owards the end, when Soham Dave, an Ahmedabad-based designer who has sworn off electricity and is a staunch believer in sustainable fashion, walked the ramp with Raziaben Mehboobbhai Pinjara and Rekhaben Solanki, two physically disabled women from Dholka in Gujarat, an Usha Silai cluster as part of the Usha Silai project show, members of the audience gave him and the women a standing ovation at the Lakme India Fashion Week’s second day show.
Raziaben walked slowly on her prosthesis leg. After she trained with Usha, she opened her own silai school and now makes up to Rs. 6,000 per month. Rekhaben fought an uphill battle with a mentally challenged husband and two children to take care of and after her training with Usha centre, she is now able to run her household. There are many such stories and the show which was curated as part of the Sustainable Fashion Day, a commitment to slow fashion, the show had four designers who worked with four clusters for about seven months training the women to make clothes that could be showcased on the runway.
And in the end, two women from the clusters walked along with the designers as the fashionable audience watched a human story unfold. That’s what fashion needs – a purpose, a direction, a story. And when there is a movement across the world against trends with major brands and designers trying to assert their narrative and vision as opposed to the tyranny of trends, Indian designers need to not repeat the same silhouettes with an altered narrative, “inspired styling” and unoriginal concepts. “It was nice to be able to go there. We didn’t know we could ever make such fashionable clothes,” Raziaben said.
In many ways, the Usha Silai project show was an innovative fashion concept and was a curtain raiser of a sustainable fashion label “Usha Silai” in collaboration with IMG Reliance, an initiative tagged as #ReimagineFashion. And in retrospect, the eight women who walked the ramp in the end looked more beautiful and powerful than any of the Bollywood celebrities who walked the ramp. And perhaps initiatives like these could save fashion. Over the last few years, Lakme India Fashion Week has been championing the cause of slow fashion with its fashion curators trying to make shoes more meaningful like #craftiscool, which showcased traditional crafts that had been interpreted by fashion designers like Sreejith Jeevan, who owns the label Rouka. The designer from Kochi was part of the Usha show and had worked with the Puducherry cluster where he trained 12 women over six months. And when the women emerged from the background, they had been wearing their customary flowers in their hair and walked with confidence to face the cameras. And maybe this is the way to make fashion weeks relevant and more than just an event.
At best fashion weeks are playgrounds for selfie players and photo ops now. There’s also the trend of Bollywood divas as show stoppers because we, as a consumerist bunch of nouveau rich, aspire to that Bollywood fashion, which made Manish Malhotra the star with the actors pouting and posing on Instagram with the designer who first marked his debut with costume design for the film Rangeela. Others have followed suit. But popular fashion is not enough even with the celebrities dressed in bling outfits playing the muse to designers. In 1988, fashion’s glamorous terrain full of snobby, outdated and megalomaniacal designers who ruled the runways with their “safe repertoire” first saw the pull of “invisibility” cult with Belgian designer Martin Margiela arriving on the scene and destabilizing the established culture of fashion by staging his most remarkable shows in dilapidated warehouses and “unremarkable street corners” with models that had almost taped faces challenging at once the idea of fashion and beauty. For 20 years, he was the elusive designer who inspired the likes of Marc Jacobs with his alternative take. In fact, he made grotesque fashionable. In the Indian scenario, the “anti-pretty” and normcore fashion arrived on the runway late but alternative fashion with focus on sustainability and upcycling is redefining what has been called “trends” for long and challenging the couturiers, who are ensconced in their complacence and their popularity.
You could say it is a band of outsiders staging a coup almost by reacting to cultural disappointment in fast fashion, by organizing against consumerist fashion with recycling and upcycling and making pieces that could be called semi-couture. And like Margiela, the new aesthetic is timeless, too. Destabilizing is the new risk in fashion with imperfection as the new badge of luxury that shows the naturalness of textile, the exposed vulnerability of design and in a philosophical way, the process of making a cloth as human and fallible. For the longest time, Indian fashion has been slave to kitsch although Manish Arora made that into a revolutionary statement but not all designers have challenged the hold of “pretty” and bling as far as Indian fashion’s range goes.
A lehenga and choli are staples on the ramp. That is what defines couture. Nothing changes with time. And that timelessness of the mainstream is now being questioned by alternative, which in its very core is timeless as it debunks all impositions of trends.
Already, the two major fashion weeks Lakme India Fashion Week and Amazon India Fashion Week are trying to push the envelope in terms of new design sensibilities. Besides, there is the Rajasthan Heritage Week, only three years into its inception, which is becoming a model for promoting heritage textiles. Prasad Bidapa, who has collaborated with the Rajasthan government for the promotion of homegrown textiles like khadi and kota, says Rajasthan Heritage Fashion Week is not about high or fast fashion but is an introspective look at the skills that have existed for centuries and are in danger of extinction.