When designers say that they are bringing about important and edgy detailing into our historical mode of dressing, we can say that Indian fashion is gaining currency and classical fashion may not yet have seen its last hurrah.
Men’s fashion is undergoing a gentle game-changing transformation on the Indian subcontinent. Elements of traditional Indian wear, reserved as “garnish dressing” on holidays or ritual events are slowly getting affirmation as modern menswear.
In this new world of indie-fashion, it’s not uncommon anymore to find contemporary versions of Nehru jacket being retailed by ready-to-wear labels in New York City or to find a suave young man striding the cobbled streets of London in a pair of Jodhpuri pants. If you delve a little deep into style aesthetics, you may spot a touch of charm embroidery on an English pea jacket or a sophisticated sherwani collar on a formal coat.
Does this mean that menswear fashion so far dominated by clean-straight lines, stiff silhouettes and understated details is ready for its moment of unabashed maximalism? Or does it reflect the current state of the world in which there is a desire to embrace interesting accents across cultures and ethnicities? Better still, has the world woken up to Indian designs?
While it will be some time before Indian fashion swoops the global runways, but this new trend is of immense sociological and cultural importance for Indians. Nikhil Mehra, from the famous designer duo Shantanu & Nikhil, says, “This bringing about of our cultural and ethnic identity in fashion, after years of blindly following the western commandments of dressing reflects that as Indians we are at that important point where we are taking pride in our identity.”
As young Indians turn to their heritage, leading designers have the pulse on their mood. The recently concluded Van Heusen and GQ Fashion Nights, a prestigious men’s fashion showcase in Mumbai, saluted this fashion trend. The highlights of the style gala, attended by the likes of American designer Alexander Wang and Bloomingdale’s Kevin Harter, were native Indian silhouettes, such as achkans, Jawahar waistcoats and Jamas (a long coat worn during Mughal era) in an urban context.
While it has not been uncommon to spot an embroidered kurta pyjama or a sherwani at weddings or festivals, what emerged as an important moment on the runways was that for the first time designers positioned traditional Indian menswear in the wardrobes not just as occasional or festive wear, but also as formal, casual or even club wear.
Designer Raghavendra Rathore showcased a collection comprising classic Nehru jackets, jawar waistcoats, riding breeches, shirts and achkans. Rathore elaborated on his collection: “The outfits were designed keeping in mind that they are not meant to be worn on special events, but something that is a quick, off-the-shelf buy that men can wear any and every day. So on the runway, the Indian kurta was given smart tailoring to be worn with pants or jeans as against the usual breeches.”
The designer team of Shantanu & Nikhil brought back the romance of Nehruvian era to the ramp with a collection that had blended Indian aristocracy with a colonial touch. Here one saw long fitted kurtas teamed with straight slim pyjama pants, Gandhi caps and sherwani, all structured and seamlessly fused to give ethnic dressing that dapper edge.
Nikhil Mehra says: “Through the medium of the show we wanted to represent the thoughts of a modern Indian man. We take pride in going back to our roots for design references, as we have a powerful role models.” He cites an example: “Pandit Nehru is perhaps the only man in the history to have a garment named after his style. We haven’t heard of say a Churchill double jacket or a Jinnah pea coat. So it’s up to us to make masterpieces like the Nehru jacket a global style staple.”
Indigenous Travels International Shores
So what is behind this shift in the way men want to dress?
After all, for far too long western essentials, such as a classic suit for formal wear, a blazer for semi formal outings and khakis for a casual day out, pretty much defined Indian men’s wardrobes.
Menswear designer Zubair Kirmani, views it not just as a romantic return to the native fashion movement, but also as smart trade tactic: “We can say that it started with the opening up of NRI retail market that resulted in a boom in e-tailing business, which in turn led to add some structure in a very scattered Indian wear market.”
When non-resident Indians looked at shopping in India they obviously wanted a touch of their homeland for two vital reasons. First, they wanted to feel the power of ceremonial Indian wear in a distant land. Second, the best of western fashion was readily available to them anyway, leaving them with no reason to look for western wear in India. A savvy young breed of Indian techies quickly tapped the demand and began adding online shopping options that were earlier unavailable in the very localized and chaotic Indian retail segment.
As a ripple effect, you no longer were left with a dowdily detailed kurta or a poorly stitched sherwani churned out of sweatshops or non-descript tailoring shops as the only available option. A dedicated retail and designer renaissance ensured that now fine fabrics, sartorial elegance and quality stitching were available to readily order online. Add to that the calendar packed with festivities, which ensured that the ethnic wear demand remained in circulation, gradually triggering the younger modish dressers to adopt elements of traditional dressing in their straitjacket wardrobes too.
Trade analysts say that with the popularity of e-tailing and development of the ecommerce segment, today it seems possible that the Indian ethnic wear market, which was once totally tailor dominated to cater to small, local needs, has the potential to grow exponentially. A study by retail consultant Technopak found that the ethnic wear market in India stood at Rs 82,220 crores ($12.6 billion) in 2014 and is projected to grow to $19.4 billion by 2019. Though the size of the men’s ethnic wear market is small fraction — under a tenth — of that of women, it is growing at a faster clip and will top $1.6 billion by 2019.
Little wonder then that designers, such as Kirmani, are offering up men’s collections derived from traditional Indian attire for urban youngsters. Kirmani, who is all set to design a line of kurtas, says: “We are introducing rare Kashmiri crafts and intricate tilla work on men’s kurtas as today encouragingly every one is looking at owning a part of Indian heritage. That explains why there is a new interest in lesser known Indian crafts such as Kutch work or Rajasthani prints.”
