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Dissecting fashion

Anthropologist Dr Phyllida Jay’s new book looks to break myths about Indian fashion by carefully profiling key designers and their craft

When a glow of glamour surrounds the business of fashion, refreshment comes in the form of a pedantic, anthropological view of what's happening on the Indian runway.

Dr Phyllida Jay, an anthropologist and one-time journalist in India, brings us this view in her new book, Fashion India (published by Thames and Hudson, UK; distributed in India by Roli Books). The 35-year-old, who lives on the Kent coast, did her PhD on khadi from University College.


A design by CellDSGn made from a reclaimed and up-cycled saree

In her book, she explores the relationship of Indian fashion in its ethnic avatar most vociferously expressed in bridal couture; the efforts of sustainability and the dialogue with 'western' silhouettes. The result is a book that could serve as a reference book for students of fashion; or those interested in translating the sartorial language of a designer.

Like how Sanjay Garg's anxiety about the disappearing house sparrow (which could be due to radiation from telephone towers) is expressed as the 'chidiya' motif on the sari pallu. Or why Rahul Mishra's win of the Woolmark Prize in 2014 (he is the first Indian to have won it since it was established in 1953) was an important milestone.

Edited excerpts from an email interview with Jay:

Q. Tell us about yourself and your interest in Indian fashion.
A. I was born and raised in London. I first travelled to India when I was 18 — I backpacked around the South and spent three months at a yoga ashram. I studied anthropology and development for my undergraduate degree and then spent 10 years abroad, studying and working on rights to livelihood and development. Through this, I became interested in ethical fashion and it became the focus of my PhD research. I chose India for its incredible legacy of craft and handwoven textiles, and Gandhi's historic championing of khadi. I spent six years doing both, fieldwork in India and writing my thesis in UK. During this time, I grew more and more obsessed with fashion in general. I also took a hiatus and worked as the Delhi-based luxury editor of an Indian business newspaper which gave me the chance to deepen my understanding of Indian fashion in terms of luxury and the consumer market.

Q. What is the intention of this book?
A. It's definitely the book I wish I had had when I started my fieldwork. There was very little written on contemporary Indian fashion in 2008. What I also wanted to do was to create an overview of Indian fashion that pushes past stereotypes and mis-perceptions. It's surprising how little is known about the diversity of Indian design in Europe. I wanted to create a beautiful, intelligent book that opened people's eyes to contemporary Indian fashion and also gave some social, cultural, historical and economic background to understand the aesthetic niches that different designers occupy.

Q. How did you choose the designers to profile, and what were the challenges?
A. I chose designers who best represent the issues I was exploring in each chapter. Of course, some are so renowned that they were natural choices. The biggest challenge was the Gen Next chapter. There are so many incredible young emerging designers. I would have liked triple the space to talk about them, but in the end chose six whose work represents the kind of aesthetic response to the challenges young designers contend.

Q. You speak of 'emotionally durable design' while describing Aneeth Arora's label, Péro. Which other concepts influence or define Indian fashion?
A. Emotionally durable design is a very interesting concept developed by Jonathan Chapman, where design is geared to creating emotional connections to objects which in turn promote values of longevity of use and repair. As opposed to say fast fashion, durable design entices consumers to 'treasure' material objects. Other concepts relevant to Indian fashion are recycling and up-cycling which have resonance with traditional practices of creative reuse and repurposing of materials known as jugaad [Ed note: think of updating the saree blouse to get more mileage out of a sentimental sari. Or, remoulding of gold ornaments]. Slow fashion which is based on slower cycles of production and consumption is another concept that relates to designers such as Abraham and Thakore's work.

Q. There is much effort towards nurturing and sustaining craft and weave. Yet, small industries die every day. What is needed to make these crafts a permanent and more accessible language?
A. That's a huge question — and an absolutely vital one to ask. What many Indian designers are doing is part of what needs to be done, to give crafts a high fashion design language that will help ensure craft and the artisans who produce it flourish in the future. Although designers are a small part of a massive state and NGO apparatus that manages craft, nonetheless, good fashion design can be highly influential in proposing new ways of being and understanding ourselves and our relationship to society through what we wear. Greater markets could also be created for organic textiles through large retail chains such as H&M or Zara.

Q. What is unique to Indian fashion? Do you see the same contradictions and conversations in other former colonised countries?
A. In the post-colonial Indian context, unlike other former colonised countries, we have retained a strong sense of identity in our clothing. Yes, there are similar conversations between
say, western and ethnic wear in other countries, but I would venture that India is unique for the level of aesthetic diversity these contradictions and conversations create.

Q. Would it be right to view Indian fashion through a westernised lens by searching for defining pieces such as the Little Black Dress or New Look? How should Indian fashion be looked at if we were to understand or categorise it?
A. Those are very specific aesthetics linked to European fashion history, so other than where these have influenced Indian designers and consumers, they aren't helpful. In my chapter on the saree, I look at how a garment with a rich cultural, social and historical context is then taken up by designers, who revive it, deconstruct it or completely reinvent it. So, in this sense, the saree is a 'defining piece', a metaphor if you like, that opens up a window on Indian fashion and society.

Q. What is the relationship between Indian ethnic wear and western wear?
A. A constant dynamic dialogue of mixing, appropriation and creativity.

Q. You've mentioned there is a bit of a problematic approach to 'western wear' (where we see ethnic wear as unchanging and costumey and western as trend-driven) in India. How is this resolved?
A. In the introduction, I cite some fashion theory, which has explored the stereotyping of ethnic vis-a-vis western wear. What the exploration of the designers in the book (hopefully) demonstrates is the fallacy of this stereotype. Yes, ethnic bridal wear can be costumey but the important point is that's it's as much related to fashion trends as anything else. Look at how much the idea of the red lehenga choli, which isn't at all traditional to some parts of India, has become so fashionable for brides everywhere. Then, of course, there is western wear that's considered 'classic' and which is therefore, relatively unchanging. The crux of the matter is whether western or ethnic, they are two sides of the same coin, fashion, and it's the fluid way designers and consumers use them as forms of expression that's important.

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