amit aggarwal
Fashion Lifestyles

Decoding India’s haute couture

Ten years ago, Karl Lagerfeld used a 21st century technique, called molecular adherence, to coat every strand of the fox, mink and astrakhan fur he used (in his Fendi fall collection), in 24-carat gold.

The fur jackets looked like they had literally been dipped in gold. Last week, at the India Couture Week, Rahul Mishra brought an unprecedented freshness to the runway by creating whole ecosystems — featuring birds, animals, lakes, swaying palms, and even huts — on his opulent lehengas, and replicating 17th century Mughal tilework and Islamic tessellations on the pallus of saris. In essence, both these examples exemplify what haute couture is — fashion taken to its heights in terms of technique, craftsmanship, design, material and exclusivity.

Indian designers have always had easy access to intricate craftsmanship, especially when it comes to embroideries, weaves, printing and dyeing techniques. However, in this context, the nature of couture in the country and in the West diverges and has led, over time, to Indian couture being conflated with occasion and bridal wear. Add to this the fact that it caters to the affluent, and you begin to see a pattern emerge.

Addressing the duality

Over the last 15 years, both Delhi and Mumbai — cities that host the two biggest fashion weeks in the country — have seen the number of their resident millionaires rise by a whopping 300%: 41,200 in Mumbai and 20,600 in Delhi (according to 2016 figures). Their influence on what designers create was clearly visible on the ramp at the recently-concluded India Couture Week (ICW), the annual event organised by the Fashion Design Council of India.

Spread over five days, ICW included shows by 10 designers who presented their Fall 2018 Haute Couture collections at the Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi. A majority of them sent out models dressed in painstakingly embellished lehengasand saris, silhouettes that flatter Indian women and are the ideal canvases for handcrafted techniques like zardozifareeshaaari and resham threadwork. Hand-done prints and dyeing techniques also featured heavily. And a few, like Mishra, even developed and wove their own fabrics.

However, that does not mean that all who work on haute couture in the country only design ethnic outfits. Amit Aggarwal’s début couture show, despite featuring several lehengas, was mostly about gowns and sari-inspired dresses embellished with crystals and acrylic strips that lent fantastical shapes and forms to his creations. “When I design couture, I’m looking at the modern woman who would like a special piece that she can wear anywhere in the world, regardless of trends,” he says. “Though the bigger market may be bridal, this category also needs to be catered to.”

From Mumbai, celebrity favourites Falguni & Shane Peacock went the red-carpet route, spangling form-fitting gowns with an abundance of Swarovski crystals and edging them in faux fur and feathery trim fit for the Oscars or Cannes. These designs are meant for style-setters like Natasha Poonawalla — known to host high tea in archival Alexander McQueen pieces — who wear couture as art, rather than as occasion-wear during the festive and wedding seasons. Her tribe is growing, and designers like Aggarwal and Falguni and Shane are ideal for their needs.

The dichotomy that works

What is truly beautiful, though, is that to achieve these two very different modes of creative expression, designers in India use the very same techniques. A craftsperson accomplished in the zardozi works equally skilfully with dabkaand naqshi as he does with crystals and plastic beads. An artisan who is an expert resham embroiderer can bring out a floral motif in traditional silk yarn or in any number of other materials. The craft remains the same, yet the result is completely different.

Some see this dichotomy as a point of confusion; they do not think the two cohese well enough to define haute couture. For me, however, it is this contrast that makes for a stronger narrative. In a country with a surfeit of textile and embellishment crafts, the artisan and designer communities can support and cater to both tastes.

Around ICW, other designers who were not part of the event also showed their couture collections in anticipation of the coming fall festive/bridal season. Designer duo Shantanu & Nikhil showed their collection a few days prior, at Bikaner House, and sent out models in oversized silk gowns with military undertones — capes, jackets with gold braiding, army-style belted coats with voluminous skirts. And not a lehenga in sight. A day after ICW ended (on July 29), the young, Mumbai-based label Karleo — known for their operatic gowns — showed their couture collection, inspired by Disney princesses, at the Royal Opera House. Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna, who began their label in 1997 with a focus on affordable western-wear, launched their first haute couture line at their store in Delhi’s DLF Emporio yesterday. And zardozi lehengas did not take centrestage.

 

Staying unique

So maybe it is time that as an industry, the Indian fashion fraternity start celebrating both aspects of Indian haute couture, instead of looking at how the West has historically defined the term. “In recent years, we have stopped engaging with our embellishment crafts because they are opulent and heavy. It’s a sensory overload almost. Designers need to keep innovating within the techniques so they don’t end up being relegated to history as museum pieces,” says Tahiliani. Besides, even the West understands and appreciates India’s unique gifts: Mishra became the first Indian designer to win the International Woolmark Prize five years ago, on the strength of his delicate embroideries, and now shows his ready-to-wear collections in Paris twice a year.

It is the presence of both these aesthetics — and the fact that all designers, traditional or modern, have access to the kind of craftsmanship that no one else in the world has — that makes Indian haute couture unique. Both are necessary to the survival of couture in India, and both need to be celebrated.

Rahul Mishra’s début menswear collection showcased cotton jamdani kurtas, crisp angrakhas and sleeveless bandis in ivory tones with the lightness of touch we have come to associate with his embroideries.

– Veteran designer Reynu Taandon made a successful comeback with Once Upon A Dream. With its floral inspiration, the line-up of pastel-toned lehengas and saris appeal to the modern bride.

– For the ICW finale, Rohit Bal sent out his models in long jackets, capes and voluminous lehengas. But the standout — apart from the oversized floral embroideries and flaming flamingo prints — was that no dupattas were used.

– Anju Modi, who in recent years has almost exclusively championed khadi and traditional Indian weaves, flirted not just with a Victorian inspiration, but also mill-woven fabrics like tulle, velvet, organza, lace and net.

– Flowers served as the overarching inspiration at ICW — from Mishra’s delicate resham petals and Bal’s huge peonies to Suneet Varma’s Mughal-inspired flower motifs.

 

 

 

News credit : TheHindu

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