Fashion Tango

first_imgThere were no knockout turbans, no saffron yogi robes and no six-armed goddesses on the runway this season in New York. And yet… and yet… India was very much there, like the stanza of a half remembered song, a dream that you forget on waking as it recedes into the subconscious.Yes, India was there and yet not there, the tinkle of a silver anklet heard in the distance.For years major international designers from Valentino to Armani have incorporated Indian influences in their work and for years fashion forecasters have predicted that India is the flavor of the month, a passing fad. And Indian influences have come and they’ve gone, and last season they were back again in the bohemian look, the kurtis and long skirts. We’ve all seen the Indian fashion influences percolating in mainstream America. Walk down the streets and you see the Indian inspired tunics and kurtis in the windows of major stores, the Indian juthis are sold on the sidewalks in the Village in New York and are even finding space in national ad campaigns. Pashminas first hit the major stores and trickled down to street fashion with knock-offs popping up all over the place for $5.99. Dangling chandelier earrings based on Indian jhumkis have also caught on with fashion mavens. Yes, fashion may be symbolized by the couturiers in Milan, Paris and London, but it eventually trickles down to the street-smart fashionista on the streets and the subway who teams a kurti or a Pashmina with her jeans.“I think there’s been an overdose and now the emphasis is on the very European, very vintage,” says a New York fashion insider who co-ordinates the embroidery for American designers and did not want her name used. “Embellishment is still very strong, but it’s toned down, very sophisticated.”Yet there’s so much more than meets the eye. The Indian connection has so infiltrated the fashion world that it’s become part of the atmosphere, part of the style language without being distinctly Indian.Take the recent Olympus Fashion Week in the shining white-tented city, which arose in Bryant Park, almost a Camelot of the Style Kingdom. India peeked out in different ways. One of the showstoppers during Fashion Week is always Bill Blass, an iconic American name that has dressed the elite and crème de la crème over the years with his timeless tailored look, the latest being First Lady Barbara Bush. For years there have been shadings of India in the evening wear of Bill Blass. Michael Vollbracht, the designer who’s continuing the legacy of Bill Blass, says the embroideries were all made in India and were a major focus of the collection. He is planning a trip to India soon for fresh inspiration.And intriguingly enough, the Indian fashion inspiration is just the tip of the iceberg. Bill Blass, which has expanded over the years to casual and men’s apparel, home furnishings, jeans and accessories, has Indian connections which go way beyond inspiration into the very manufacture and creation of the finished products of this $700 million company. The connections go all the way to the top since Bill Blass is jointly owned by Michael Groveman, CEO, and Haresh Tharani, who is chairman of Bill Blass. The company is part of Tharanco Group, which also owns The Resource Club and other companies.Asked if it was a challenge to maintain the spirit of Bill Blass, Tharani said, “No challenge at all. Michael Vollbracht and his staff stay true to the House of Blass.” Bill Blass is an international venture and turns to both India and China for creating the line. Tharani says, “Both countries are excellent as fabrics and trims are available in both countries, and the production is done there as well. Now with quotas largely lifted it’s certainly a boon to both countries. While some intricate fabrics are beaded in India, the garments are sewn in New York.” So the fashion world is sometimes fueled by Indian style and silhouettes, sometimes by Indian colors, but increasingly by Indian manufacturers who, with China, are the fashion outposts.The Bryant Park show had another showstopper. Models walking down the runway in gorgeous outfits – tailored cocktail suits, dresses and cashmere separates. The gowns were a paean to opulence with beads so delicate that they had to be attached with a surgical needle! What was really Indian here? The designer, Naeem Khan.Khan, who’s a recent entrant to Bryant Park shows, counts the Princess Aga Khan, Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos and Tinsley Mortimer amongst his high society fans. He has created a multimillion business in the past two years and his clothes are sold in stores worldwide, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus as well as 40 other specialty stores in the United States. The designer is new and vibrant, yet as old as antique zardozi. His roots go back to the wonderful S.U. Zariwala embroidery empire owned by his grandfather and father in India, and he grew up surrounded by lush craftsmanship and fabrics. That still forms the basis of his collection, and having worked with the fashion icon Roy Halston for three years, he learned the fashion business from the inside. For the past 14 years he did sophisticated collections under different labels until he was ready to put his own name to his collection.And again at Bryant Park, another Indian story unfolded. That of Ashish Soni, the young designer from India, the first to show at this prestigious spot, although Indian American designer Anand Jon debuted there earlier. Of course, the fashion world extends far beyond Bryant Park but this is the heartbeat, the nucleus where the international fashion world converges, where the world’s press, buyers and fashion mavens congregate. So it’s noteworthy that almost like layering, these different aspects