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The First Ladies of Indian Fashion: meet the senior-most fashion designers who set the rules for Indian aesthetic in design

Ritu Kumar, Anju Modi, Kavita Bhartia, Madhu Jain and Krishna Mehta take stock of the most glamorous profession of all time

brunch Updated: Jun 30, 2018 22:35 IST
Lubna Salim
Lubna Salim
Hindustan Times
Anju Modi,chanderi,bandhani
(From left) Anju Modi wears Banarasi cutwork palazzos, a chanderi kurta and bandhani cape, jewellery plus shoes (not seen in this picture) all from her own collection; Kavita Bhartia wears a crinkled garnet-hued silk dress with beige textured-hand block printed cape from her own collection and pearl earrings by Dior; Krishna Mehta wears a handwoven silk kaftan from her own brand, jewellery from Le Mill and shoes (not seen in this picture) by Stuart Weitzman; Madhu Jain wears an Uzbek bamboo silk Ikat choga, dupatta and loose pyjamas from her own brand and a South Sea pearl string; Ritu Kumar wears an ajrakh printed suit and skirt from her own brand and an antique mangalsutra from Coorg (Location courtesy: Roseate House, New Delhi; Art direction: Amit Malik; Assisted by: Ishaan Ishitava; Make-up and hair: Ambika Pillai Designer Salon)(Naina Redhu)

Do you think of India as a fashionable country?

We’ve given the world the sari, with its myriad designs and drapes. It’s a garment many hail as the ultimate one to celebrate the gracefulness of a woman. So what if few other cultures have copied it…?

India has given fashion colour, vibrancy, individuality. It has shown how to be conservative yet sexy, clothed, yet provocative, traditional, but always with a twist. Most of all, it has always allowed the woman to celebrate her body, irrespective of shape, size, colour or conformism that plagues fashion in the West.

In the forefront of the Indian fashion industry, keeping its values strictly in check, have been a few #LeadingLadies we are about to celebrate today.

Ritu Kumar’s focus has been craftsmanship in design, and Madhu Jain’s eye for textiles has been applauded by all. Kavita Bhartia’s store Ogaan was ahead of its times, making fashion accessible to everyone. Anju Modi’s eye for detail has reflected in every piece she puts her name on. And Krishna Mehta’s vivaciousness has never failed to toe the line.

Long before fashion weeks existed in Indian, each of these ladies lent their aesthetic to India fashion and allowed it to grow into the highly coveted industry it is today. If you think of India as a fashionable country, join us in celebrating these five women who helped it get there.

An advocate of slow fashion

Anju Modi

Anju Modi wears a khadi kurti, a mukesh dupatta and an ivory skirt, plus jewellery, all from her own collection ( Naina Redhu )

“It was a humble beginning. There were only a few stalls and India’s first fashion week was held in the banquet hall of the Taj Palace hotel over three to four days with 15 to 20 senior designers participating,” says Anju Modi.

She recalls how excited everyone was and adds that no food was served!

Anju, the founding member of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) feels designers needed this platform to make fashion a serious business. “I’m on social media because it’s a part of the system,” she says.

When she began her career, there was no need for fashion weeks and social media. “The concept of designer wear was new and consumers yearned for ‘ready-made’ garments,” says Anju.

“[At India’s first-ever fashion week ], all designers were holding hands, the question of rivalry did not arise!”

She presented her first fashion show in 1997, at the India Habitat Centre. The same year, she also attended one of the very first fashion weeks organised by the FDCI.

In fact, India’s first fashion week was well-organised, well-attended and well-received. “We were all holding each other’s hands,” Anju says. “During one of my shows I was very nervous, and when a model asked me to help drape one of her outfits, I was in a trance. So Manish (Arora) who was waiting to go next quickly grabbed it and draped it interestingly on my behalf. Such was the innocence of those times!”

While Anju appreciates the way fashion has established its place in India, she admits that she misses the “slow fashion mode” before the pressure of competition and high earnings shifted the industry to high gear.

Design & display specialist

Kavita Bhartia

Kavita Bhartia wears an organza cape, embellished with antique gold zardozdi embroidery from her own brand and pearl earrings by Dior ( Naina Redhu )

Kavita Bhartia’s first fashion show was held outside her store Ogaan in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, a combined show and party with live music. It was in 1989; Jaya Bachchan inaugurated it and Rohit Khosla choreographed it. “I’d hear people discuss it without them knowing I was organising it!” she smiles.

Even before fashion weeks and shows took off, Kavita held exhibitions at her store. She says: “We did exclusive, monthly exhibitions and I worked on the displays myself. It was very personalised and involved a lot of hard work.”

She organised the space in innovative ways to make the displays a visual delight. Garments would be colour-coordinated and displayed on mannequins and T-stand racks.

“Fashion weeks have become competitive, but there’s also a lot of talent”

Today, the science of display has changed and professionals take care of visual merchandising. “I did it single-handedly earlier but now I can focus on just designing,” explains Kavita.

Her first fashion week featured no prêt lines. “I presented a lot of lehengas and saris. People enjoyed coming to fashion shows a lot at that time. It was novelty,” says Kavita.

