India Couture Week: the sin of sameness

3 months ago 23
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The recently-concluded India Couture Week with its luxurious settings and royal themes has thrown up important questions on why we aren’t diversifying and creating new markets

If there’s one thing that the video presentations at the recently-concluded India Couture Week said as one, it is that the designers have been thinking grand. From Falguni & Shane taking their collection to the Taj Mahal (a true feat, considering how famously inimical the babus at the ASI can be) to Gaurav Gupta’s Universal Love show shot at the Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, this season was all about location, location, location.

Shantanu & Nikhil shot their lineup, Oasis, at Suryagarh in Jaisalmer. Varun Bahl’s Memory / Mosaic came alive at the Andaz Aerocity and Anju Modi’s The Eternal Story unfolded at The Banyan Farm, both on the outskirts of the Capital. Rahul Mishra’s Kam-Khab had its outing at a 300-year-old haveli in Mandawa, Rajasthan.

The fact that so many of India’s most creative minds thought of such locations at the same time is significant. Especially when travelling is, to put it mildly, a little more difficult than before. It mirrors what people have been feeling for a while. Stifled, caged. Designers chose to focus on the idea of travel as their backdrop specifically because such places now offer safe and luxurious locations and experiences, not to mention great wedding packages.

From Tarun Tahiliani’s ICW collection

From Tarun Tahiliani’s ICW collection  

A hackneyed narrative

If you feel I’ve digressed from talking about fashion — this is, after all, an op-ed on a fashion week — you are absolutely right. Because while capturing the zeitgeist, while ensuring that they place their haute couture in the most luxurious settings, and showing how their clothes may be worn by brides, grooms, families, and friends, our designers have succumbed, collectively, to the sin of sameness.

Also read | India Couture Week: 2021’s bride wants more

Setting aside a few, almost all designers chose to portray some version of the How-To-Luxury-Wedding theme, where the clothes fell into categories and the stories took centerstage. Nobody spoke about the craft of couture, except Tarun Tahiliani and Rahul Mishra.

Which brings me to this: we are quick to take pride in our traditional crafts, textiles, and embellishments. We are just as quick to bring up our deep-rooted work with India’s craft clusters at every opportunity, most significantly on social media. But the way we choose to market the beautiful outcomes of all those painstaking efforts is through pandering to hackneyed visions of marital glamour. We tell stories that have nothing to do with what we have designed and made.

Designer Kunal Rawal and Sonam Kapoor

Designer Kunal Rawal and Sonam Kapoor  

The sin of sameness manifests in the narratives. Its devices are the following: long, lingering shots of beautiful models, their translucent dupatas flying, the richness of Indian flora represented by gulaab, mogra, and genda strewn around. There are handsome men striding in slow motion. And there are courtyards filled with beautiful friends, dancing. Stately mothers and indulgent fathers in haute couture; jewels to ransom entire countries. Everything is royal, or a version of.

Here, it is India’s artisanship that recedes into obscurity. We saw a form of collective outrage when Sabyasachi’s mass-market H&M collaboration was launched because it didn’t fulfil made-up expectations of how India’s crafts should be represented worldwide. We see none of that when an entire fashion week dedicated to haute couture — a space where designers can and should explode with creativity — sells us a tired and uniform vision of The Royal Romance. Which disservice is the greater?

Is the future of our most creative minds and skilled hands to be tied to the monopoly that is the shaadi economy? Smart businesspeople are innovative. They diversify and constantly create new markets. Look at Schiapparelli. Or Marc Jacobs. Closer home, look at designers who make haute couture that’s not remotely bridal or traditional. Whether they show at Couture Week or not is immaterial, but they refuse to cater solely to old (and new) money and recognise the potential of the informed, style-conscious, and willing-to-invest younger consumers of high fashion. And they’re not the only ones we need to look at by far.

A design from Rahul Mishra’s collection

A design from Rahul Mishra’s collection  

Time to shun vanilla

I often speak about respecting tradition but not being bound by it. Which is not some mind-boggling new concept, really. But when I look at haute couture in India today, I see an irony emerging.

Our social media is filled with images of truly modern ideas. There are heartwarming tales of LGBTQIA+ weddings, marriages where brides wear two-piece suits, middle-age romances, and older people marrying for love and companionship. The conversation about size has progressed to the point where designers are (slowly) getting better at featuring models of different shapes and body structures. Jewellery labels are making ads that challenge long-held notions. But our haute couture videos stubbornly depict only the most vanilla narratives. We’ve willingly imposed a brahminical heteronormativity on our collective creativity in the name of business. Since when did fashion become so weak, so afraid?

If this were a regular, physical fashion presentation where only those who can afford wedding couture were invited, all that I have said would be irrelevant. But the migration to an all-access video format outed on social media has made it relevant to even those who can’t. And this means that designers now have an added responsibility — towards the continued growth of the artisanal sectors and craftspeople they work with. They have the power now to set the tone. With this in mind, we need to ask if the shaadi market, while it may sustain us economically, is enough. Are we here simply to survive? To bow to this monopoly even unto the erasure of our creative voices? Only our designers, whose very job it is to offer solutions, can answer these questions.

Varun Rana is a fashion commentator and consultant, and is currently consulting with label Shantanu & Nikhil which is mentioned in this feature.

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