I was hardly off the plane to Mumbai before I was propelled by Vogue India to the Sabyasachi store, breathing in the atmosphere of the nation’s heritage, from traditional Hyderabad pearl jewellery through fine china to dense embroidery — anything you might need for a traditionally colourful Indian wedding.
“We still try very, very hard to preserve hand embroidery. We work in the whole country — I have embroiderers in the Punjab, in Rajasthan, in Bengal and Bangladesh,” Sabyasachi said. “I’m not saying this arrogantly, but I think it is better than any design house in the world can offer.”
I was carried away by the beauty of the handwork and Sabyasachi’s enthusiasm. But after hearing concerns over the country’s brutally sudden financial changes, I was asking Vogue India editors and designers whether demonetisation is going to disrupt India’s lucrative wedding business.
The general view is “wait and see”, with designers either sanguine or pro-active. Rahul Mishra, a young designer who has won awards for his romantic vision and artistic use of colour — as well as exceptional handwork — explained that he saw the success of Indian designer fashion as a balance between “global and local”. While showing decorative, feminine Western clothes in his Paris shows, his couture — classic with a few modern twists — is presented only in India: in Delhi in July.
“In India, 60-70% of luxury consumption is paid for in cash and it will take time before people start using credit cards or their declared income,” the designer said. “More importantly, a lot depends on the government’s follow-up to curb black money.”
Designer Gaurav Gupta also has a filmic side. His store, among those sprouting at street level at the back of the Taj Palace hotel in Kala Ghoda, looks like a curving set for a Bollywood movie of Ancient Rome, engineered in 3D. The wedding dresses are likewise: not just saris in pastel macaroon colours, but also gowns moulded, pleated, and zippered into shape as a halfway-silhouette between Indian and Western.
“I am totally in the middle — we do Indian clothes, but they are quite experimental, like a sari with a boned blouse with the drape separate,” the designer said, as he explained the different categories of his clothing, from weddings to red carpet.
“No! I don’t think that’s possible — especially now,” the designer said. “There is a whole new wave of… Not patriotism, but pride in their culture and a confidence about being Indian because of economic growth. The sari is so deep-rooted. But I give my customer the balance of a global Indian perspective.”
Gautam Sinha, who opened his new Nappa Dori boutique of leather accessories just before the financial upheaval, confirmed that nothing seems to stop the wedding urge to splurge. Inspired by the metal trunks from his childhood on an army base, his workshop in New Delhi produced decorative heavyweight suitcases — and found them to be best-sellers.
There was a wide reach in the boutiques I visited. But retail growth seemed to be in the hybrid fashion area, with saris subtly altered from draping to shaping.
The Ensemble store is an example of this new explorative spirit. Tina Tahiliani divides the categories in a generous retail space. There was classic with a twist — such as linen sari fabric hand-woven with metallic threads — through dressy eveningwear to international clothes filtered through Indian eyes. Yet to my fashion editor eye, the Westernised “gowns” still could not compete with the rich colours and decorations of the wedding saris.
By contrast, Le Mill is an international store, now in Mumbai’s centre, but originally opened on the edge of the city in 2011 by Cecilia Morelli-Parikh. Working with Julie Leymarie, the women have brought together a streamlined, modern collection of European and American designer clothes and accessories, without any focus on weddings.
For individualist retailers, marriages count for only a small part of the business. Bungalow 8 changes its contents — in a similar spirit to Collette, Dover Street Market, and other European concept stores — according to the imagination of Maithili Ahluwalia, who founded the store with her mother in 2003. The current theme of the month is Africa, in both colour and texture for clothes and objects. Constants are made-to-order bridal and ready-to-wear, which has that artistic nomad feel of international clothing that sheers away from branded luxury.
The more ascetic style of Indian dress — the plain, neutral clothes reflected in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi — also have a place in Mumbai’s stores, such as The Good Earth.
Though known more for interior design, founder Anita Lal and her team have produced an eclectic collection of clothes that shield the body without complex cutting and which focus on exceptional materials and subtle shades.
Who else did I see on my whirlwind tour of the Who’s Who of Mumbai fashion? The big brands were evident in all their global glory in the Palladium shopping mall, where the usual suspects include Burberry, Coach, Jimmy Choo, Emporio Armani, and Ermenegildo Zegna, with Chanel make-up and Gucci accessories. I also enjoyed spotting the loose, patterned dress from Anita Dongre that Kate Middleton wore for her Royal Tour of India and Bhutan in April 2016.
On my lightning whirl through Mumbai, I felt that I was witnessing the rise of more personal designs with a distinct Indian spirit. As I climbed a wooden stairway to Payal Khandwala’s studio, I knew I was in the presence of an artist — and not just because a peacock was painted on the wall. The fabrics were in rich, jewel colours and the textures ranged from woven treatments to lush brocades.
“We work with clusters of handworkers in Bengal and we have our people in Benares, so I would say all together we have about 50 weavers on 50 looms,” the designer said.
For all its reliance on wedding gowns and traditional handwork, I can see another kind of Indian fashion approaching: one that unites ancient skills with modern life in a world of dynamic women. At the end of a long day, Vogue [i]India[/i]’s Fashion Features Director, Bandana Tewari, took me to a small shop with a fresh, feminist spirit: Obataimu. The small retail space is backed by glass doors through which visitors can watch master tailors making the clothes so that the store becomes an open workspace.
“I give you this map, you give me your size, and I show you your colour option,” said founder Noorie Sadarangani. “I hand you this book with eight fabric swatches developed over three years. This is Indian sari silk treated with special enzymes that make it feel like suede — we call it ‘slip and silk’. The idea is that you get more creative as a customer — then we develop the options. And in 10 days we deliver it right to your doorstep.”
I liked this new Indian concept that embraces special hand-made fabrics and includes stitching work that you can see in action at the back of the shop — with not a wedding gown in sight.