Is the fashion world waking up to Indian design? This year Indian designers have steadily been gaining international recognition. In May, Michelle Obama wore a green floral silk organza dress by Mumbai-born American designer Naeem Khan to cut the ribbon at the Metropolitan Museum’s new Anna Wintour Costume Center. And in the same week, at the White House Correspondents’ pre-dinner cocktail party, actress Lupita Nyong’o wore an understated pearl dress with gold detailing by Indian-American designer Bibhu Mohapatra.
Indian designers have also been snapping up some of the biggest fashion awards. Rahul Mishra took the International Woolmark Prize in February for his handwoven off-white and yellow dresses with embroidered lotus and tree motifs (the collection will be launched at Harvey Nichols next week). And sisters Nikita and Tina Sutradhar, of Mumbai-based womenswear label Miuniku, received a special award at the inaugural LVMH prize in May for their bold graphic designs – quite an accomplishment considering they only graduated from the London College of Fashion a year ago.
No doubt global buyers are paying close attention to the collections at Lakmé Fashion Week in Mumbai (running until August 24). Since its launch in 2000 the event, which this year features 86 shows, has become the hottest date in the Indian fashion calendar and launched the careers of many designers, including Mishra.
Carla Sozzani, founder of Milan concept store 10 Corso Como and a judge on both the Woolmark and LVMH prizes, believes the rising popularity of Indian fashion goes hand in hand with the vogue for handmade and unusual artisanal clothes. “Women want unique or limited edition pieces, and this [handmade heritage] is what Indian designers deliver,” she says. “The designers have a fresh, raw and spontaneous approach that is nothing to do with today’s formalised fashion world.”
Manish Arora, a designer based in New Delhi and Paris, says, “Indian design is all about embellishment, and that’s fashionable today.” His psychedelic “Candy” collection includes a delicately sequinned and beaded Candyland-print midi-skirt (£1,882) and an embellished cupcake-print sweatshirt (£635).
Arora’s blend of high and low culture with Indian handicraft is part of a sea change within the country’s fashion industry. Designers are mixing traditional textiles and techniques with western silhouettes and technologies to create clothes that have wide domestic appeal but also find a receptive international market. Pankaj Ahuja, co-founder of Pankaj and Nidhi which specialises in hand-embroidered designs that look like digital prints, says: “We are using our craftsmanship and big pool of skilled workers, from weavers to jewellery makers, to do new and exciting things.”
Others are also experimenting with form and tradition. Rajesh Pratap Singh, Elle India’s designer of the year in 2007, uses hand-appliquéd metallic shapes and sequins to add sparkle to his minidresses, which appeal to buyers from Brazil to China. Dhruv Kapur, of DRVV (one of the Gen Next designers showing at Lakmé), uses woven angora from a Himalayan village to accentuate his modernist aesthetic. And Shivan and Narresh, India’s first luxury swimwear brand, uses neoprene and Dri-Fit to make body-con floor-skimming dresses and the more traditional lehenga (long skirt), which are then embellished with Swarovski crystals.
Embellishment has long been key to Indian fashion – and Bollywood glamour – but, as Sozzani observes, the new wave of designers has refined the artisanal glitz to create cleaner, more commercial pieces. “When I went to New Delhi a few years ago, the fashion was all heavy embroidery, too much craftsmanship and too ‘costume’, ” she says. “Now it is so clean and pure.”
Mishra agrees. The new designers, he says, are focusing on traditional Indian dressmaking techniques – using handmade, organic colours such as off-white, and natural dyes like terracotta and indigo. By way of example, he points to Péro, and the understated slip dresses and sheer lace tops created by its designer Aneeth Arora, the recipient of Vogue India’s first Fashion Fund prize in 2012.
The success of Indian fashion, and of its creative talent, comes at a time of rapid cultural change. According to the stylist Gautam Kalra, Indian women are being far more experimental in mixing classic designer pieces with up-and-coming names, and mixing western and homegrown influences.
“There’s lots of individuality,” he says, “with women mixing together pieces in a chic, boho way. For example, they might wear a vintage Vivienne Westwood jacket with printed salwar kameez, Zara T-shirt and an Hermès bag.” Even saris are becoming more modern, says couturier Anju Modi: “These days there are no boundaries, whether in Milan or Mumbai. I’ve even designed saris with zips so women don’t have to fumble with the fabric,” she says.
India’s luxury market is booming with consumer spending estimated to exceed $14bn by 2016, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. Rather than sit back and await an influx of big European luxury houses, Indian designers are responding to the opportunities offered by the fast-growing market, corporatising their family-run businesses, formalising their pricing and developing distribution networks so they can do business with the fashion industry outside India.
“India is where the money is now, thanks to the economic boom and buoyant gold market, so our fashion scene is being noticed,” says Masaba Gupta, a young designer known for the quirky prints of cows, cameras and even her own palm prints that she produces for House of Masaba. She is also fashion director of Satya Paul, a traditional brand. “We are opening up our business models and aligning them to the world so there is economic viability,” she says.
Some designers say a lack of international expansion remains challenging due to a lack of official backing at home. Anita Dongre, one of India’s most successful designers thanks to her hand-woven dresses, brocade skirts and crop tops, says: “I am not ready to go global for a couple of years as there is no government support.”
Still, optimism from abroad is evident. At Lakmé Fashion Week, international designers such as Australian duo Easton Pearson are showing for the first time, while high street favourites Miss Selfridge and River Island are presenting their autumn/winter collections. But the event remains emphatically Indian. As Manish Arora advises: “Keeping our originality and heritage is how we stand out. Too much awareness of the west is not a good thing. We’ve got to find the right balance.”