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When Indian fashion sensation Tarun Tahiliani was picked by global singing sensation Lady Gaga to outfit her in India, she was not the first celebrity to look eastward for sartorial elegance. Supermodel Heidi Klum, actress Mischa Barton, talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, and a whole host of other celebrities including Liz Hurley, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Scarlett Johannsen, Fergie, Rihanna and Madonna have endorsed Indian fashions. “India is definitely more on people’s radar than ever before. From being a country identified for its exotic religion and palaces, it’s being seen differently today. There is an awareness about Indian fashion and its unique contribution which is different to that of the prescribed dress forms relevant in the western world,” said hi-fashion designer Ritu Kumar in an interview with Indo-Asian News Service (IANS).
Pimpin’ the Pallu
Every so often Hollywood celebrities pay homage to India’s little black dress, the ubiquitous sari. Boundaries are pushed to redefine and re-innovate the traditional attire. In addition to being one of the most provocative garments, the sari has the weight of history behind it that Indians in the west look for. Fashion designers capitalize on the sex-appeal of the six-yards with models and celebrities displaying dropped pallus, reverse pleats, bandeau blouses and innovative ways to rig the habiliment.
Chiffons, nets, crepes, cozy up together to create wispy ensembles that are there and yet not there, while natural colors create a homespun handloom mood. At the Wills Fashion Show in February 2012, models wore saris with belted jackets and fitted coats, creating a stark clean look. Cotton, wool and silk fabrics blended into practical and elegant designs. On the ramps, tradition was redesigned with belts snaking around saris, and trousers substituted for petticoats.
Twenty-three year old designer, Masaba Gupta, daughter of cine star Nina Gupta and cricketer Sir Vivian Richards, has reprised this thousand year old garment, the sari, calling her innovations “old songs in newer beats.” She has overhauled style by moving the pleats to the back, traded petticoats for palazzo pants and made a statement with bold blocks of colors.
Other designers have their own take on fashion. Textile designer Neeru Kumar weaves ethnic handloom traditions into modern silhouettes. Amit Aggarwal creates three-dimensional shapes using “wire mesh, silk, sleeves in silk and jersey, sumptuously molded into touchable looking bubbles, light as air.”
Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s collection showcased by Bollywood stars, Vidya Balan, Rani Mukerjee and Aishwarya Rai, attracts the nouveau riche interest and dollar.
For the local diaspora, Pia Ka Ghar houses the largest Sabyasachi collection in the Bay Area. Pia Ganguly, the owner of the retail collection, has come up with a marketing slogan that unerringly hits the target: “for the unforgettable woman … you.” Based out of her Los Altos Hills home, Pia’s collection embodies an era of Tagore songs and timeless love. For the past seven years, Pia’s has become the go-to place for the well-dressed Bay Area resident planning for a special evening.
Global designers have now realized the value of the Indian market. In 2011, luxury brand Hermès launched a line of beautiful saris—an extension of their trademark scarves, costing a whopping $6,100 to $8,200. In his fall 2008 collection, Alexander McQueen, the celebrated British designer showcased a red silk and white tulle sari dress. It is rumored that a Bay Area socialite was seen wearing it at a charity dinner in San Francisco.
Tradition and Trends
When Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, rolled out the “Festival of India,” in the early 80s the glitterati of Delhi embraced the traditional arts as haute couture. Dhakai Jamdanis from Calcutta; Ikats from Orissa; Phulkaris from Punjab; the many-layered, painfully embroidered, one of a kind, Kantha saris from Bengal as well as the “inspired by the Ajanta paintings” Paithanis from Maharashtra found a glad welcome in the Delhi social scene. The work of indigenous weavers and traditional artists was in!
Hindu custom demands that new saris be worn on certain festival days like Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, and Onam. “Every year, like clockwork, my clients come and buy a new sari for the occasion. The young buyers like the trendy saris we carry in our Nalli Next collection.
The net saris, hard-to-find Pashmina saris with Kashmiri embroidery, modern two-tone colored Kanjeevarmas saris with patterns from Amar Chitra Katha stories, crystals and embroidery are very popular. But the more mature buyer buys the traditional temple saris from Kanjeevaram,” says Sonya Wadhva, Executive VP, Nalli Silks U.S.A.
