No Fashion for the Plus Size

Large women looking to be trendy deserve better than the oversized tents on offer in India
SIZED UP
Saumya Bhatia has evolved from wearing chikan kurtas to mod check tops and smart shirts with scarves. But more plus size stores are needed in India, she says (Photo: ASHISH SHARMA)
HAPPY Srishti Kumar bought this dress online. “It’s obviously not from India… People like me can’t shop in India and expect to look sexy,” she says (Photos: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)
DID IT MY WAY Jelin George is disappointed with plus-size stores in India and makes her own clothes

Jewellery designer Srishti Kumar stands in front of her mirror at her Bandra home with an anxious expression. She’s dressed in a thigh-high lace black dress with stockings and blue heels. She strikes a pose with a baseball bat, and asks, “Are you sure I am not looking like Morticia Adams?” Any comparison with the sulky, gothic, stick-thin Adams is completely misplaced, and even though 22-year-old Srishti is a UK size 18, right now, as she dabs on her make-up and gives the camera a dazzling smile, whipping the bat around all the while, she would give any size-zero a run for her money.

Ask her where she bought her lace dress from, and pat comes the reply, “It’s obviously not from India. I bought it online. People like me can’t shop in India and expect to look sexy, can they?” Finding clothes her size has been a problem ever since she was three years old. “I was a big baby, and all my clothes were bought when anyone from the family visited the UK or such.” Along with online stores like Asos.com, she does the rest of her shopping at Bandra’s surplus export stores, which keep the XXLs she is looking for. Not once does she think of shopping at Indian high streets. Her biggest problem has been finding formal wear for weddings and festive parties that Indian families are famous for. “I don’t even want to talk about Western wear, because finding a well-fitting blazer has made me bang my head many times. I have gone around looking for tasteful salwar kurtas, which would give my body some shape, but everyone wants to put me in a tent. There is no concept of making sure a plus-size person wears something that fits well. They think if we wear loose stuff, we will look more aesthetic. What rot! After many failed experiments, I just go to my designer friends and get stuff made exactly to my size. My favourite thing to wear at a wedding now is a well-fitted tuxedo. I have been turned off the Indian market forever.”

She looks thoughtful for a second, and then says, “Real women like me are putting ourselves out there, trying to look trendy and beautiful. We are the curvettes, and it’s time people took notice, right? Can’t we be fashionable too?”

The Indian market’s response is a big ‘NO’. Plus size fashion in India is virtually non-existent. For a retail market that sees an international brand enter the country every month, fashionable plus-size clothing is conspicuous by its absence. And it is a woman’s problem. Men, however metrosexual they may get, are hardly ever judged by their size. A recent magazine article branded Ram Kapoor, an overweight TV actor, as one large man who women still want to bite into. A plus-size woman, on the other hand, would be bracketed as ‘fatty’ or ‘the funny one’, according to Srishti.

A few years ago, designer Tarun Tahiliani quipped to a Mumbai tabloid that, “Plus-sized women should just wear a sari. Honestly, they could never look as good in a Versace as a slender woman would. Another common mistake they do is they dress in tight clothes, which accentuate their bulges. It looks rather ugly.” Later, he said he had been misquoted and that all he meant was to say that “plus-sized women look best in a sari”, but the point had been made. And it also raises another question: why should a sari be the only option?

India does have a few plus-size stores—Revolution, All from Pantaloons, and Gia from Westside—but to most plus-size women who want to dress fashionably, even these are much too conservative. Nisha Somaia, who started Revolution in 2004 to nurse her desire to wear something ‘kinky’, says, “What most stores get wrong is that they think fat people just need clothes to cover up. Looking stylish is not an option.”

Jelin George from Kottayam, an established fashion designer in Mumbai, had an experience recently that left her squeamish. The 26-year-old is a UK size 16, and had been struggling to find her size at high street stores such as Mango. She decided to take a look at All, a brand of Pantaloons, whose advertisements proclaimed it to be the one-stop shop for plus size women. That she had never been to such a store did seem daunting, but Jelin was determined to put her apprehensions to rest. Within minutes of entering, she found herself propelling out faster than a jet plane. “I felt insulted. There were these shapeless T-shirts and kurtas. And they follow no trends. It’s all stuff from the 90s. It’s like, if you’re fat, why bother with what you wear?” The designer, who has exhibited her designs at Lakme Fashion Weeks, is dressed in an outfit that All ought to take a cue from. Her blue jacket in a flowery print is nipped at the waist and gives Jelin an hourglass shape. Making her own clothes now fulfils her desire to wear things that are unique. “I like standing out in a crowd of people, and I can’t do that if I don’t take matters in my own hands. The Indian market just doesn’t seem to care.”

But Manish Aziz of All says that the brand has been actively trying to introduce sexy clothing for plus-size customers. “Our main aim is to treat [them] just like our ordinary customers,” he says, “We know they want to be fashionable.

This season, we have offered hot shorts and off-shoulder tops. We cater to men as well. And since there is no clearly established leader in this category, we are doing very well.”

