As fashion travels from one subculture to another, flowing through almost everything in a purposeful manner, making and waving changes, chronicling it in the process is very important to save the past, resonate the present and predict the future. Anthropologist and luxury lifestyle journalist, Phyllida Jay in her latest book, Fashion India that celebrates the art of a varied range of Indian designers, explores the correlation between Indian and Western fashion and how the new Indian designers are redefining Indian fashion and gaining attention globally. Fashion India investigates the mixed bag of modern-day Indian design whilst analyzing the antiquated notions of Indian fashion.
Phyllida Jay is an anthropologist specializing in contemporary Indian fashion, luxury and sustainability with a doctorate from University College London. She also works as a business and luxury lifestyle journalist in UK and India. She talks about the developments
in the Indian fashion industry, the changes she noticed, her favourite Indian designers and fashion publications and a lot more.The book is releasing on September, 21st published by Thames and Hudson, UK; distributed in India by Roli Books. Some excerpts from the interview:
Q: Why you chose Indian Fashion as a subject for your book?
A: I came to work on Indian fashion initially as I was interested in ideas of ethical and sustainable fashion and their connection to luxury. Given the rich heritage of craft and hand weaving as well as the role of khadi in Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement, I felt India was a key focus for understanding fashion’s relationship to ethics and aesthetics through craft.
Q: You mentioned that “not least fashion can be understood as a metaphor with which to analyze society, culture, economy and even politics.” Kindly elaborate.
A: For example, the growth of the ‘big fat Indian wedding’ with its lavish bridal and ethnic formal ensembles demonstrates how fashion is an important marker of class, aspiration and status. Look at the way the different political candidates in the last general election chose to express core messages and values through dress, and how much media coverage focused on Modi’s traditional Kurta-pyjamas or Rahul Gandhi’s fresh pastel kurta/blue jeans ensembles.
The way some designers integrate craft in their design work is implicitly political in commenting upon the Western dominance in the field of luxury and proposes home grown Indian brands with a unique heritage and sensibility of Indian luxury. Sabyasachi, Rahul Mishra and Abraham and Thakore are interesting examples of this. Then there is the recent emergence of designers and brands like Bodice, Druv Kapoor, Huemn and Josh Goraya who reflect the growing market for minimal design, contemporary streetwear and fashion with very global influences.
Q: How challenging was the idea of covering such a diversity through fashion?
A: With a burgeoning middle class and growth of the retail market, fashion provides an ideal lens to understand the huge transformations occurring in India today. I began my PhD fieldwork in 2009 and over the course of 6 years of research and writing, I read extensively on European fashion history and theory as well as historical, ethnographic and sociological studies of dress in India - integrating all of this into my doctoral thesis. My book Fashion India looks at the aesthetic diversity of Indian fashion and provides some background context to how these different aesthetic niches developed and existed in dialogue with one another.
Q: On that note, kindly elaborate on the developments you witnessed in the design space and the market of Indian fashion.
A: The industry is rapidly changing. There’s been a real emergence of Gen-Next designers in the premium day-wear category that isn’t ethnic in look at all, that’s been a significant shift from say 2009. That goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of online retail platforms such as Pernia’s Pop Up Shop or Exclusively.In that give these young designers unprecedented exposure to a broad consumer base. Social media is of course another facet of this. There’s been an emergence of new interpretations of the aesthetics of opulence that characterize the bridal market. More restrained approaches have emerged in the work of designers like Sabyasachi and Anamika Khanna. Another development is seen in the works of designers like Kallol Datta, Little Shilpa and Arjun Saluja. Their designs really break through the prescribed conventions of beauty and gender and create exciting new propositions for dressing in the process.
Q: Share some significant moments of your journey. How it evolved your perception of Indian fashion?
A: So many! All of the wonderful conversations I have had with designers across the spectrum of Indian fashion. Nothing makes me happier than an afternoon spent in a designer’s studio understanding their creative process and vision.
