Indian traditional styles, fabric, colours become source of inspiration to top western designers
Indian styles, fabric and prints are a source of inspiration to top
Hot new designer John Bartlett introduced flowing orange robes in his men’s collection last fall, saying: “Personally speaking, there’s nothing sexier than a monk or Hare Krishna. They’re so inaccessible.”
And just a few weeks ago, the saree turned up in a most unlikely setting: on model Naomi Campbell at the trendy MTV Music Awards in Radio City Music Hall, New York.
Bits and pieces of Indian style are increasingly being embroidered into the western fashion world. In a bizarre East-West embrace, churidars and mehndi, nose-rings and anklets are teaming up with lingerie and leather motorcycle jackets in collections by designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Oscar de la Renta and Mary McFadden.
“India is a country which has been a source of great inspiration to me, especially Rajasthan,” says De la Renta. “There is an extraordinary sense of colour in the clothing.” He is just one of the many western designers who have been influenced by Indian colours, fabrics and designs.
Yves St Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali, Romeo Gigli and McFadden have all made sequinned and jewelled embroidery from India a permanent part of their evening wear collections.
McFadden also gleans inspiration from India’s past – Hindu icons, Mughal architecture and Islamic calligraphy. Cashing in on this fascination, many US-based Indians are making a tidy sum by liaising with Indian craftsmen for fashion pundits abroad.
Increasingly, the influence of India’s colours and cuts can be seen on western styles. The influence is reflected the most in beaded evening wear and brightly coloured resort wear. Indian hot pink, paprika and saffron continue to be popular colours year in and year out.
Whether it be the churidar or the Kashmiri pheran, the stamp of these top-notch designers is evident on many of the fashions publicised in upmarket stores such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Interestingly, when internationally-renowned Belgian designer Dries van Noten brought out his spring collection this April, the horsd’oeuvres were served by waitresses dressed in traditional Indian clothes.
The western passion for Indian fashions can be traced back to the Raj. “Fashion’s flirtation with ethnic looks has traditionally been to give a sense of the exotic. When staid Victorian ladies wrapped a paisley shawl around a crinoline and bustle, they were letting the heat and colour of India into their rigidly-caged clothing,” writes fashion writer Suzy Menkes, in the New York Times.
From the shawls and stoles of the Raj, and tie-and-dye skirts of the Hippie Flower Power days, to the sarong skirts of 1990, India has intrigued the western world.
But despite the growing interest in Indian styles, few international designers do a totally Indian look or an entire collection based on India. “People don’t dress in traditional clothes in western countries. India is a source of inspiration obviously, but you can’t make Indian-looking clothes for every season,” says De la Renta.
Eva Nambeth, Professor of fashion design at the New York-based Fashion Institute of Technology, observes: “The reason Indian fashions haven’t taken over the West is because they are too ethnic and out of place in the western work-place. The trick is to have the Indian influence but with a western touch.”
Menkes’ comment about using ethnic fashion selectively is just as pertinent: “It has to be part of a modern landscape given just a touch of the exotic.” Indeed, western designers have already realised the power of just a dash of colour or a dramatic accessory instead of the wholesale Indian look. This sentiment finds an echo in the paisley prints of De la Renta or the Indian colours of Gigli.
Galliano, Gaultier and Christian Lacroix are masters at avant-garde fashion. On the pages of Vogue, Gaultier displays what the magazine’s editors call ‘global village chic’: a model with an Indian nose-ring and mehndi-like tattoos on her body, wearing African jewellery and a thoroughly American graffiti-scrawled bustier and leggings.Undoubtedly, this year Asian influences have dominated the international fashion scene, perhaps owing to the rash of Hollywood films set in Asia. But the question is whether these designs are just the flavour of the month or a definite trend in western fashion.
Says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute: “I think the whole idea of looking at fashion globally is one that will definitely hold.” Will India hold centre-stage in the future? “I would think so.” says Martin, “because of its clothing, which is highly adaptable.”
But as the high priests of western fashion sell India internationally, what are Indian designers doing? Already, two names are gaining prominence. Sanchita Ajjampur who works from Milan, and New York-based Alpana Bawa have carved a niche for themselves in the American fashion world.
Nambeth – who has also taught at New Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology – believes that India-based designers too can make it big on the international scene if they work on collections which are made in India from Indian fabrics but are not ethnic overall.
Technology, too, needs to be updated. “The textile market has changed, so technology has to change. Designs have to be created for the western market,” says Nambeth.
As the names who matter in the world of fashion go the India way, others follow. “It really comes from the top. So if Ferre or Versace does something, then others follow,” says Nambeth. From haute couture, the look filters down to small boutiques and department stores.
This is where the mass orders come for the Indian garment industry, as they did for the ghagra skirts, which started out as a high fashion statement.
India has one more reason to be happy. The more the country is featured on international catwalks, the greater the demand for its fabrics and embroidery. And for Indian garment manufacturers and craftsmen, a bigger slice of the multi-billion dollar international fashion industry.