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In defence of bling

Why does bling bring out the apologist in us? Belittled as tasteless and unfashionable, it is routinely rubbished in stylish circles. But here’s an argument that’s going to change all that.

brunch Updated: Feb 17, 2014 14:03 IST
Yashica Dutt

Bling is not a bad word. And despite what you’ve seen on Indian TV serials – men in glazed shirts and women in reams of synthetic fabric studded with crystals – here’s why you are going to agree. Loving all things shiny and excessive is an Indian thing to do. Indian housewives hoard enough gold to worry our government, the gold iPhone is expected to sell the most units here and the interiors industry regularly lines tabletops, WCs and bathtubs with gold.

Bling has now come to include everything that shines – shiny polyester with a dual reflective glare, or garments and objects so studded with crystals, they make your eyes ache. So, perhaps it’s time to separate the cheap gilt from the real gems and take pride in the traditional Indian mastery over shine and glitter: Banarasi heirlooms, traditional zari, gota, patti and fine embroidery. This is what sets us apart from any other place in the world. This is, quite literally, what makes us shine.

Clockwise from right: Steve Madden pumps,`6,999; Swarovski drop earrings (placed on the stiletto), `9,750; L’affaire zardozi border, `13,000; Zara belt, `1,590; Dior Diamond Watch; Accessorize earrings, `995; Zara embroidered collar, `1,990; Annika Rucci clutch,`34,700

When Bling Goes Bad
“Bling doesn’t only mean overdosing on glitter and sequins,” says designer JJ Valaya, the first Indian brand ambassador of Swarovski. The stone that sparked the neo-bling wave in 2001 not only made bling accessible to the masses but also unleashed an assault of poorly constructed crystal designs. Designer Suneet Varma, who has used bling in almost all his collections, says that ‘common’ bling evokes reactions opposite to those when one is faced with a higher quality of beauty and luminescence. “That bling doesn’t speak of the culturally inspired gota, delicate tissue or iridescent zardosi,” Varma says. “This is the bling that marks our finer taste and appreciation for all things bright.”

The Trickle Down Effect
Between a superbly crafted zari sari that design house Marchesa recreated for Spring/Summer 2013, and a tawdry polyester, two-toned dress with sequins of all sizes at the neighbourhood store, what went wrong? “People went ballistic with bling,” says Valaya. “Glitter cannot be used irresponsibly. There has to be a sense of proportion and contrast. Bling, unless used with matte, often gets so bright, it can’t be looked at. It adds nothing to the person wearing it and ruins their personality instead.” As with every trend that dies an instant death the moment it enters the muddy waters of the mainstream, bling’s downward spiral began around the time our TV began to feature women sleeping, waking, cooking, scheming and weeping in embellished saris and fake jewellery.

This Steve Madden stiletto with a Prerna Rajpal bracelet is all the sparkle you need this season

Designer Raakesh Agarvwal, who is known to be unabashedly market driven, blames TV for the popularity of shimmering eyesores. “Bling became popular when the masses saw their screen idols like Komolika of Kasautii Zindagii Kay wear metallic lip colour, bright blue contacts, crystal bindis and bauble earrings paired with a garish studded sari,” he says. “As shocking as it sounds, everyone wanted to copy that look. I still have customers who bring cutouts of TV vamps and leading ladies and ask us to copy them exactly!”

And what designers couldn’t provide, enterprising karigars did – in bulk. Says Manav Gangwani, the big daddy of bling, whose 2011 couture week collection was unabashedly sparkly: “Most people can’t afford a garment by Tarun Tahiliani or Rohit Bal. So there are several low-quality copies that don’t have any lineage of cut or design. They look cheap, but that becomes the marker for all bling. Even if you add Swarovski, without research, it’ll look tacky.” Bollywood designer Manish Malhotra, maker of the original net sari whose several versions have now trickled down to local stores, agrees: “High quality bling takes time and effort. When it’s reproduced on a mass scale, it’s not done the same way.”

And it insults our own design heritage. “We’ve always had a tradition of surface embellishment,” says David Abraham, of the clever mirrorwork, embroidery and inlay label, Abraham & Thakore. “Royal families embroidered rubies and emeralds onto their clothes. But there was a sense of subtlety that is lacking in today’s loud, demonstrative bling. And it’s that showing off that makes it ugly and a turn-off.”

Put It Where I Can See It
The dollar might defy gravity but most Indians are much richer than previous generations. This, combined with our inherent tendency to show off, spells disaster for how we use bling. “People like to use all their bling at the same time, the shinier, the better. Like rap artists, Indians too use bling as an assertion of having arrived,” says designer Kallol Datta. “If it was subtle, it wouldn’t be bling,” points out social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. Think about it. You can’t say you’ve arrived with the quiet charm of zari or the hushed tones of gota, when there is the glitzy sparkle of crystals. Nikhil Mehra of the designer duo Shantanu & Nikhil, who extensively use crystals as a part of their evening wear, sums it up: “It’s hundreds of stones in different colours saying: ‘Because I can afford all this, I am very rich’.”

