The art and craft of bridalwear can no longer be supported by cash under the mattress for a daughter’s nuptials
Suzy previewing Sabyasachi's evening wear
The scarlet saris, with their fantastical patterns of birds, flowers, Hindu temples and local symbols hugged the walls of the wedding area. They were not just a feast for the eyes, but also a precious support of India’s heritage.
Sabyasachi Mukherjee is one of India’s leading fashion designers, who has kept the nation’s artistic flame alive not only through local crafts such as handloom weaving, which dates back a thousand years, but by creating an aura that can only be found on the subcontinent.
Traditional red and gold embroidery at the Sabyasachi boutique
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.”
Sabyasachi hand-embroidered filigree slippers
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 government’s initiative to remove “black money” — unbanked, untaxed cash — from the economy came with almost no warning, back in November. And even though I was regaled with stories of a tycoon stuffing notes into his helicopter and others begging jewellers to exchange their entire stock for ill-gotten piles of rupees, anyone involved in the wedding world is nervous. The art and craft of bridalwear and all its ancillary business has for the longest time been supported by cash savings tucked under the bed to pay for a daughter’s nuptials.
Rahul Mishra, India Couture Week, 2016
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.
“Demonetisation is already creating an impact — people are being more conservative now and shopping is more need-based,” Rahul Mishra revealed. “The wedding market in India is not only about the bridal trousseau but also covers large numbers of the extended family and friends, who are now going to be more conservative in their spending.”
Rahul Mishra with one of his covetable embroidery designs
“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.”
The arrival of Western-style “gowns”, more likely to be worn on the third or later day of traditional week-long nuptials, is shifting the focus slightly. So are the extravagant and dramatic looks created by Manish Malhotra, the fashion king of Bollywood, who has taken Indian occasion wear to an extravagant level. At a party where film stars such as Sonakshi Sinha and Sridevi were dressed by Malhotra, he proved that some Indian women are ready for international glamour.
Top Bollywood fashion and costume designer Manish Malhotra with actress Sonakshi Sinha and Suzy
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.
Saris by Gaurav Gupta
“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.
Did Gaurav Gupta think that the traditional sari wedding was fading?
“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.”
I was beginning to believe that even government economics would not separate the Indian woman from her bridal parade.
Gaurav Gupta in his showroom with one of his evening gown designs
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.
“I opened up a market unknown to me — the Indian wedding sector,” he said. “Young girls came into the store and wanted to use the trunks for a trousseau, or to keep the wedding gown or to send gifts to the family.”
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.
Suzy admiring Gautam Sinha's new accessories collection for his boutique, Nappa Dori, in Colaba, Mumbai
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.
Trunks in Gautam Sinha's Nappa Dori boutique in Mumbai's Colaba District
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.
Red and gold linen saris woven with precious metal threads at Mumbai's Ensemble boutique
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.
Linen saris woven with precious metal threads at Mumbai's Ensemble boutique
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.
Suzy at Le Mill, with its owners Julie Leymarie (left) and Cecilia Morelli Parikh
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.
Bungalow Eight founder, Maithili Ahluwalia
“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.
But her true love is collecting old fabrics, however worn and torn, and making clothes “for women like me, who want something to wear for lunch or dinner — and when they go to a wedding.”
The upper floor of the Ensemble boutique is dedicated to wedding fashions
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.
Suzy with the founder of the Good Earth boutique, Anita Lal
“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.”
Suzy with the Anita Dongre dress that Kate Middleton wore on the 2016 Royal Tour of India and Nepal
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.
But even if Indian fashion is moving on, Manish Arora, known for his international collections, shown in Paris, believes that demonetisation is not going to kill the bridal business — but will add to the offering.
“Everyone is going to be a little more subtle now. We were talking about €30,000 to €50,000 for one outfit, never by cheque — always cash,” Manish recalled, before concluding, “I think that super-OTT, luxurious clothes are going to slow down a bit. Clients and designers will have to start thinking of real clothes.”
Obataimu founder Noorie Sadarangan, centre, explains the silk-weaving process
Master tailors at work at the Obataimu boutique, where the retail area backs on to the studio workshop
Vogue India's Managing Director, Alex Kuruvilla (left) with Fashion Features Director Bandana Tewari
The interior of Obataimu
Obataimu founder Noorie Sadarangan, centre, explains the silk-weaving process
The Good Earth flagship store in Mumbai