of Indian style, crafts and manufacturing were visible at Bryant Park.We asked a seasoned fashion aficionado to walk us through the maze of American fashion to see what role India was playing, both in the creative and business aspect of the multibillion-dollar fashion industry.Salman Khokhar is chief executive officer and president of Koka Consulting, which helps international manufacturers partner with designers to create new brands. Earlier, he was the voce president of global strategy at Calvin Klein, managing a $1.5 billion wholesale distribution network. Later he played the same role at Donna Karan, heading up global strategy for both DKNY and DK Collection. “There’s a huge sense that everyone feels South Asia is taking over, Indian influence is taking over, and the reality is: not even one percent! It’s like get off that cloud, not at all!” he says.But he adds that the good news is that it’s a clean slate and the right person – or the right group of people – can come in and if they execute this well, they will own it.“Right now the only people who own it are designers like Ralph Lauren, Badgley Mischka and Oscar de la Renta,” he says. ” Ralph Lauren consistently uses Indian influences, beading and embroideries in his collection. He’s been able to raise the level to such sophistication that he can almost own that look, without it being Indian, which is honestly, a huge accomplishment for him to take such a unique ethnic look and make it his own. His embrace of the Nehru collar has been so strong over the years, that now in his designs, it’s regarded simply as the Ralph Lauren look.” Indeed, that’s what the best designers are able to do: take something and make it their own. They repeatedly use embroidery and patterns that are Indian, but mix them with fabrics that are Italian and styling that is very European or American. Says Khokhar: “By mixing them in a way that is very natural, no one area overwhelms the look.”Aria Das is a New York City fashion stylist who has worked with major stores like Bergdof Goodman, and has done personal style consultations with celebrities and society princesses. She observes, “This season some of the editors said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to see even one bead or sequin!’ In the last season, in spring-summer, they were beaded out. You saw beading everywhere. But my take on it is beading is here to stay, sequins are here to stay, just like the jeans or tunic. It’s not going to go anywhere.” The beading just seems to have moved its location. Last summer all the designers had so much beading around the neck that you didn’t have to wear a necklace. This season instead of having it on the collar or around the neckline, they’ve got it around the bust. Says Das: “Most of the American designers have done beading, but very subtly, very differently. So the Indian influence is there, but it doesn’t look particularly Indian. ”She points out that the 2006 Spring and Summer collections show tunics with a twist, caught at the waist and with just a little beading, while Anna Sui has some interesting crocheted jackets from India. The truth is practically every major designer has some influence that can be traced to India.“Designers from Oscar de la Renta to Roberto Cavalli go to India for their couture line, to get the beading and embroideries done in India. But most of them just get the embroideries done there on piece goods – collars, waistbands – and then send them on to Italy or the United States for the stitching. Indians are very good with embroidery but they still haven’t come to that stage where they are adroit at cutting, the way Europeans are,” says Das. Indeed, the American fashion market is one mountain every Indian designer wants to climb – simply because it’s there! There are many designers in India, but not many have what it takes to crack this tough market. Ashish Soni has been one of the success stories from India.Says Khokhar, who is part of CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) and presented Soni with a group of emerging designers: “It was a very strong initiative by CFDA to allow younger designers to have an equal showcase during the Fashion Week, which is otherwise a very expensive undertaking.” Soni says of his arrival at Bryant Park: “It wasn’t an easy task and since it’s quite an expensive venture, a lot of time was spent on raising sponsorship money to make it possible. It came about as an invitation from Fern Mallis, executive director of 7th on Sixth who comes every year to India for Fashion Week. She has been seeing my work for the last six years and this time felt I was ready to make the leap.” He says he got press and has managed to sell to stores worldwide, some small yet prestigious. Would he consider changing the style to suit the American market? Says Soni, ” I don’t like to change my signature depending on where I show it. But fabrics, yes, I believe the American market prefers more luxurious fabrics whereas the Europeans love more organic and natural looking fabrics.”Did he think that India and Indian Americans will play a significant part or is India another taste of the month? “I think it will be somewhere between both these scenarios. We are making a dent slowly on the international front so are no longer just a seasonal flavor. However, we still have a long way to go before we are considered mainstream in the U.S. fashion market.”Nonetheless, a whole breed of Indian designers, young, savvy, at home in any part of the globe, are increasingly testing the waters in foreign markets. Many of them are already in stores in London, Singapore and Dubai, but New York is the market to conquer. More and more, they are moving in fashion circuits, showcasing their collections in Singapore Fashion Week and Fashion