3 years


The Glitzy and the Surreal

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A fly on the wall at the fashion week in Delhi

One must suffer for style. Walk on burning, itching, hurting feet, and smile so wide it hurts the jaw. Pile body on top of heels, and strut around like you were walking on sand, sinking, rising, falling, rising. The fashion bloggers, the paparazzi are always looking. You don’t want to be captured for posterity in uncool attire.

Then, there are the clothes. Not the sit-friendly ones. Those that are either off last season’s racks, or if the designer is an acquaintance, the ones they will be showcasing. So, you beat the models to it. And what better place to show it all off than fashion week. You can manage the front row passes. Buy from a designer, and s/he will pass on an invitation, or follow a super fashion editor like you were her assistant, or just say ‘media’ and squeeze in somehow.

Editors of Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Grazia, which feature only the ‘most lovely’ women, take their seats, exchange greetings, and sit in judgment. Ugliness does not exist in their world. The editors are invincible. They can tell from their seats what material has been used in clothes. Everyone is in awe of them. Even the designers, who entertain them, humour them and offer them freebies.

“That’s so awesome,” a reporter said. “She knows her fashion.”

Being at the fashion week can drive you nuts. You pack your ration of painkillers (for headaches) and hold on to your seat because the music feels like a drone engine, and you feel you could hit the ceiling. There is too much to take in visually, and otherwise. You cannot not eavesdrop. You do not want to miss the gossip.

When the show starts, you fade into oblivion, and let the ramp seduce you. There is an army of photographers. They sit, stand, crouch, whistle, clap. They can’t be seen, but the models come and stand, and smile, and swirl, and wait for the click, click, click. A hundred cameras go click at once.

It goes on. Cacophony, whispers, raised eyebrows, scribbles in notebooks, nodding of heads. Dismissals, approvals, nonchalance.

In the front row, you can see the editors measuring up the models. Eyes go up and down and sideways. Sometimes they frown and occasionally they smile, rarely do they clap. It happens mostly when Carol Gracias walks. Her high cheekbones, her squinting eyes and her perfect walk. A few buyers also take photos. Some even look at the models and smile. You cannot tell if they are looking at the clothes, or the models.

The idea is to use models of the same unusual weights and heights and hairstyles to show the clothes, to draw attention to the motifs, the detailing, the designer’s craft. But the shutterbugs are looking for celebrities, and the models want to be white swans. To dazzle and shine, and to make it to the front pages, or at least the inner pages of newspapers.

Aneeth Arora of Pero was trying to find a press note for the PR woman who wanted it sent out to the media. Shani Himanshu of Delhi-based design boutique CellDsGn 11:11, a friend of Aneeth’s, was around just in case. He was carrying a Polaroid instant digital camera, documenting his model friends backstage. Another photographer was making a movie on fashion weeks, and was shooting relentlessly.

Model Erika Packard was ready. The wreath had been fixed, and she and her fellow model could not wait to begin their love affair with the camera. Pout their lips, turn chin upwards, look into the camera. Click, click, click.

In another corner, where black curtains formed the perfect backdrop, other models had gathered. They arched their backs, contorted their bodies, pushed forward their torsos, and struck the practised poses.

Arora and Vineet Bahl were presenting their collections together. Bahl was there too. They had finally agreed on a hairstyle that was bohemian, so she could put her wreaths around the models’ heads. He had wanted braids to go with his collection. But middle ground was found.

Lace and chequered pants. Inspired by the men who congregate outside mosques for prayers. She went more delicate this time. Indrani Dasgupta came out, and posed with another model, who told off a Russian model, who was earlier the subject of a photographer. She muttered something.

Arora had styled the models with wreaths, and fresh flowers in her signature style. The leftover flowers were on the floor. Someone was shouting to get them out of the way.

Inside the blackened out room, where only the ramp was lit up, the faces in the front row dazzled. The models came up on the ramp, faced each other in two rows, and threw yellow flowers at the audience. They were in raptures. Arora’s label is selling worldwide, and she is a rage. She has gone beyond bohemian—the ideals of truth, freedom, love and all those beautiful sounding ideas. Hers was an expensive and layered bohemian look.

Commotion, and then the choreographer took over, directing the models, holding a paper, earphones and mike in place. They line up and emerge on the ramp.

Sujata Assomull Sippy transitioned from being a lifestyle journalist to a fashion journalist after she took courses at the FIT, and understood how a garment was made. She spent hours at designers’ workshops to understand block printing, because fashion is serious business. A former editor of Harper’s Bazaar, she had trained in political journalism and at one point covered the House of Lords in Britain. When she moved to India, she figured since she did not vote, and therefore did not have a stake in local politics, she could not cover it. So, she moved over to fashion. As a store girl, she had modelled outfits for buyers, and loved clothes. She is now a fashion columnist.

