Jumpsuits inspired by sari drapes, urban dresses in tribal cloth and digitally printed lehenga skirts — young designers have re-embraced their Indian heritage at Mumbai’s latest fashion week.
In a country that has struggled at times to find its way in the global sartorial stakes, a renewed pride in ethnic traditions has been sauntering down the catwalk.
“People have realised the whole point of Indian fashion is its Indian-ness,” said fashion journalist Sujata Assomull-Sippy. “A few years ago it looked like stuff that came out of Bangkok, or copies of what we’d seen in Paris and Milan.”
Western clothing may be ever more conspicuous in Indian cities but traditional clothing remains integral to a woman’s wardrobe.
Top designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee is reported to make 45 per cent of his $11 million (Dh41 million) turnover from the sari, the much-loved drape considered both formal and flattering, modest and seductive.
“Ethnic is chic,” declared Indian daily Hindustan Times in June, as India’s growing band of working women enjoy more sophisticated takes on traditional wear, now more readily available on the mass market.
For designers, providing a practical and affordable edge has become crucial as they shift their focus from the moneyed socialite to the middle-class young woman with her eye on global trends.
At Lakme Fashion Week, which closes on Tuesday, Sidharta Aryan took ethnic Indian garments — the sari, the lehenga, the choli blouse — but created them from digitally printed silk, rather than reams of embroidery.
“There’s no point wearing 25kg on you to go to a wedding, you won’t be able to enjoy it,” the 30-year-old said.
For his first show two seasons ago at Lakme, seen as a platform for India’s young talent, Aryan came up with a “hard rock” look, but his style has since become more infused with traditional Indian wear.
“We should try to reinvent it,” he said, pointing to the competition from international chains that now operate in India, such as Zara and Mango.
Despite these rivals, the ethnic womenswear retail sector is still a big market opportunity, according to a recent study by management consultant firm Technopak Advisors.
The group’s senior vice-president, Amit Gugnani, expected an annual growth rate in the sector of 10 per cent over the next decade.
The more comfortable salwar kameez — a long tunic paired with loose trousers — will see a higher growth rate than the sari, while the expanding Western wear market will also be “redefined” to include more Indian elements, he said.
Driving the growth in fashion are the country’s young population (the median age is 26), rising disposable incomes, and increasing “Eve power”, with 40 to 50 million working women aged 20 to 40 estimated to be part of urban India by 2016.
“It’s about being financially independent and going out to buy something for yourself because you have the money,” Gugnani said.
Unsurprising, therefore, is the designers’ shifting focus.
“They assume you will be taking it to Goa for your holiday, that you’re online looking for the latest collections. The whole communication is to the urban, young population,” said Vogue India’s fashion features director, Bandana Tewari. “It’s about taking ownership of your colours and having fun with it. It’s a very kitsch bag that comes out, very Indian.”
At the fashion week, such trends were epitomised by Richa Aggarwal, 29, who turned to the chaos of the nation’s streets to inspire her debut collection in Mumbai, pulling off the clichéd “east meets west” fusion and drawing praise for originality.
With funky jackets combining denim and rice sacks, and peasant blouses lined with block-printed fabrics, she said she had in mind “someone who travels globally, who has a pride in wearing the country they come from”.
But she suggested Indian design wasn’t yet fully confident in its own uniqueness, despite a long and rich history in textiles and fashion.
“We have the technical know-how in terms of handiwork and surfaces but we’re still not banking on our USP. It’s high time people should use it,” she said.