Fashion for me took a shape of its own the day I entered the North Campus of Delhi University. There was a dress code and it spelt ‘attitude’. In the hot, dry summers, a bright Fabindia kurta, blue jeans, a sling jhola, beads around the neck, kohl-laden eyes and silver danglers seemed to say we take ourselves seriously, but we are going to look attractive while we do it. In the bitter winters, high neck sweaters in bright hues, denims, floaters and colourful stoles from Janpath completed the look. It was about creating an identity, even though we were all doing it. It made me realise that I could make a statement with my clothes. And even though there were millions who looked like me in Delhi in those years, to fit in and embrace a trend that was so Delhi made me leave behind my shorts and tee wearing days of school. I had grown up.
And that’s where I think Delhi first scores over Mumbai. I have spent hours staring at college kids across Mumbai in trains, malls and coffee shops. Denims, T-shirts, sneakers, backpacks—it’s as if school’s not over. “Mumbai actually doesn’t have a style per se,” says stylist Shweta Sharma, “It’s so laidback that it almost doesn’t care.”
It’s been six years since I left my dignified Delhi and shifted to manic Mumbai, but even today, when I tell people I am from Delhi, they hem and haw, and then inevitably blurt out, “Yes, you look very Delhi.” And though I take it as a big compliment—since I still like being seen as a Delhiite however maligned the city is—I have often marvelled at the fact that it’s so easy to distinguish a Delhi girl from a Mumbai girl just by looking at the way they wear their denims. Cutoff denim shorts and a comfy tee paired with flip-flops is the way the Mumbai girl would go, and carefully ironed coloured branded denims with a cute-yet-sexy singlet and ballerinas is the Delhi way. Could it be more easy?
Once out of college, I was hooked. Fashion knew my address now. High-street brand Mango had just opened its first branch in Delhi, and I was there every pay day. It was the first time I noticed how a good fit flattered my body, and how elegant tailoring could make heads turn. And if you were low on cash, Sarojini Nagar (the Mecca for anyone looking for export rejects of international brands) and Janpath were always ready to embrace you. It was literally as if the city was trying to make you fashionable. It was also a city that challenged you—you couldn’t just wear anything and everything (no deep necks and no short skirts that would invite uninvited attention on the streets of Delhi), and so you improvised. A scarf here, some cool pants there, and a trendy jacket on top—I was set.
Sukanya Deepak, a 19-year-old fashion student, is pretty fussy about what she wears. And just like me, she knows how to improvise. She also loves Delhi’s obsession with being impeccably turned out all the time. “I wear pants all the time, but I know how to make them look casual and dressy as well. So if I am going to posh Khan Market, I wear a sheer top paired with well-fitting pants. You have to look good when you go to Khan Market. Everyone is so well dressed there.”
Shopping in Mumbai has never been as exciting as looking for finds in Delhi. I have tried to take the Fashion Street route in Mumbai, but have always returned home empty handed, with no finds to steal. And spotting good ethnic wear is close to impossible in Mumbai. Barring a few really well-turned-out fashion bloggers, stylists and fashion magazine staffers, I have got used to looking at the skinny jeans, tee and flip-flop wearing crowd. And so when somebody calls me a ‘Zara clone’ behind my back, I am often tempted to retort, “But where else do you shop in this city?” Thank God for the high street, I say.
Bombay girl and individualistic blogger Anushka Hajela of Bombay Bubble says, “I hate to say it but Delhi is the better dressed city. Bombay is like Los Angeles, completely laidback, and Delhi is like New York, where people take their brands seriously—it’s only about the Guccis and Fendis. Maybe Mumbaikars just don’t bother because of the heat. In Delhi, it’s all about appearances and there is a lot of pressure to dress up. In Mumbai, we don’t judge you by the car you drive. We care about relationships, not appearances.”
That is the stock complaint against Delhi—its brand consciousness. But who is to say that’s a bad thing? India’s top designers are based there, even as new, experimental, innovative ones keep emerging from the capital like nobody’s business. Designers attribute their settling down in the capital to the easy
access to local karigars in and around the city, as well as the low-cost availability of traditional fabrics in the North. Or, as I said before, it could be because Delhiites start their fascination with fashion young. All the international designer brands now have huge outlets in Delhi’s humongous malls, a phenomenon that cramped Mumbai can never match. Delhiites have the luxury of space, and it assures them luxuries of other kinds.
As I walked around Emporio the last time I was in Delhi, I was shocked by the fashion that surrounded me. It could have just been the way everyone around me had bags that screamed logos—starting from Zara and Forever 21 to the more luxurious Dior and Versace.
Gayatri Ahuja, a 23-year-old interior designer, is a pucca Delhi girl. She flaunts her designer labels (she says she likes to experiment with clothes), idolises Anne Hathaway and Audrey Hepburn, won’t leave her home without her Louis Vuitton or Gucci bag, and though she loves flats, will wear heels when the ambience demands it. “All my clothes are custom made,” she says, “I like to be different and ahead of the curve.”
Delhi is India’s only city that could someday match the fashion consciousness of cities like New York, London, Milan or Berlin. Spend some time in Delhi, and you know that globalisation is well and truly upon us. And while fashionistas across the globe gush over the latest Chanel collection and covet that Marc Jacobs bag, why should it be pretentious for Delhiites to flaunt a Gucci?
It is the fashion capital of the country. If not for Delhi, I would have been wearing denim skirts, collared shirts and Moccasins for as long as I lived. And though I am surely not the most fashionable person around, Delhi helped me find a sartorial identity of my own. It made me realise and live what Coco Chanel once said: “I don’t do fashion. I am fashion.”