When the young Bharatanatyam dancer is ready to perform the Arangetram (debut performance), the teacher and musical accompanists are usually gifted traditional saris. The summer event pages of India Currents proves that the burgeoning dance community keeps the local sari shops in business. During karva chauth, which comes once a year, Punjabi brides fast all day long for the long life of their husbands and then gift a sari to their mothers-in-law. Young Tamilian girls are given a sari or a half sari when they come of age.
Religious tradition also dictates the time or “mahurat” when new saris should be bought.
“Rahu kalam” must be avoided. At the beginning of the new year I go to the Livermore temple and pick up a calendar which gives me all the days I know no brides are going to come shopping,” says Wadhva.
Anarkali churidaar sets named after the beautiful courtesan who ensnared the crown prince of the mighty Mughal Empire, are the flavor of the season, according to Wadhva. Fitted on top, the shirt flares out over tight long bottoms that gather around the ankles to form “churis” or bangles. Shops all over India and overseas stock Anarkalis in a myriad of colors, the brighter colors being preferred in states like Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, and the more pastel shades making their mark in Delhi and Mumbai.
The new trend of crossover fashion from Pakistan has increased the length of tops to skim the ankles. The churidaar bottom is seen only when the wearer twirls the skirt of her top or gently lifts it up as she steps up or down the stairs.
Prabal Gurung, the South Asian designer famous for outfitting First Lady, Michelle Obama, admits to being influenced by his roots. He was born in Singapore, raised in Nepal and worked in New Delhi, India. According to The Vogue, one of his designs is a “cornflower blue dancing dress over slim, dark pants.” A throwback to the traditional anarkali churidaar, perhaps?
The very successful Bibhu Mohapatra, the Orissa designer who presented his second runway collection during the New York Fashion week this September also played up the “ethereal looking” aspect of his collection.
With the Internet bringing the world to our doorstep, Indian fashion, is now but a click away. With the expansion of the online designer showrooms, Bay Area ladies are browsing the bazaars of Chennai, Punjab, Benares in the new Internet haat. Exclusively.In, a members-only shopping site for fashion, jewelry and home decor from Indian artisans and designers offers convenience to the shopper, who can’t walk into Nordstrom to buy Indian clothes. Flash sales were announced everyday and sent to the email accounts of the Indian diaspora.
“We sell fifteen to twenty saris a week from our internet site, says Wadhva. “Nalli saris, with their assurance and reputation of quality are available to people everywhere. We load pictures of saris we stock in our United States store on our Facebook page and often people call us, order their saris over the phone, pay with their credit cards and we mail their selections to them.”
Illinois-based Luxemi offers convenience of another kind. They offer Indian fashions for sale or rent to U.S. consumers. Other online sites joined the same bandwagon. “Most people have a small group of friends and repeating the same outfit at another function becomes difficult.” Says Riddhi Khara from Borrow it Bindaas, a Southern California based company that services the same need.
Due to the omnipresence of Facebook, when an expensive outfit is worn to a wedding or a party, it is being debuted on the world stage. I recently attended a wedding of a nephew in Kochi, India, and when I returned to California, a number of people complimented me on my wardrobe. These are people who are not in my immediate social circle but are my Facebook friends. Now for the next wedding, even if it is not within the same circle of friends, I need a new wardrobe. The high price tag of designer saris puts me in a quandary. To the rescue comes a rental service like Borrow it Bindaas or Luxemi or Devi’sCloset.
Wearing a thousand dollar sari for hundred dollars becomes feasible with Devi’sCloset, who loans out designer couture by Ritu Kumar or Payal Singhal, with matching blouses and petticoats. In three easy steps you have a sari ordered and delivered to your doorstep.
Unlike tuxedo rental places where the rental clothes need to be returned within two days, online rental companies allow the return of outfits within eight days. “Menswear rental rates are $65 to $80 per outfit, so renting Indian party attire is cheaper than renting a tuxedo.
Bridal packages, where eight of the groom’s or bride’s friends can rent matching outfits, make life so much easier for the wedding party,” says Niddhi Khara of Borrow it Bindaas.
Website borrowers are not limited to the Indian diaspora. When invited to an Indian wedding, Caucasian friends don’t want to be left behind and yet at the same time they may not want to dish out $1,000 for one evening.