Week of the Americas in Miami as well as the Coterie shows in New York. The noted names from India include Manish Malhotra, Tarun Tahiliani, Ranna Gill and Payal Singhal. Some of them are selling to individuals and some others have been able to market their label through stores. Gill, who graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, interned with Rohit Khosla in India and Donna Karan and Polo Ralph Lauren in New York. She returned to India where she started her own collection that sells internationally and also has her own showrooms in India. She has now got a foot back into New York where she participated in Fall/Winter 2005 Fashion Fair.Indian designers have made New York and London an extension of Bombay or Delhi, and are here frequently, holding fashion shows for the South Asian market, and trunk shows, which are often attended by the mainstream. Recently thumbing through the Daily News, one found a Payal Singhal sample sale on the fashion pages. Singhal graduated from the Parsons School of Design in New York and has been a stylist for MTV India. At 22 she launched her signature line and also has a store in Mumbai, and retail outlets in Hong Kong, Dubai, London, New York and Miami. Singhal now lives in India and New York.Of course, the designers of Indian origin who were born and brought up in the United States start out with an advantage as they are already familiar the culture. An example is Romain Kapadia, a noted designer of men’s clothing. Says Khokhar: “He’s someone who understands the space he’s competing in. He’s selling to Bloomingdale’s so he needs to compete with not Tarun or JJ, but with Gucci and Dior. So his production is in Italy and his fabrics are all Italian.” Kapadia, who was born and raised in Texas, graduated from the business and fashion design program at the University of Texas and launched his own luxury line of men’s clothing in 2002. His collection is in several stores, and he won Gen Arts Fresh Faces 2003 and Fashion Group Rising Star Award 2003.Then there’s Shalini Kumar who grew up in India, but came to America as a student. She has been selling to luxury stores and boutiques like Bergdorf Goodman, Linda Dresner, and Wilkes Bashford. Again, there’s nothing overtly Indian in her collection, which is made in New York. She says, “The Indian sensibility doesn’t directly display itself in any of my collections. The influence is much more subtle and is more obvious in my choice of color or perhaps the drape of fabric or the composition of the collection itself. I use old couture fabrics primarily from France, Italy and England. I love the antique silk brocades from India and have used them frequently in my collections.”Once again, it’s bits and pieces of India that American designers incorporate in their collections. The designers actually steer away from anything that runs the risk of being labelled a trend or fad, and tend to use aspects of Indian influences very carefully, so they can continue to use it, season after season. Says Khokhar: “If a designer came up with a very Indian-influenced line, he wouldn’t be able to do it again.”That is why you see the occasional touch, the accessory rather than the whole wedding party, the band and baraat too! Subtlety is the name of the game.Indeed, there’s a global borrowing – east borrows from west borrows from east. “The difficulty is that designers don’t really give credit to any one influence,” says Khokhar. ” There are elaborate lines by young designers who may have a Capri pants that is closer to a churidar. And that’s it. The rest of it could be very oriental or north European. So it’s so merged that you can’t really say it’s an Indian influence although the echoes are in there.”Mathew Williamson is a British designer who could be a role model to Indian designers, because he’s doing what they could be doing. He has his line manufactured in India and dresses celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Trudy Styler and Helena Christensen – on both sides of the Atlantic. His clothes have tremendous Indian influences, and he visits India several times a year for his productions. Earlier one might have been excited by the sight of American designers of South Asian origin, but now there are so many that it’s all one big fashion fest.Anand Jon has capitalized on Indian craftsmanship, but given it his own spin, creating designs which society and party princesses love, and he is savvy enough to understand that marketing is part of the designing process. His latest is AJ Jeans, which he is selling to stores on both coasts. The back and forth between Bombay, Delhi, Paris, London and Dubai is exhilarating as designers turn the globe into their fashion runway. Alpana Bawa, a New Yorker, has understood Americans’ love of color and married it to India’s heritage of festive colors. Her clothes, and now her home design line, celebrates color and style. She has had her own store on Grand Street and also sells to specialty boutiques across the country. The fabrics and colors are Indian, but the sensibility is American.Alia Khan grew up in the United States and has always celebrated her South Asian roots with clothes that are luxurious and chic, but emphasizes the cut, the colors and crafts of the sub-continent. She has a catalog line, does fashion shows and has also dressed celebrities like Phylicia Rashad.The U.S. market has also expanded because of the huge South Asian community too, which is hankering for an integrated sportswear wardrobe with desi influences. People don’t wear cookie cutter outfits and if you’re young and South Asian you want to incorporate that into your wardrobe, perhaps Gap pants worn with a halter top designed by a young Indian designer. There is a void in the market for such casual wear.There