“The magazine changes with every editor,” she said of her stint with Harper’s. During her time with the magazine, her brief to stylists was to ask themselves if they would wear the clothes they were featuring.

While Vogue lies at another extreme, overly dramatic with its elaborate photo-shoots and concept photography, Harper’s is more about ‘chic’ fashion.

On the day of the Pero show, Sippy wore a Pero maxi dress (from the SS12 collection) and wedges.

“It is a lot of hard work,” she said. “You better be comfortable.”

When she started, India did not have any fashion weeks, but over the past decade or so, fashion weeks have become distinctly Indian and there is a shift from imitating the West.

 “Fashion isn’t reviewed the way it is done in the West,” she said. “I also blame Indian designers as they are too caught up with appearing on Page 3. Whoever is the showstopper should have a personal connection with the designer. It shouldn’t be like the celebrity is there to get film publicity. This whole thing takes away from the trade event, and the trade we are talking about is fashion.”

There were Bollywood celebs in the Wills Lounge. Shabana Azmi, Parineeti Chopra, Manisha Koirala. They said Salman Khan was coming and everyone waited. He did not. Next they said Deepika Padukone, but she did not come either. The photographers looked disappointed.

A PR woman, who was one of the million agencies managing this extravaganza, said she was irritated with the Bollywood obsession. “Models do the hard work. They are the ones who show the clothes, walking on those killer heels, show after show, and then a Bollywood celebrity comes and gets the applause,” she said.

But there is something to be said in defence of designers who use Bollywood celebrities. “Surrily Goel and Manish Malhotra… they are designers who work with Bollywood. Bollywood is central to their DNA. With them, that is part of their fashion label,” says Sippy.

Everything is sponsor driven. Sponsors subsidise the designers, and many good designers who are struggling to launch their labels find it financially prohibitive to do shows. Besides, you need friends, and networks, and favours.

In Delhi’s Shahpur Jat area, a gentrified urban village, many designers have opened boutiques. In Hauz Khas, too. One designer said she has been trying to get a show at a fashion week and is even willing to spend, but does not know the right people. The veterans, the stalwarts still hold sway over the ramp. They were the ones chosen for the grand finales except in a few instances like Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai this year, where young designer Kallol Datta was among the two to do the grand finale. Despite his rebel tag, he used actress Kareena Kapoor as the showstopper. This time, Ritu Kumar did the grand finale, and not everyone had access to the show.

They would sneak outside—past the limp mannequins, past the Wills Lounge area with its music and parties and glorious women—to smoke. Models and stylists congregated in one section. Anand Kabra, and Sabeena Chopra, the muse, and everyone else who had anything to do with looking good. In another similar area, a designer was smoking with his friends. I confused his name with another designer’s. “Oh, he is long dead. He ruined me by taking the name,” he said, and laughed.

Yet another designer duo, who presented a line inspired by the Arctic Ocean, spoke about their collection. Crimson, white, blue, with plastic snowflakes stuck on gowns. Not pret, definitely. Couture, maybe. Indian fashion weeks now hold separate events for couture and pret lines, but sometimes, as in this case, the two overlap.

Sunil Sethi, chairman of the FDCI (Fashion Design Council of India), was everywhere, now escorting ‘retired’ politician Amar Singh, now bonding with the other high and mighty of Delhi. Abhi Singh, a young designer, said he had struggled for many years to get to the point where he could show on the ramp. He had graduated from NIFT, then worked with different designers, who he supplied to. He talked about how he would have to stand by and watch his creations being sold off for much more. Because he didn’t have a name, nor a presence in the fashion week circuit. While

he mainly creates “profitable lines”, the bling stuff to survive, once in a while he takes risks and designs lines like the one he showcased here inspired by monolithic structures. Intricate threadwork. Then buyers from the Middle East came and wanted him to attach skirts to bikini tops. He obliged “because the orders were for a staggering amount”.

“But what about your vision?”

“That can be altered,” he said.

There were the skinny middle-aged women, who went home to change into short sequined outfits before the stalwart designers took over the ramp. There, they emerged from their chauffeur-driven cars and glittered like fireflies. Sometimes, they hung on to their beaus, who wore the latest in menswear. The dresses clung to them. A few wore puffy ones, the bubble hems falling to their knees, camouflaging layers of fat.

The rosette was hanging loose from the straps. She sat with her needle and a length of black thread to fix the rosette in place before she went for the party. Anawi Gupta, a 22-year-old fashion assistant, was in awe. This was her first fashion show, and she carried a large bag in which she kept a shawl, a cardigan, and black tights. Before she locked the stall, she’d go to the washroom, and put those on, and take the Metro to her paying guest accommodation in Trilokpuri in West Delhi. Tonight, it was Abhi Singh’s party at Harem Meeza in the Garden of Five Senses and she had been offered a ride to the venue, and back home.