This trend is not restricted to clothing alone.
From representing the daughter’s share of parental wealth and a hedge against leaner times or “istridhan” (woman’s wealth), jewelry has now become a must-have fashion accessory. Designers have jumped to take advantage of this consumer need, whether in terms of design versatility or price.
Brides can now commission jewelry to match the embroidery on their wedding dress. J.J. Vallya, who makes wedding outfits, has been known to encrust jewels onto the wedding dress itself. Girls getting married demand mang tikkas, jhoomars, armbands, rings for every finger, bangles, amulets and anklets. “Brides are still choosing very traditional designs but a new color palette has taken over the age old choice of red,” says Shelly Gupta of Saloni Collection.
For the budget-conscious, this jewelry is available in gold plated silver. Parents balk at the price of what they consider costume jewelry but it is a smaller price to pay for the princess look.
There is the “one gram gold” jewelry where the gold plating is done using real gold, hence the term “one gram.” It comes with a “guarantee card” and looks like the real deal. Anu, a housewife out of Chennai, has her store on Facebook called Anu’s Collection. “ I lived in Sunnyvale for nine years. We moved back to Chennai two years ago and I found the working environment very different in India. Jewelry was my passion. It was also a way to stay connected to my friends in the bay area. I put pictures of some of the jewelry and clothes I can get for them on Facebook. Now they send me a message about what they want from Chennai and I just courier it to them. I am like their personal shopper.” She laughs gaily as she shows me a piece of the latest addition, “terracotta jewelry.”
Tribal jewelry is in great demand by the confident and trendy clientele. “Terracotta jewelry designed by an artist who has experimented with color is popular with the stylish, creative Bengali group who team it up with their cotton saris for an ethnic image. It comes from the South of India. I recently brought some folk pieces in Dokra and Terracotta,” says Gupta.
As the quality of artificial materials improves, it has become harder and harder to tell the difference between a real stone and a glass bead from China. Buyers of jewelry are tempted by the cheaper price tag. The price of silver has shot through the roof as it is a metal used in batteries, cell phones, computer chips, flat screen televisions, iPods, RFID chips, and even solar panels. It even has medicinal applications. With silver becoming increasingly out of reach and newer amalagams and metals offering tarnish-free qualities, the jewelry market is being liberated from its traditional tether.
The market moves at a very fast rate. A designer may take a week to design an exclusive piece but within two hours the design can be copied and reproduced in cheaper materials. It is a world where “imitation” jostles on an equal footing with “genuine.”
“As I grow older, I see myself reach more and more for my strings of emeralds, carnelians, rubies, and pearls,” says a Bay Area resident. Expensive jewelry remains the domain of the over-forty woman who can afford the price tag.
As the mother of two boys who love wearing Indian clothes during weddings, dandiya, and Diwali, I am constantly looking out for the latest trend in menswear. To my delight, Indian men’s fashion has come of age. As I sat in a bridal store on my recent visit to Kochi, I found my boys trying out silks, cottons, embroidered, pleated and tucked kurta pajamas, matching Punjabi jootis, or pointed toe shoes, and slicking back their hair as they admired themselves in the mirror.
Men and boys can take their pick from achkans, sherwanis, Jodhpuri jackets, tuxedos, and waistcoats. They can team them up with dhotis, Aligari pajamas, churidaars, linen trousers, or Patiala salwars. Wearing long or short jackets, loose or tight bottoms, they build up their attire to complement their bodies. Adorning themselves with thick karas or bangles, rings on their fingers and kalgis on their turbans, the Indian male doesn’t wear a watch alone as his ornament of choice anymore. Brocade shawls and stoles drape around their shoulders.
Some match the stoles to what their partner is wearing and others match them to those of their friends as they strut around on the dance floor. Complementary embroidered jootis on their feet and in some extreme cases topped by a feathery turban, the Indian male can now match the peacock’s flair to attract his mate. As he twirls on the bhangra floor or just walks into the room, the Indian male now enjoys the stage as much as the girl on his arm.
While the achkan is structured and straight, the sherwani falls over the trousers with a royal flare. The achkan is unembellished; the sherwani comes with detailing of thread embroidery or gold thread (zardozi) work. The achkan can be made from brocade or monochromatic prints.
