that publications had contacted their firm from all over the world, asking to send reporters to the shows. Other factors — like fashion business education courses and the establishment of the Fashion Foundation of India (FFI) — support the next generation of aspiring designers. 

India is also becoming an increasingly attractive market for well-known luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo; both brands have boutiques in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. (Chanel also has a boutique in New Delhi). 

Indian flourishes like embroidery, heavy beading and even traditional headpieces are finding their place with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel. "Lagerfeld’s vision of the country captured its sense of modern urbanity," Mark Holgate reported in Vogue, "honing in on the likes of Mumbai’s place in the unfolding power-landscape of the twenty-first-century world." 

Designer Shilpa Singh explained that added flourishes like ones used by Lagerfeld give extra charm to Western clothing. “Other countries are getting influenced by India’s ‘masala,’ ” she said, which literally translates to “spice.”

The intrigue goes both ways. Many of the designers were conscious of the Western influence on their work.

Miss Earth 2010, Nicole Faria, modeling a design from Reshma Kuni's ‘Modernization’ collection. (Courtesy of Pepper India PR)
Veteran designer Reshma Kunhi’s collection, Modernization, for example, was designed for the "cosmopolitan woman." Her collection included both Saris and Churidar, typical Indian wear, but with modern flare. Blouses were strapless or spaghetti strap, some with plunging backs, and pants were close fitting and heavily embellished — trends I’ve seen plenty of at various Indian functions in America's Midwest.
“I design for the Indian woman abroad,” Kunhi said. “Her clothes should be relevant no matter where she is in the world. She’ll feel beautiful and powerful, and connected to her Indian roots.”
Singh drew inspiration for her collection from the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, a 19th-century shopping center she visited with her family at age 12. The building is well-known for the elaborate dome, which is visible from the balconies of all three floors. “The jewel tones contrasting with the wrought iron, and the ornateness of the dome just stuck with me,”she said. “I knew whatever I designed would be a mixture of inspiration from Western architecture and Indian techniques.”
“All of my traditional Indian designs have a western edge to them," she added. "And all of my western designs have an Indian edge.”

“East influences west. West influences east,” the designer remarked as she showed me around her exhibit. “It’s a cycle that doesn’t stop.”

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