“I always liked the glamour world. I told my brother I wanted to be a Bolly- wood actress, and he said I should get into the fashion world. I didn’t know much about it. My parents were not ready for this, but I managed to convince them. Now, in my town, I am a role model,” she said.

Anawi attended Northern India Institute of Fashion Technology, Ludhiana, and graduated in June. That day she even carried a second pair of shoes. Before she left for the party, she tied a crystal bead black necklace around her ankles. In the car, she quickly took off her tights and cardigan, and from her large bag, pulled out a clutch. Anawi was ready for the night, to glimpse the world of after-show parties.

But she was shy, and she would not go to the bar and order a drink. She ended up getting a glass of orange juice. The dress she chose was one she had herself designed. A short corset descended into a bubble form made of white net. White and black, with such detailing as rope-like straps. It cost her Rs 1,500.

“I can’t afford designer wear. They are so expensive. I design my own clothes. I am a designer anyway,” she said.

Anawi had brought another dress—a one-shoulder leopard print. Short and tight. She did not know which one to choose. She ended up wearing the fairytale dress. Short and full-bodied, she is not one to fall for the lean and starving looks of models.

She glided into the party. Abhi Singh, a young designer, who had showcased his creations that day at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, was standing with his wife, who was dressed in a sequined outfit that she said took a long long time to make. Her husband’s design. The woman next to her was in a tight sleeveless lycra outfit paired with boots.

Anawi found an internship with Abhi Singh, and hopes the stint will lead to better opportunities, and maybe later help her launch her own label.

“My parents have a lot of patience with me. They support me because I am yet to make money, but I hope I will be able to find my feet soon,” she said.

She makes her own outfits, experiments with designs. She managed to convince her parents that this was what the fashion business demanded. There were parties and there were exhibitions. That it was all glitz. One needed to dress in such clothes to fit in. You cannot be an outcaste, a misfit, she reasoned.

It is expensive living in Delhi. A few thousand for a shared room and Rs 50 per meal. When one is not making money, and is not from a wealthy background, some dreams have to be sacrificed. One has to innovate, like Anawi does, rummaging through stores for bargains that could pass for fashion wear.

“I will give it whatever it takes. I have patience,” she said.

At the party, she was lost. They clanged glasses and sipped their wines and networked, and she sat in a corner watching. A few male models stood nearby, but she did not know anyone to walk up to and make conversation. She kept checking her phone.

“Everyone will be there. Models, Bollywood celebs and designers. Please come,” the PR woman said.

“The party is in the mall?”

“Yes, we are launching a new restaurant and club.”

Music hung in the air outside the club. Inside, there were a handful of people. A few photographers and reporters were ordering drinks, waiting for the celebs to arrive. Manoj Bajpai, who had earlier walked the ramp for designer Samant Chauhan, was supposed to join later. Up on the terrace, a few were standing and smoking. Among them, male models.

A couple had walked the ramp for Samant Chauhan. A young girl sat with a glass of whisky and pack of cigarettes. Her head drooping, she sat there a long time.

Ever since sponsors backed off from holding men’s fashion weeks, male models have had it hard. A few designers will have them walk with the femme fatales, or use them for print advertisements.

They wear skinny jeans and shirts that accentuate their six-pack abs. They look like Greek gods with kohl lining their eyes.

“It is difficult for us,” said Anant Pratap, a male model. “Some of us have day jobs… being a model requires a lot of investment.”

They don’t get paid much, at least not the ones who are new. For one show, they might get Rs 5,000.

They danced, drank beers and hung around. Just in case they got noticed.

The mother of all parties was here. At Lap, Delhi’s premier members-only club, which offers to be ‘without hesitation, without self-consciousness, without inhibition.’

The FDCI had printed the invitations on wooden placards.

Designer Rohit Bal sat like an emperor, surrounded by models, who danced around him. This section of the club, owned by actor Arjun Rampal, was buzzing. They call him “Raja”. And Bal is king. The industry is in awe of him and the fashion editors do their damnedest to appease him. A Kashmiri Pandit and a graduate of NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) and St Stephen’s College in Delhi, Bal is the bad boy of Indian fashion.

They parked themselves nearby. The models and the bloggers. Bal might shoot a glance their way, invite them to sit with him on the couch. With his arms around two men, he laughed, and watched the world come to him. He was one of the organisers of this after-party.

Beyond Rohit Bal’s coterie of friends and fans, the party was dead. The women in embroidered salwars looked bored in the company of their businessmen husbands. Men were getting drinks for Russian, Uzbek and Australian models. The Indian models were scattered. The members-only models had shifted to another section, where they would be gawked at less.

Throughout the fashion extravaganza, the publicists had declared there would be “models” at the parties. Finally, they were here, and they were out of sight.