are certainly many young designers born and brought up here who’d like to take a shot at it. Kanika Saluja worked for her brother’s fashion label, Rishta, in New York City, sketching designs on her own. The result was her own collection of novelty T-shirts and the birth of her own collection Nikka. The collection includes coats, dresses, caftans and accessories, and is contemporary yet with Indian touches. Nikka is represented by Showroom Seven and sells to Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Lord and Taylor, Henri Bendels, and Nordstrom’s. East and West are becoming a real blend for emerging designer Swati Argade, who grew up in New York and sells to about half a dozen stores in Soho and Brooklyn. Her last collection is called Bengali Girl and features handwoven Bengali silks and linens, and Indian touches like ebony buttons. The collection was woven near Shantiniketan, but the silhouettes are very modern, very American. It is something you can slip on and hop into a yellow cab or take the subway.“One of the things about Indian fashion which is a real blessing is just the diversity of styles and traditions that come out of India. The choice of fabric and embroidery is just endless, not to mention cuts and silhouettes,” says Argade. ” I think that’s the most amazing thing about being an Indian designer. And being an Indian American designer is great as well, because you’ve lived here all your life and that combination of endless embroidery options and endless textile traditions.”Argade conceptualizes in New York, but does the production in India, traveling and sourcing fabrics and working in collaboration with the Fashion College in Poona.Says Argade, “To be honest, I think I’m still breaking into the mainstream. I think we are lucky in America, because we have access to so many different cultures, particularly living in New York we get a feel for so many different aesthetics.”Young Indian- American entrepreneurs are also taking ownership of the India-inspired look for the millions of South Asian consumers and the mainstream. Salima and Karima Popatia are two sisters in New York who have opened Indomix, a store in Soho, which showcases Indian designers to the mainstream.As the sisters explain on the Indomix site: “Saks, Bloomies and even Barney’s were of no avail. The racks full with dresses embellished in intricate eastern detail, the latest trend, yet none exude the essence of our entangled cultures. We bring our dualistic personalities in the form of an intermingled style of design.”Karima and Salima grew up in New York, graduated from New York University and have been intrigued by designers in India. They sell only Indian designers and 75 percent of their clients are mainstream Americans. The best selling items are pintuck shirts, dresses and tunics which range from $75 to 550.Says Salima: “The Indian trend has been huge in the past couple of years and continues to be big with the whole Bohemian look, but we are not trying to promote the Indian look, we are trying to create an awareness for Indian designers on an international platform. We are more about fabric, texture, style, fit than an actual trend.”Ask Harish Tharani of Bill Blass about the possibility of Indian designers breaking into the mainstream market, and he says: “Of course they will. I presently see the India-based designers really showing styles that are updated styles of Indian origin, and I have seen some fusion where east meets the west as well. They are certainly a talented group showing India’s rich heritage in fabrics, embellishments and color. Once they migrate from that and the styling becomes more global, the opportunity is certainly there.”Most Indians were delighted to see their common, daily wear kurti and pants ensconced in the temples of high fashion such as Saks and Neiman Marcus, albeit with a hefty price tag.“Prices are generated by the label and not by the style,” observes Khokhar. “It’s made at a very high quality level and there’s a designer name attached to it so it’s really directional: if the designer decides that the kurti is a valid style and he wants to take it to the market and thinks the customer is ready for it, he’ll do it and Neiman Marcus will put it in their store. So it’s almost like establishing credibility. So if the designer says the kurti is it, Neiman Marcus says the kurti is it, the customer is going to just follow and say, ‘Yup, the kurti is it!’”Rather than isolated trends, Khokhar says he would like to see the Indian influence as part of a larger story. And that seems to be happening. Walk in the festive chaos of Times Square with its glittering neon signs, colorful crowds and rushing taxis, and look around. Stop and try to spot the Indian thing in this frenetic scene. You’ll probably not get it in a million years – but it’s the huge billboard with a man and a woman in sexy Plugg Jeans.The brand, which is sold at Macy’s, is owned by an Indian American company Andrew Sports Club, which manufactures its jeans in China! Talk about the globe being a village!“At the end of the day it’s not just about ideas, it’s really about execution,” says Khokhar. “We all know that clothing and fashion from that region – fabrics, colors, embroidery, the workmanship – is spectacular. It’s just a matter of packaging it well, making it at the level of quality which is European or Italian and then selling it to the audience here, not as a fad, but as a very meaningful statement.”Indeed, the Indian apparel manufacturers and fashion in America are intricately linked, especially in couture and sportswear. India has merged into the sounds, the very heartbeat of fashion. East and West are caught in an intricate embrace, a seamless tango, in the very weave and threading of fashion. Related Itemslast_img