March 29, 2010
Fashion as a Metaphor
Your correspondent has wrangled a place in the first elevated row, just behind the backless futons reserved for buyers. The Three Quarks Daily seat is adjacent to the New Indian Express (Calcutta) and The Man (monthly). Black bleachers cascade all along on either side of the runway. There are bells suspended above one end, just above the backboard with Payal Jain's name on it. On the other end, the jostling mosh-pit of camera men in five, no six layers, like the green toy soldiers that you may remember from childhood: sniper flat on the ground, aiming and firing on one knee, mortar loader, aiming while standing, platoon leader yelling.
The lights go brighter for a moment before dimming, the music starts thumping, a thrill ripples through us all, and four models appear on the far end of the catwalk. Your correspondent has never been so aware of the dramatic tension between camera, focal length, object and field. The contemporary, globalizing fashion show, of course, is a media practice, which requires the collaboration and participation of so many players to create this sense of the new, the now, the it, which one can either be with, or else clueless about.
Payal's models are wearing hoodies and head-scarves of many designs, and occasionally smocks that look also like Iranian chadors. Her literature says that the collection is inspired by the monastaries of Laos, which God love her, is surely exotic territory for all of us. The music is vaguely Enigma, perhaps remixed by Laotian monks.
All is expectation while the model is still walking towards you, but nothing prepares you for the odd way in which she walks right on past, going on vogue the cameras, which crackle like crickets in the darkness. Notwithstanding a couple of thousand years since the natyashastra defined abhinaya, the art of communicating emotion through facial expressions, the model is a blank slate and cipher. Perhaps it all makes sense, for the point is the clothes she is wearing, not the character she is playing. If her expression means anything at all it means I have something very important to tell you, but it's slung from my hips.
As readers of this newspaper will no doubt be aware, the social life of clothing is estimated to have begun some 90,000 years ago, based on a reconstruction of the time taken for the strains of human head and body lice to have diverged from one another. This is also the point at which the first pigments, line drawings, visual representations are believed to have occurred. That was when we realized that bodies and things could adorn one another with meaning, creating socially individuated selves. And this is the eternally deferred, which is to say betrayed promise of the runway, that there is someone inhabiting that A-line smock, as opposed to a human mannequin, a professional zombie, someone who has trained herself so carefully to constrain her natural aura, to give off no scent of personhood.
The lights come on, and just like that, we're done. The models are well choreographed, the clothes were structured into several layers and variations upon one another, and the show seems a success. Payal comes out at the end to take a bow with a small smile and folds her hands, namaskar, which might be the only tell, giveaway, that this is an Indian fashion show. It is an oddly formatted dramatic experience, about as long as a sit-com, with the musicality and vividness of a music video and without breaks for advertising. There is a mood and a set of associations conveyed, with neither character nor plot. It sits like empty calories in the gut, leaving you hungry, but for something more substantial.
Payal comes from a family that has long been involved in garment exports. In the early nineties a series of billboards came up around South Delhi that announced her spring-summer collection. The idea was strange then, that some one in Delhi should proclaim themselves to be a fashion designer. For that you would have to go to New York or Paris, her classmates and cohort would have thought. Over time, though, Payal's collections have proved routinely innovative, continuously evolving, and responsive to the cultural trends and flows that have constitute India's present. Garment, Apparel and Trade Shows have meanwhile given over to Fashion Weeks and runway extravaganzas, more professionally organized by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), and more avidly consumed by the public through an Indian media industry that is still exploding, fragmenting and pixelating. And so, like so many of her fellows at the FDCI, Payal has moved from commodity manufacturing to intellectual property creation in a single generation. Fashion can serve us as a metaphor for the role of knowledge in the creation of value in India's still emerging economy.
Throughout the world, the proper place for high costume was once the royal court, which is why it should only make sense that Fashion in its modern avatar should come from Paris, where they first rid themselves of kings and courtiers. In the absence of titled nobility to serve, high performing houses of craft manufacture was released unto themselves, freed up to first seek out patronage, and then to promote it. In the later half of the nineteenth century, these houses organized themselves as the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, a self-governing association that could promote couture, guide growth, perpetuate scarcity, and limit competition from any new purveyors of Fashion, at least within France. In India, the FDCI was set up, just eleven years ago, as direct heir and counterpoint to the Parisian Syndicale.