Attending Lakme Fashion Week in the early 2009 was memorable. I remember seeing khadi garments that were really incredible. They were by Aneeth Arora who was then working under the label Gaba. It’s been amazing to see her develop her brand Pero and how successful she has become in such a short span of time. Going to visit Sally Holkar who runs the NGO Women Weave in Maheshwar, MP was a life changing experience for me. I learnt about weavers’ lives and how different initiatives like Women Weave and The Handloom School can support them.
Q: What is your take on archiving fashion? Where does India stand now in that realm?
A: That’s a very important question to be asked at this point of time. The issue of archiving can be separated into two main aspects: Images and material objects. The need for archiving images was apparent when I was writing the book and researching images from collections to portray a chronological time line of different designer’s work and design progression. In India there isn’t one place to find archival images of catwalk shows (for example, style.com now vogue.com).
Sometimes, it’s possible for designers and their team to search for old collections, but not all designers have comprehensive archives of past work in digital format (and also stored as high res images). So then, it’s a question of searching through various sources, chiefly the internet and print magazines including Indian editions of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Grazia (I have a huge collection of these) as well as contacting the PR teams for the big fashion weeks who hold some catwalk show images on file, then chasing up myriad different sources for the archival high resolution image, copyright permissions to reproduce it in the book, etc. That makes for a huge amount of work.
Q: Some suggestions on the archiving front?
A: It would be really helpful if designers maintained a chronological record and access to at least the key looks from collection shows or lookbooks on their websites- and not just because researchers would find it of benefit – but because it’s an important part of their brand story: how certain signatures and recurring concepts develop over time. That can be essential to developing a sense of connection to consumers as much as anything.
The other aspect of archiving is in the material object, be it the finished garment or the textile-especially when certain designers do an enormous amount of textile development and innovation. The forthcoming exhibition, ‘The Fabric of India at the V&A’ focuses at the importance of retaining archives of textiles, and the incredible stories they can tell about cross-global flows of commerce, imagery, techniques and culture. So yes! More archiving of Indian fashion please. It’s important.
Q: Fashion India is one of the significant works that has been done so far in India regarding the socio-economic and cultural backdrop to the surfacing of current Indian fashion. What do you think it will change?
A: My goal was to contribute to an emerging body of work that charts and analyses the rich diversity of contemporary Indian fashion design. In terms of what I hope it will change, it’s my small contribution to a much larger picture about the growing importance of non-Western fashion centers and sources of creative talent. I wanted to dispel some misconceptions and stereotypes about Indian fashion, and provide a map to navigate the wide spectrum of Indian design. I also grounded that diversity with some social, cultural, historical, economic and consumer market analysis. My book is aimed at students, journalists, buyers and other key fashion industry representatives, people who follow contemporary fashion as well as those interested in Indian design and culture more generally. If someone picks up my book and gains a greater insight into Indian fashion then that would make me very happy.
Q: What is your take on the Indian fashion press?
A: I see the Indian fashion press much like I view the fashion press in say Europe or America. There is a lot of hyperbole and writing that treads a thin line between editorial and advertising. This focuses on celebrity and consuming trend led cycles of clothing, rather than considering the relationships between fashion, design, art, culture and society. That’s fine as that kind of writing does what it does, entertains and helps sell the products.But of course, there are also areas of real excellence in fashion analysis and reportage.
Q: Your preferred publications and the fashion journalists you admire?
A: In the United States, there is Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times and in India, Shefalee Vasudev is someone I admire deeply for her consistently challenging and thought-provoking articles on the Indian fashion industry.
When some of the political weeklies such as Open magazine or The Week cover fashion and luxury, it tends to be very good. There are a lot of young upcoming journalists who when given space to do so, produce excellent work in the arena of fashion journalism.
I like Motherland and Platform magazines. I also really enjoy Indian editions of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle and Grazia. I like the way they constantly provide innovative ways of thinking about the sari and handloom garments in terms of reinvention through fashion styling. Some of the editorial conceptualization, styling and imagery are really inspiring.
Q: What’s next?
A: I am just completing my book on khadi, fashion and luxury which was the focus of my PhD research. I have plans for more books and ideas in the pipeline.