If delicate subdued zari is not bling’s leading motif today, it’s for a very clear reason. The Swarovski crystal. Slowly shimmering up the catwalks for almost 10 years, it’s become the byword of new bling. Starting with the top names – JJ Valaya, Suneet Varma, Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Arora – the crystal invasion began when they all started using Swarovski in their designs. This was followed by associations at fashion weeks, like the Pearls Delhi Couture Week in 2010 (at which Delhi’s The Grand hotel was decorated with over four lakh crystals and eight crystal installations) and the India International Jewellery Week in 2012 and 2013. But what really embedded the stone into the Indian consciousness was the collaboration with traditional design houses like Nalli, when sari styles like the Kanjeevaram, Pochampally, Thanjavur and Ilkal were encrusted with crystals.

Loud and Proud

Top to toe shine in an Abraham & Thakore look for fall from Wills India Fashion Week 2013

However, here’s the truth. “We’re maximalists unlike minimalistic Japan; we’re a country filled with people everywhere. We need to make a statement to stand out and bling does that with ease,” says designer Gaurav Gupta. And when we get to celebrating, the noise quotient increases not just in decibels but also in our clothes. “We even celebrate the change of seasons,” states designer Anand Kabra. “How can that celebration occur without colourful, shiny clothes? It’s part of our DNA. We’re not Paris, and we can’t look morose in black if there’s a festival on.”

Only We Can Work It

Indian fashion is in the midst of a new kind of revolution, brought upon by bloggers, fashion magazines and most importantly the Internet. It aims to dress everyone the same way. As trends go global and fashion becomes more democratic, a top knot and a long skirt on a Delhi girl are no different from the same look on a Brooklyn girl. And in a world of universal sameness, traditional Indian bling has little space to exist, despite recent efforts from designers like Anamika Khanna and Sabyasachi to bring it back. Cultural commentator and columnist Sunil Mehra says it’s our colonial shame at play. “We’re easily tricked into bling-shaming. We forget that the light here is harsher so the colours have to be brighter. This is only place where bling can work so well. Not in countries where even pastels are considered bright.”

Bling is loud, bling is fun, bling is celebratory and it makes us who we are. And the next time you pass an ornate jaali kurta for a little black dress only because it’s loud, or scrunch your nose to a feisty brocade blouse that isn’t on trend like a nude coat, you might just be giving up your individuality. So raise a toast to bling. Just don’t let it blind you – or the people around you.

Battle of the bling: North V/S South Edition

When it comes to dressing up, nothing beats diamond-decked Northerners. Nor can you outdo a Southie’s love for gold. Draw out the embellished swords

Solitaire diamonds that can double as bullets, they’re that huge
French Manicure with crystal tips that spell your sweetheart’s initials
Bindis that resemble a rhinestone war zone and leave the poor forehead pleading for help
Diamonds and platinum only make sense when paired together
Chains, rings on at least two fingers and studded sunglasses for the men

Enough yellow gold to reflect off an SOS signal if people are stuck in the golden deserts of the Gulf
Dual-shaded nails or just a thick layer of gold paint
Bindis, irrespective of the shape, spotted with gold underneath
Pearls and gold, or better yet, pearls with gold
Every ring and gold chain a man owns, all worn at once

Things That Should Have Never Been ‘Blinged’

Victoria Secret’s Secret Fantasy Bra

* Eye lenses covered in diamond and gold plating that are apparently safe for the eye. Yeah, we believe that!
* Victoria Secret’s Secret Fantasy Bra that’s studded with diamonds and costs a few million dollars. No matter how expensive it might make you feel, don’t those diamonds pinch just a little?
* Crystal studded pacifiers with a fake famous brand logo (Chanel, Louis Vuitton, or Cartier). Seriously, that thing goes into your baby’s mouth!
* Bling Water née Bling H20, or to put it simply, normal spring water sold in a 750 ml Swarovski encrusted, frosted glass bottle. Who are these people willing to pay through their teeth to drink mineral water out of a crystal bottle?
* Toilets made out of 24-karat pure gold (owned by deceased jewellery mogul Lam Sai-Wing at his palace in Hong Kong). Also Swarovski and diamond-encrusted toilets with gem-encrusted seats to match! We could never ‘use’ them, could you?

Photo: Deepak Budhraja, Stylist: Cookie Singh
Follow @YashicaDutt on Twitter

Inspired enough to try some bling on your own? Click here to check out style cues to dial the glamour all the way up this season.

From HT Brunch, October 20

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