One critical tool for the promotion of High Fashion houses was the Couture Parade, also invented in the late 19th century by Charles Frederick Worth, an English couturier working Paris, who had live models display an annual collection of his own designs, as distinct from the designs that might collaboratively emerge from the servicing of patrons. This shift in the pattern of creativity is central to modern fashion, for it is the taste of the designer, and not of the commissioning patron, that comes to be reflected in the suit. Now the customer may express taste by cultivating knowledge of designers and their work, leading directly to the necessity of fashion periodicals, image-making, mutual acknowledgment, in short the entire series of ricochets and reverberations, which constitute the discourse of Fashion.
According to Fashion-maven Aparna Jain (no relation), the big three of Indian Fashion are Tarun Tahiliani, Manish Arora, and Rajesh Pratap Singh. Tahiliani has long been a major force, with modern society patrons that swear by him and see him as a living artiste who brings wonder into their life. He has shown collections for two decades now, and led the transition of Indian fashion from its sputtering starts to the steady confidence it now increasingly enjoys. The sheer volume of his annual production -- he owns a state of the art high quality production unit in Gurgaon -- means that he must cater to every segment of the market and all kinds of tastes, ranging from traditional updates to bridal finery to occasional experiments in global sophistication. Manish Arora, on the other hand, is the reigning enfant terrible of the fashion world, giddily remixing traditional motifs in acid colors, more intense than any Rajasthani or tribal costume, but ensuring enough of a field of white to appeal to global consumers seeking a taste of the new India. The acid remix of traditional India, whether in terms of street art and culture, or folk traditions, or courtly motifs is a strong trend in contemporary Indian fashion, for there is just so much stuff there, in the legacy of India's visual culture, and there is a still unsatisfied yearning to make all of it meaningful for contemporary lives and lifestyles. Rajesh Pratap Singh is a new entrant to the upper echelons of Indian fashion, and his work seems a more refined synthesis of so many different currents and themes in Indian visual culture. His stores are famous for being art installations in themselves, with screens made of tailoring scissors, or entire an entire long narrow store designed in the idiom of an Indian Railways carriage. He can do Indian alright, but he's cool about it, and tones it down a thousand while he's at it.
Walking about the stalls of the trade show, your correspondent noted several different challenges to which designers are setting themselves. First, there is the legacy of the past. Courtly traditions from Mughal and post-Mughal states, repeated with minor variations throughout petty principalities through on up to the present are a major drag on Delhi's culture and still neo-feudal society. How to pep this stodginess up, without completely giving up on one's fabric, textile and sewing history? No definitive revolution can be reported yet, but the days of Indian designers serving as high-achieving Ladies Tailors are surely over. One must still do it, to keep operations alive, just as one must serve the bridal market, but that's surely not the road ahead.
Second, what do we do with the received sets of color palettes and motifs that make up India's fabric, tapestry and visual imaginaire? Here, regrettably, the answer is not new -- one must remix them, more violently and maniacally than Manish Arora, and then use them to create costumes that are familiar but dystopic. It is a stage we are still going through, but the light of beauty still promises to shine through the cacophony of it all.
Third, what to do with the churidar-kurta and the sari? It's all very well for retro films set in the sixties, but really now, what will we be wearing in the future? I saw one woman walking around wearing a salwar held up to her shoulders with fabric tape, like a pair of dungarees, or maybe an inverted parachute. I saw churidars whose crotch slung way low, around the knees, like maybe a Dr. Seuss character might wear. Payal herself showed a memorable sari-dress, which wound around itself and clasped tight on the shoulder, to offer a modern and flowing vision that evoked the classic female silhouettes of Raja Ravi Varma.
Outside, the lobby feels as large as an airport, but perhaps one from the future. Men and women of all nationalities, races and ages, are dressed like a good acid trip, all happy and smiley but bizarre. Bow-ties on denim shirts and thick black frames with psuedo-mohawks and other irregular accessories abound, a wide spectrum of ways to be normal. So far as the firang contingent goes, it looks to me that the Euros are being edged out by the Koreans these days, whose boutiques must be looking for this next cutting-edge corner of the fashion world. I'm slowly beginning to understand that there is a particular way to be Indian these days, that is as cool as Sinatra must have been in his Rat Pack days, cool the way American culture must have been in the pre-dawn of its globalization, and this ineffable vibe, indefinable attitude is what Indian Fashion is for. That's what it's trying to get out, express.
And maybe that's all clothes ever can ever tell us -- how you're trying to be, how I feel about that, what we can do together given what I happen to be wearing. That's what becomes possible, back in the runway of life, even if not actually in the Fashion Show.
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