Nisha Somaia, owner of Revolution, however, is sure that popular brands that market themselves as plus-size-friendly find no takers because they offer downright “ugly clothes”. Nisha is a UK size 22 and started Revolution in 2004. She feels it works because she tries to think of trendy options. “Everyone else out there will just have you wear oversize kurtis that will make you look like a sack,” she says. Revolution, which she claims has a customer base of almost 100,000 in Mumbai and Delhi, is among India’s rare stops for a plus size woman who doesn’t want to get stared down. A glance at its collection throws up some surprises—halter tops, strapless blouses, and even sexy lingerie. “Women walk in here and are actually astonished and then a bit shy that they could actually look good in such clothing,” she says, “They have been conditioned to think they can never look sexy.”

Delhi Journalist Saumya Bhatia, a UK size 24, discovered Revolution on her 28th birthday. Photos on her Facebook profile trace her evolution. From wearing chikan kurtas to mod check tops and smart shirts with scarves, the 30-year-old has transformed her look. But she still knows there is a long way to go. “A few months ago, I was in Chennai, and I saw this store [run] by a designer that I just fell in love with. There was this pair of pants that were just adorable. But when I asked her to make it in my size, she was so reluctant, I felt scorned. I almost forced her to make it in my size. There should be more stores, more variety.”

She feels even fashion shows and magazines are to blame. “They are the reason we are so obsessed with thin people. It’s all linked.” Saumya has a point. At the model fittings this year for Lakme Fashion Week, lanky creatures were paraded down ramps in tank tops and tiny shorts. The ones selected were the skinniest of the skinny. At outfits fittings, overheard were some moaning designers who “wished Indian models looked more like European models—flat, like hangers”. Fashion magazines here must share equal blame for propagating this ‘thin agenda’. Vogue India’s January ‘shape issue’ had the skinny Nina Manuel listing her primary body insecurity as the lack of a small enough waist. This writer has been a live witness to a fashion magazine’s creasing out tiny fat ripples from an 18-inch model’s bikini shoot. Bollywood only seems to add to the madness by playing the ‘who’s thinner’ game. That could be the reason the voluptuous Vidya Balan is often branded ‘fat’.

The world outside is changing. Vogue Italia did a naked spread of plus-size women recently, and for the first time in 46 years, New York Fashion Week featured a show that had only plus-size models walk the runway. India is lagging far behind. Designer Sabbah Sharma, who has often tried to get models with a full bosom and some ass wear her clothes down the ramp, is sure that the plus-size naked spread won’t find favour in India anytime soon. “These magazines and movie stars condition people to have a notion of beauty that’s only possible if one is stick thin. And you can’t even imagine bigger people being beautiful. And hence nobody seems to be catering to them. Designers like me tailor-make stuff, but not everyone can afford a dress for Rs 12,000,” she says.

But Anaita Shroff Adajania, fashion director of Vogue India, has a different outlook. “I think India is actually the best place for plus size women—you can get a tailor-made outfit for affordable rates. And why just talk about plus-sized people? Even petite people don’t get their sizes. But now you can also shop online. Vogue has always celebrated all shapes and sizes. It’s a market that’s growing.”

Vidhi Shah is 35, and her wardrobe only has what she is wearing today: T-shirts and jeans. She says she has lost count of the times she returned home emptyhanded after a wasted shopping expedition. Her one desire in life is to wear a dress, but she knows that to experiment would be a disaster. She is now content picking up clothes at her family-owned export surplus store in Kandivili, Mumbai. “At my size (XXXL), everything is an issue. Looking nice is the hardest thing ever. And the prices are such a big deterrent as well. Why should I pay Rs 2,500 for a top?”

Then there are other disappointments. Take the case of this 22-year-old who would rather not be named. She gave Revolution and All a chance, and has vowed not to return. “Everything there is so outdated and shapeless,” she complains, “If you try on the pants, they feel as if they were meant to fit random plus size people out there. I think these stores are there to make me feel bad about myself. Actually, All hardly has sizes above UK size 16. What do I do? So now I just go straight to the tailor. I can’t be humiliated anymore.”

Will any of this change anytime soon? If you take a cue from popular culture, it does not seem likely. Daily soaps on TV keep drilling in the message that if you are large, you can forget about finding a husband. Ads make you believe your fat neighbour is only interested in pizzas, not clothes. Fashion magazines balk at putting even a slightly curvy model/actress on their cover without using PhotoShop and close-up face shots, or talking about their efforts to secure a ‘fit’ body. And in Bollywood, being full-figured would mean that you are the natural choice to play Silk Smitha.

It would take a fashion Renaissance to make big beautiful in India. “Small designers like me can’t herald a change,” says designer Sabbah Sharma, “It has to be brought about by bigger businesses and chains. They must decide to offer plus-sized women fashionable clothing, not just clothes to get by in.” In a country with every fifth person plus-sized now, according to National Family Health Survey statistics, it would make eminent business sense. You don’t need a demographer to know which way the trend points. The numbers are sure to rise.

As Hubert Givenchy, the famous designer, once said, “The dress must follow the body of a woman, not the body following the shape of the dress.” Is anybody listening?