If we go by the sheer number of wedding fashion shows in the country – the Vogue Wedding Show, BMW India Bridal Fashion Week, Bridal Asia and Shree Raj Mahal Jewellers India Couture Week to name only a few – it seems that all our designers are doing is creating wedding lehengas.
There’s a good reason for this. It’s called money. The Big Fat Indian Wedding is estimated to be worth over Rs 1,00,000 crore, and wedding apparel makes up about Rs 10,000 crore of that. No wonder designers will do anything to crash the wedding party.
Also read: The Indian wedding gets fatter
To market, to market
“Many young designers start with a more prêt approach, but in India, you have to go bridal,” says Varun Bahl, who began a decade ago with boho chic day wear and occasion separates, but has been focused on bridal wear for the last three years. About 80 per cent of his business turnover comes from the bridal market, of which 40 per cent comes from wedding lehengas.
“It is a cultural thing and we should be proud of it,” says Bahl, who justifies his move into the bridal market with the argument that designing innovative bridal wear is very challenging.
“Basically there are three Indian silhouettes: the sari, the anarkali and the lehenga,” he says, “The challenge in Indian fashion is to make them look different and to give them a stamp. That to me is the beauty of Indian fashion.”
But money is the biggest motivator, says Sabyasachi, one of India’s most commercially successful designers. This year, Sabyasachi’s turnover crossed the Rs 100 crore mark, making him one of fashion’s most financially successful designers, and most of this profit came from the Big Fat Indian Wedding.
“The organised retail sector in India is still very poor and corporate investments are tentative,” explains Sabyasachi. “Hence for a designer in India to grow big in both stature and turnover, the only route is bridal.”
The foreign hand
It is after all the lure of the Indian wedding that has attracted many international brands to India.
Judith Leiber works with Suneet Varma to ensure their bags are bride-worthy arm candy. Canali’s Nawab Jacket makes a groom feel like a royalty as he steps in to the mandap. Christian Louboutin does made-to-order shoes to ensure every girl feels like a princess on her special day.
Indian designers have been forced even harder to focus on the bridal and festive market. India is unique in that traditional fashion is not costume; it is affected by trends just as much as western wear is, and in this space, international brands like Dior, Gucci and Louis Vuitton cannot compete with Indian designers.
One season the lehenga is full volume, the next it is more contoured. One season the sari blouse is barely there, the next, it’s full cover. The kurta goes from being all about the kali, to a figure-hugging silhouette. Even if international labels wanted to dive into all this action, they can’t.
Oh, grow up!
Think about it. The apex body of the fashion industry, The Fashion Design Council of India, is only 16 years old. Even the most senior designers are just 25 years old in the business.
Weddings, however, are centuries old, and have always been about spending money. “Indians spend much more on their wedding- wear than the rest of world,” says senior designer Tarun Tahiliani, who does prêt, but is better known for his bridal lines.
“I say that simply because Indian bridal wear is not just one bridal outfit. It’s an entire trousseau. Weddings are the one occasion that Indians dress up. The pageantry of the past, the customs, the traditions, the song and dance, all go into making weddings the most celebrated moment in an Indian’s life. It’s also the most recession-proof market in India.”
That’s why designers like Varun Bahl, Sabyasachi and Tarun Tahiliani focus more energy on this market than on prêt. They have to marry their label’s ethos with market realities if they want to stay in high fashion. Because fashion is about more than the business of selling clothes. It’s also about popular and traditional culture and reflects social, cultural and economic trends.
There are, of course, young designers, such as Péro by Aneeth Arora, Bodice by Ruchika Sachdeva and Gaurav Jai Gupta, who have so far not been bitten by the bridal bug, but it’s hard to say as yet whether they’ll manage to stay true to their ethos and still develop into pan-Indian brands.
But money is still the driving factor behind designing bridal wear, says Hemant Sagar, one half of the label Lecoanet Hemant that showed at Paris Haute Couture from 1984-2000. The number of wedding-related fashion shows and events that take place in India has more to do with sponsorship than with actual fashion, Sagar explains.
With brands from PC Jewellers to BMW looking to cash in on the Indian wedding market, fashion becomes the quick ticket solution. “These fashion shows are not about fashion but about status,” says Sagar, “For brands it is the easy way to appeal to their target audience.”
For designers it’s all lovely because their shows are often fully or partly sponsored. Putting on a bridal show is not cheap. It requires a luxury location, sets, models, lighting choreographers, backstage management, make-up and hair, which would cost at least Rs 40 lakhs.
So even if it means placing a luxury car on a catwalk, or restricting your colour palette to that of a beauty brand’s logo, a designer will cave in and take a sponsored show. Selling your soul as long as you make those bridal orders is fine for many senior designers.
That said, the focus of designers on wedding wear has had a positive effect. Wedding wear has evolved: today we are spoilt for choice. There’s a bikini-inspired sari by Shivan and Narresh, a traditionally crafted ghagra by Anju Modi. Crafts such as chikankari, badla and zari have seen a revival thanks to bridal fashion.
Also read:The runway bridegroom
The trickle-down effect
“I believe that there is a new era in bridal fashion at the moment,” says Monisha Jaising, who has been designing resort wear for two decades and just entered the bridal market last year. “It’s all about individual and personal style and mixing the old with the new. Basically, there are no rules.”
And, adds Sabyasachi, the bridal market is a great example of the trickle-down theory. Since weddings are the apex of fashion and spending, what’s designed for weddings will trickle down the market as festive wear and then high-street clothing.
While fashion prides itself on being democratic, there is no doubt that its elitist elements give it sheen and allure. And for now, in India, fashion depends on weddings to create a feeling of fantasy.
Next week: The Flip Side – Why Young Designers Love Prêt
Sujata Assomull Sippy has been a fashion commentator for almost two decades and was the launch editor of Harper’s Bazaar India
From HT Brunch, September 14
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