The “Jodhpuri” looks like an achkan but it is the length of a suit jacket. The Jodhpuri has made its way into the international market and can be rented at tuxedo rental stores in California. It is customarily worn to business meetings in India and is considered formal wear. The equivalent of business casual are the waistcoats with high jodhpuri collars, also known as the “Nehru” jacket. The Nehru jacket is thrown over kurtas or shirts and paired with tailored linen trousers, jeans or pajamas depending on the occasion. Brocade waistcoats have made their way to wedding sangeets while woolen waistcoats make ideal fall wear.
Does the Indian diaspora spend like their counterparts in India? Would you spend $800 to $1,000 on a single designer outfit? “Depends on the circle you move in. If everyone in your social circle wears designer saris then you would spend Rs.30,000 or Rs.50,000 ($600 to a $1,000) on a sari.” says a Los Altos resident.
“So I bought an outfit From Pia ka Ghar for Rs. 30,000 for my daughter because I want her to wear nice Indian clothes. But that is me. My daughters don’t want to spend that kind of money on an Indian outfit. They would rather put that money towards buying a BCBG dress” says another Atherton resident. “But as far as prices are concerned, Pia’s prices are the prices listed on the Indian designer’s website. For example a Sabyasachi’s retail price and Pia’s price is the same for the same outfit.”
The diaspora market is segmented along the lines of their counterparts in India and tends to shop within the segments. If your social group in India wears new Kanjeevaram silk saris every Navratri and Diwali or invests in new tangail and kantha saris for Durga Puja, then you would too. With the sharing of pictures on Facebook, the fuzzy lines of anonymity have melted and you can show off your new annual collection to friends and family the world over.
Active shopping is done near the festival and charity dinners season starting October.
Wedding shopping happens in summer and winter. Typically, weddings are planned around school vacations. Temples set up Diwali melas, homes host trunk shows, restaurants like Mehran open their doors to Eid exhibitions, and Facebook traffic jumps as photographs are uploaded by sellers and perused by buyers. The like button is as much a mark of wardrobe approval as is a verbal compliment.
Ritu Marwah is a resident of the Bay Area where she has pursued theater, writing, non-profit marketing, high-tech marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate, and hiking. She recently completed a trek across the Siachen Glacier, walking on the highest battleground in the world. Ritu graduated from Delhi with masters in business, joined the Tata Administrative Service and worked in London for ten years before moving to the Bay Area.
Q&A with Siddhi Khara, Co-Founder, Borrow it Bindaas)
What are the latest fashion trends this year?
This fall, Gotta Borders or Gold Pattis are being used in embroidery on hemlines of kurtas and borders of sarees or lehengas. Brocade is being used in completely different ways, styled as a skirt or a printed jacket. What’s nice about brocade is that it is a print that is classic and adds a touch of regality to any outfit. Another trend we see is a bit more emphasis on the embellishments of sleeves, sequin work & gemstone studded sleeves.
What’s in and What’s out?
Velvet trimmings are out this festive season. Detailed embellishments like chikankari and mirrorwork are in. Bright dual tones combined in a single outfit are popular, for example a hot pink color with bright orange/vermillion. Big, chunky clutch bags are out, small glitter clutches in single shade are in.
On the jewelry front, women are opting for big dangling traditional earrings while heavy neckpieces or bib necklaces are out for this festive season. Broad cuffs and traditional kadhas are up for grabs.
What colors are finding traction?
Unlike every Autumn/Winter, this year, colors like royal blue, purples, emerald green, hot pinks, orange and yellow are finding a lot of takers. In short, think bright while choosing colors. Black, white and burgundy are out; instead different shades of blue are being used.
Do you have to buy every season to update your collection?
Our entire inventory is from India and we work exclusively with designers and suppliers based out there. We make sure to have everything available in the U.S. so when customers place their orders they can get it right away and do not have to wait six weeks to get an outfit! Team members travel to India up to two or three times a year and work with our director of merchandising, Manshi Gandhi, 26, who is based in Mumbai to help scour the market for the latest trends and styles. This way we ensure that our styles and inventory are fresh and current for our customers!