Now, fashion is one of the pillars of Indian lifestyle. “It’s trendy, edgy and one with the world,” says Kavita. “Fashion weeks have become competitive, but there’s a lot of talent. It works for me as I’m both a buyer and seller.”

But she does miss the camaraderie of the old days. “We designers don’t meet on a regular basis anymore,” she says.

A fan of gen next

Krishna Mehta

Krishna Mehta wears a handwoven silk kaftan from her own brand and jewellery from Le Mill ( Naina Redhu )

Designer Krishna Mehta is active on Instagram and Facebook. “I enjoy the fun, yet innovative ways in which this amazing generation works,” she says. “It’s the fastest, easiest and cheapest of marketing tools. With just a tap of a finger, you reach millions across the globe in seconds!”

She recalls her first fashion show with Ensemble that started magically and ended up becoming a circus! “Suddenly it started to pour. The mesmerised men and coiffed ladies in their finery refused to let the show stop. The models drenched in the heavily-embroidered ensembles didn’t know whether to walk or stop, and the tent in the green room caved in, soaking every designer’s piece,” she laughs.

“At my first show, it started to pour. The models drenched in heavily-embroidered ensembles didn’t know whether to walk or stop!”

Krishna’s first fashion week was excitement beyond words. “Fashion week was a term no one had heard of, and there were so many shows, back to back,” she says. The media and designers-turned-instant-celebrities basked in the glory.

She believes that there never were, and there still aren’t, any label rivalries. “We all show our collections and party together. Except for asking for extra lights, that is. Tarun (Tahiliani) still teases the life out of me for asking Mr Sethi (President, FDCI): ‘Why does he have a chandelier over his head?’,” she jokes.

The reluctant star

Madhu Jain

Madhu Jain wears an Uzbek bamboo silk Ikat choga, dupatta and loose pyjamas from her own brand and a South Sea pearl string ( Naina Redhu )

“Back in the day there were no solo shows, only multi-designer shows. My first fashion show was with the Glitterati store, held at a city five-star hotel with Rhea Pillai, Namrata Shirodkar, and Nayanika Chatterjee walking the ramp for me,” says Madhu Jain, who has just realised the value of social media to a fashion designer.

In the early years of her career, Madhu worked without thinking through the business end of fashion retailing. “A meeting with Tarun (Tahiliani) unlocked my horizons. When Ensemble opened its doors, I naturally dropped in and left my calling card. When Tarun walked into my home and saw my experiments with textiles and weaves, he told my mother-in-law that I would be a star! That was a defining moment,” says Madhu.

“At my first TV interview, Tarun [Tahiliani] stood behind the anchor, gesturing when I should uncross my arms, smile and turn to the camera. It was an act of fellowship i hold precious”

When fashion began to get media coverage, Madhu was nervous. “I’ll never forget my first TV interview. Tarun knew I was particularly terrified of facing the camera! Throughout the interview, he stood behind the anchor, gesturing when I should uncross my arms, when I should smile, and how to turn my face towards the camera! It was an act of fellowship that I hold precious.”

She misses the friendships between designers. “Even though there were five-six designers behind an Ensemble show, everyone worked as a unit. Today, everyone protects only their interests,” she says.

But she gives fashion weeks a full thumbs-up as a super professional event that not only nurtures talent, but also turns the spotlight on fresh designers.

Revivalist of craft

Ritu Kumar

Ritu Kumar wears an ajrakh printed suit and skirt from her own brand and an antique mangalsutra from Coorg ( Naina Redhu )

Grande dame of Indian fashion Ritu Kumar remembers how, in the 1970s, designers were more excited about the revival of a craft than about their collections. “I still remember how zardozi and hand block-print collections were exhibited in Lalit Kala Akademi,” says the designer.

She fondly recalls her very first fashion show in the early 1970s at The Park hotel in Kolkata. “We were all in our 20s, and I only had my friends as models and it was really funny that they had to wait for coffee breaks between changes! Those were very innocent times,” she smiles.

Her first hand-block printing exhibition in Kolkata taught her lots about fashion. “I’d done research for four to five years in different printing schools in India, but the show was a complete flop because people walked in and said that the prints looked like their ‘mother’s bedcover’. It was a great compliment, as that’s what I was trying to do, but fashion wise, it was a mistake.”

“At my first exhibition, people said the prints looked like their mom’s bedcover!”

When people told her that those prints on khadi made them look bulky, she recreated them on chiffon and they were a sellout. “Such was the beauty of those learning and evolutionary days,” she says. “With everyone struggling to do what they felt passionate about, there was no scope for rivalries.”

Ritu was the president of the first Lakme Fashion Week in Delhi, and laughs as she remembers the riot it was. “We had professional models, choreographers, lights and music,” she recalls. “Earlier, one person did everything. The presentations weren’t as slick as they are now, and we had no computers to help us.”

Ritu now uses Illustrator, CorelDraw and Photoshop for her textile design work, something she could never have imagined when she began. “The fashion industry has gone from zero to hundred!” she says.

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From HT Brunch, July 1, 2018

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First Published: Jun 30, 2018 22:04 IST