Indian Ethnic Fashion and its appeal in the West

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Mumbai: Men’s fashion is undergoing a gentle game-changing transformation on the Indian subcontinent. Elements of traditional Indian wear, reserved as “garnish dressing” on holidays or ritual events are slowly getting affirmation as modern menswear.

In this new world of indie fashion, it’s not uncommon anymore to find contemporary versions of Nehru jacket being retailed by ready-to-wear labels in New York City or to find a suave young man striding the cobbled streets of London in a pair of Jodhpuri pants. If you delve a little deep into style aesthetics, you may spot a touch of charm embroidery on an English pea jacket or a sophisticated sherwani collar on a formal coat.

Nikhil Mehra, from the famous designer duo Shantanu & Nikhil, says, “This bringing about of our cultural and ethnic identity in fashion, after years of blindly following the western commandments of dressing reflects that as Indians we are at that important point where we are taking pride in our identity.”

The recently concluded Van Heusen and GQ Fashion Nights, a prestigious men’s fashion showcase in Mumbai was attended by the likes of American designer Alexander Wang and Bloomingdale’s Kevin Harter. There were native Indian silhouettes, such as achkans, Jawahar waistcoats and Jamas (a long coat worn during the Mughal era) in an urban context.

Designer Raghavendra Rathore showcased a collection comprising classic Nehru jackets, jawar waistcoats, riding breeches, shirts and achkans. The designer team of Shantanu & Nikhil brought back the romance of Nehruvian era to the ramp with a collection that had blended Indian aristocracy with a colonial touch.

Indigenous Travels International Shores

So what is behind this shift in the way men want to dress?

Menswear designer Zubair Kirmani, views it not just as a romantic return to the native fashion movement, but also as smart trade tactic: “We can say that it started with the opening up of NRI retail market that resulted in a boom in e-tailing business, which in turn led to add some structure in a very scattered Indian wear market.”

When non-resident Indians looked at shopping in India they obviously wanted a touch of their homeland for two vital reasons. First, they wanted to feel the power of ceremonial Indianwear in a distant land. Second, the best of western fashion was readily available to them anyway, leaving them with no reason to look for western wear in India.

A savvy young breed of Indian techies quickly tapped the demand and began adding online shopping options that were earlier unavailable in the very localized and chaotic Indian retail segment.

Trade analysts say that with the popularity of e-tailing and development of the e-commerce segment, today it seems possible that the Indian ethnic wear market, which was once totally tailor dominated to cater to small, local needs, has the potential to grow exponentially. A study by retail consultant Technopak found that the ethnic wear market in India stood at Rs 82,220 crores ($12.6 billion) in 2014 and is projected to grow to $19.4 billion by 2019.

Kirmani, who is all set to design a line of kurtas, says: “We are introducing rare Kashmiri crafts and intricate tilla work on men’s kurtas as today encouragingly every one is looking at owning a part of Indian heritage.”

Soaring But Not Conquered

Ethnic menswear sales are on the rise and style gurus, such as Manish Malhotra, best known for draping Bollywood belles in gossamer chiffons, are dabbling in traditional men’s wear that can be worn by any club-hopping young man. So Is ethnic chic?

Designer Troy Costa who has taken unique crafts from Indian states and molded them for Men’s Fashion Week in Paris was asked whether international markets might pick up the ethnic trend. He says, “Though we may have the richest variety of textiles, it has still not reached a commercialization scale where there is a serious emphasis on quality control.” Industry insiders point to challenges, such as cloth shrinkage, garments losing their sheen after washing, use of old yarn, etc. that constrict the market potential and acceptance by global high street giants.

Industry insiders point to challenges, such as cloth shrinkage, garments losing their sheen after washing, use of old yarn, etc that constrict the market potential and acceptance by global high street giants.

“It’s the new in-thing to promote khadi, but those not in the trade do not realize that it’s a challenge to commercialize it with its high level of shrinkage and the need to use a pre-washing enzyme to make it durable,” he adds.

This may partly explain why despite the fact that major designers, such as Armani to Gaultier, have incorporated Indian influences in their collections many years ago, the Indian ethnic market has a minuscule presence on the global fashion map.

Designer Nikhil Mehra points to another pragmatic limitation: “We cannot deny the interest going by the demand. Until three years ago most men would want to go for a tuxedo for a special occasion, today many want to go for say a bandgala.”

Stylists suggest flashing the ethnic fashion sensibility at avenues such as film screenings on international events. Costa recalls, “Irfan Khan wore a bandgala for a film screening function in Toronto and it worked, just apt for the occasion. I made Rahul Khanna a bandgala for a film function and it worked as it was showcased were it needed to be seen.”

Infusing New Energy

Designer Nida Mahmood, who recently ventured into menswear with her new line of funky and boho modern kurtas, consciously shot her collection with a French model. She says: “ I chose to work with my friend Julien to model my new line of kurtas, because the idea was to showcase the global appeal of the handloom fabrics. It was to make a statement that transcending borders in terms of design and appeal of our Indian fabrics is really as simple as that.”

Many designers increasingly feel that the universal appeal of Indian products hasn’t been tapped and recognized thus far.

Popular sociologists say one reason why traditional designs are gaining currency is because the world is getting more experimental. The creative and artist lobby is almost as influential as business or finance workers.

A sherwani in a sea of similar looking black blazers is far more intriguing. The notion that Indian wear should be reserved for weddings and festivals is fast changing with western design teams turning to Asia for style innovations.

Costa explains the future of the trend: “The way I see Indian fashion in the global context is, maybe let’s say in the form of a bandhini print shirt. The perfect club to casual shirt would have enough sass and tradition to appeal both to an Indian and to let’s say an American.