Soaring But Not Conquered
Ethnic menswear sales are on the rise and style gurus, such as Manish Malhotra, best known for draping Bollywood belles in gossamer chiffons, are dabbling in traditional men’s wear that can be worn by any club hopping young man. So Is ethnic chic?
Designer Troy Costa who has taken unique crafts from Indian states and molded them for Men’s Fashion Week in Paris, offers a brutally honest answer: “Indian men are too obsessed with the West to give Indian indigenous wear the prime spot even in their wardrobes. So obviously it would be too foolhardy to believe that Indian ethnic wear is getting on par with say a tuxedo”
Asked whether international markets might pick up the ethnic trend, he says, “Though we may have the richest variety of textiles, it has still not reached a commercialization scale where there is a serious emphasis on quality control.” Industry insiders point to challenges, such as cloth shrinkage, garments losing their sheen after washing, use of old yarn, etc. that constrict the market potential and acceptance by global high street giants.
Costa says: “It’s the new in-thing to promote khadi, but those not in the trade do not realize that it’s a challenge to commercialize it with its high level of shrinkage and the need to use a pre-washing enzyme to make it durable.”
This may partly explain why despite the fact that major designers, such as Armani to Gaultier, have incorporated Indian influences in their collections many years ago, the Indian ethnic market has miniscule presence on the global fashion map.
Costa says: “We have not been able to exploit the world interest because of a highly failing infrastructure. Suppose an international designer wants to work with Madras check, he wouldn’t know whom to approach. If someone from the West wants to explore bandhini they will have to literally sit on the banks of Ganges, that’s how underdeveloped the sector is. It largely still works like a cottage industry.”
Designer Nikhil Mehra points to another pragmatic limitation: “We cannot deny the interest going by the demand. Until three years ago most men would want to go for a tuxedo for a special occasion, today many want to go for say a bandgala.” But he adds, “Practically, Indian wear is not a natural extension of style for Westerners.”
He gives an example: “USA is the most multicultural country, yet you don’t spot Mexicans wearing guayabera shirts or the Chinese sporting mandarin collars as everyday staples.”
Designers stress that any new fashion movement is not gauged by asserting it where it doesn’t fit. Costa says: “It’s foolish for Indian celebrities to think that wearing ethnic wear on strict dress coded red carpet events in the West is the only way to celebrate it…. It’s not only pompous, but also disrespectful of the format. I am yet to see Jackie Chan wearing a traditional Changshan to a black tie event or a Japanese artist landing up in a kimono on a red carpet.”
Stylists suggest flashing the ethnic fashion sensibility at other avenues, such as film screenings on international events. Costa recalls, “Irfan Khan wore a bandgala for a film screening function in Toronto and it worked, just apt for the occasion. I made Rahul Khanna a bandgala for a film function and it worked as it was showcased were it needed to be seen.”
Infusing New Energy
One can decipher fashion and its changing nuances on the global stage. Often traditions and dress are shaped consciously and subconsciously by global power and influence. So when designers say that they are bringing about important and edgy detailing into our historical mode of dressing, we can say that Indian fashion is gaining currency and classical fashion many not yet have seen its last hurrah.
Designer Nida Mahmood, who recently ventured into menswear with her new line of funky and boho modern kurtas, consciously shot her collection with a French model. She says: “ I chose to work with my friend Julien to model my new line of kurtas, because the idea was to showcase the global appeal of the handloom fabrics. It was to make a statement that transcending borders in terms of design and appeal of our Indian fabrics is really as simple as that.”
Many designers increasingly feel that the universal appeal of Indian products hasn’t been tapped and recognized thus far. Even major Western designers from time to time have tweaked and presented traditional garments to give them relevancy and appeal in the new world order. British designer Craig Green, for example, successfully interpreted Japanese fashion in its present form.
Kirmani says, “It’s completely vital today to borrow from various ethnic backgrounds and coalesce a fashion that appeals to all.”
There are enough examples. The former creative director of Lacoste, Christopher Lemaire sought inspiration from East Asia to present his collection in a youthful manner, which was well received for its urban appeal. In his Paris Fashion Week 2015 collection, Kim Jones for Vuitton showed London inspired staples like duffle coats and crew neck sweaters. Also at the Dries Van Noten show models wore jackets and coats embellished with Chinese Miso tribal motifs.
Indian designers too are exploring fusion to create a fashion that identifies with many cultures. Designer Sanchita Ajjampur known for her zany womens wear is out with an equally vibrant line for men, where she has worked creatively around the kurta. She says, “I think the Kurta especially has made foray into Westernwear in many guises — from casual T-shirt styles in jerseys to more elegant versions in slick linen or cottons, some with elaborate detailing or bibs, for the extra fashion quotient.” To make her collection playful, Ajjampur has exchanged buttons for zips or hooded styles for a more contemporary look.
A similar philosophy evoking Indian aesthetics of the past, presented in a modern almost theatrical manner, was evident in designer Rajesh Pratap’s collection for the GQ show, where he drew inspiration from his Indian roots to craft artisanal garments built with fabrics woven on vintage handlooms with clean lines, reminiscent of an English classic cut suit.
Popular sociologists say one reason why traditional designs are gaining currency is because the world is getting more experimental. The creative and artist lobby is almost as influential as business or finance workers.
It’s not interesting anymore to not know your roots or origin. Designer Nikhil Mehra says, “Educated Indians have realized that it’s hypocritical to talk of India while wearing a tuxedo.”
A sherwani in a sea of similar looking black blazers is far more intriguing. The notion that Indian wear should be reserved for weddings and festivals is fast changing with western design teams turning to Asia for style innovations.
Costa explains the future of the trend: “The way I see Indian fashion in the global context is, may be let’s say in the form of a bandhini print shirt. The perfect club to casual shirt would have enough sass and tradition to appeal both to an Indian and to let’s say an American.”