Fade in…a few weeks ago on a splendidly sunny New York afternoon. Kanye is drinking up glassfuls of Cristal pre-VMA (incidentally, wouldn’t it be great if he and Cornel West had a You Tube video?); Lee and Hesh are psyching themselves up mentally for their rain-delayed US Open clash in Queens; homeboy Shashi T is still living in a five-star hotel room halfway across the world in Delhi…. I barely manage to plant a big wet kiss on a Kallol Datta clad Fern Mallis in the inner bowels of the Bryant Park tent, before I am asked by an excited gaggle of fans if I would be so kind as to take their picture with her (Reality TV stardom has a price Fern darling; aren’t you loving every moment of it?). After a quick walkaround which includes popping in backstage to say hello to Vera Wang and drinks at the W lounge (terribly small, I miss my oversized, OTT India lounges), I find myself sitting in on an extremely crowded Ralph Rucci show, mulling over how young Bruce Willis’ new girlfriend is, how boring Rachel Zoe seems up close and how Andre Leon Talley should really keep his robes from flowing onto the ramp (he really got cheated in The September Issue, by the way, with his small, edited caricatured portrayal. Grace Coddington was brilliant, but you already know that by now). Who do I notice but our very own Queenie sitting across the ramp from me in head to toe monogrammed Gucci.
Mumbai is in New York, I think to myself as we tearfully air-kiss post-show. And New York is in Mumbai, I reflect some days later when Peter Davis from Paper magazine Facebooks me from the Manish Malhotra show at the Lakme Fashion Week that he’s missing me and why the hell are we in each other’s cities? What is interesting about this flow is that a few years earlier, it simply could/would not have happened. Of course, what happened in a New York or Paris or London has mattered to other parts of the world for many decades and there are reasons for this dominance – such as the hegemony of the political-corporate nexus; the obvious bias of the aesthetic taste-makers; the way global media have been owned, structured, staffed and managed; the skewed spread of advertisers towards Western markets (based on the geographical location of their clientele) and so on. India might have been an exotic fantasy for some international names to draw inspiration from, certainly (as was any place that was clearly the ‘other’, like Africa, or Bali) in terms of paisley, Jodhpurs or ikat. Some years later, it even became a convenient market for some foreign brands to try and dump their previous season’s overstock. Yet, what happened in Mumbai, stayed in Mumbai.
Manmohanomics and its aftermath stopped this being the case in the business and political worlds a while ago, and the entertainment world has also been buzzing for some years now with cross cultural electricity (Spielberg and Ambani, Kylie and Chiggy Wiggy). But the fashion world’s re-calibration is much more recent. Sharp scribes like a Peter or a Sameer Reddy from Newsweek have been quick to get front seats to observe what is likely to snowball into a huge topic of interest. Today, what happens in Mumbai is slowly beginning to matter to New York – just as what happens in New York matters to Mumbai, and if a Peter, Sameer or Suzie can come and sit in the front row of a Manish Arora show comfortably and write about it in the International Herald Tribune or other publications, a Queenie can jolly well sit at a Ralph Rucci or a Diane von Furstenberg, and critique it in Bombay Times.
Now, by stating the above, I certainly don’t want to indulge in rosy fantasy-building to indicate that the playing field is in any way level. The global fashion world is far from flat (and everyone’s wearing stilettos, which makes it even more wobbly), especially given the skewed nature of the power structure that still exists. (So what happens in Dhaka, or why go so far, even what happens in Kolkata, doesn’t matter in Mumbai, and certainly not in New York.) I also do not want to succumb to a post-colonial kind of native eagerness to please the former white master, that is – let us rejoice, we matter more because we matter in New York today – and that a few influencers are noticing us finally. As if to say that all these years of mattering just for our own selves were any less important than this reflected glory.
No. All I’m saying is this. The flat pyramid-shaped structure of power is morphing into a fractal polygon – with several nodes and planes (Berlin, Sao Paolo, Singapore, Los Angeles) each linking to each other, not just to the level below. As part of this process, I am sensing strong currents indicating India having entered the global fashion conversation as not just a market or a good place to get one’s embroidery done, but also a creative and design fountainhead. We were bombarded for about 20 years by the consumer brand invasion, and for about five more by the luxury brand deluge, but are now being observed, if not mined, for our own creative talent.
What is this thing called Indian fashion? It is not just our favourite Beams buyers from Japan that are interested in knowing any more, or the NRI cousin in Calgary. The virus is spreading fast, necessitated by the global economic downturn that has left some markets nervous and shaky (the West) and others relatively unscathed (India, China, Brazil). The process is being helped by global fashion mavens on the internet (blogs like The Cut, Sartorialist, High Heel Confidential or Josh Spear, websites like Net-a-Porter), an internationalisation of other cultural industries like Bollywood and music, which act as ambassadors for Indian fashion (Kambakht Ishq, Dostana, Fashion), the global popularity of the fashion/model based reality TV franchise, and transnational powerbrokers like IMG that organise large scale global events in markets that their sponsors can make money in. Even though the reasons may be commercial (What isn’t these days? Ganda hai par dhanda hai, no?), I find the prospect of cross-cultural flows that are happening quite exciting. Where will they lead us? Who can say? It’s happening; and I’m happy treading water, for now.
The spring-summer collections for 2010 certainly spoke to each other across NY and Mumbai. Optimism was in the air in both places. I could see Lacoste’s electric blue sport dresses connecting with Vikram Phadnis’ flowing lehengas. I found Derek Lam’s bright, ’40s-inspired beach outfits resonating with Gauri Nainika’s joyous collection. The insane brilliance of a Thom Browne or Marc Jacobs found their desi counterparts in the defiant certainty of Arjun Saluja’s Melting Architecture, Anuj Sharma’s Button Masala and Kallol Dutta’s Avant Guard F***. Whether in the crazy post-show parties; haughty, rude PR companies (Don’t worry Sujata, these small-small things keep on happening in big-big countries); fashion stalkers outside the venue or the paparazzi mayhem inside, the two cities were, at least in my mind, melding into each other as I segued from my physical fashion week experience of New York to the cybercoverage of Mumbai.
* This post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder which appears in Verve magazine.