High fashion, stripped bare
In her bold debut novel, Shefalee Vasudev presents an arresting anthology of dichotomies in the Indian fashion scene. She peeks into a world where those who sell you luxury goods can barely afford necessities, where the richest demand the biggest discounts, and where popular culture dims the line between designers and door-to-door salespersons
I am a model. I have done auditions for Prahlad Kakkar and Prabuddha Dasgupta and modelled for Man’s World,” a 22 year old college student tells author Shefalee Vasudev, in her debut novel, The Powder Room.
Two sentences into the narrative, his alternate career emerges. “A businesswoman from Hyderabad once offered him a modelling contract and a visit to her bedroom. He had been selling his libidinal skills to rich, middle-aged women since,” writes the former editor of a prominent fashion magazine and the associate editor of a newspaper.
Somehow, it doesn’t irk as much, when a man is objectified thus, does it? After all, men don’t mind being used, do they? And what if models get a bad reputation? Aren’t they all just mindless mannequins who’ll do anything for a buck, anyway?
Over the past two years, India has grown economically, and so has its fashion industry (Vasudev writes that the Indian luxury market will be worth $30 billion by 2015). Today, it is not just metros that demand high-end fashion brands but also places such as Amritsar, Jalandhar and Ludhiana. Vasudev quotes a Fendi representative who says, “We survive because of Punjab.” Yet, for all that passion for beauty, attitudes here remain as ugly as ever.
Nagma, Vasudev’s struggling model, still isn’t the girl you’d take home to mummy, because most mummies will still react just like Nagma’s boyfriend’s mother did — “Model ko ghar mein le aaye ho! These girls go anywhere for money.”
That’s hardly the only bias Indian society fosters today. In fact, Vasudev’s journey through the world of Indian fashion is paved with prejudices. Ahmedabad-based Vishakha Dave who makes a living by offering mini facials and stitching Katrina Kaif blouses and Aishwariya Rai salwars won’t employ Muslim masterjis, even though she admits to their superior skill, because, as she explains it, “Narendrabhai may say what he likes to the public, but the inside news is that he doesn’t like Muslims.” Divya Dhanda who, Vasudev writes, “exposed me to the external worth and social grammar of the socialite wives of Ludhiana,” tells her, “You can’t understand how deep and intense this preference for a male child is in this society.”
Yet, Vasudev, merely touches upon these, no more. “I wanted to be a fly on the wall narrator,” she explains, “...to engage with the polarities of the fashion industry. I didn’t want to bring an extraordinary thrills so I haven’t really focused on scattered details and stories unless I felt they added to what I was trying to say.” The result, therefore, is an honest, in-depth report on the world of fashion and its myriad components, stereotypes included. The Powder Room is a compilation of the experiences of everyone from the elite buyers and renowned fashion designers at the pinnacle of the pyramid to the darzis, ladies tailors and English-challenged model aspirants that may never even get close to it.
Tact and tale
It took Vasudev one year to interview them all and another eight months to weave their sometimes-amusing, sometimes-grim, but always colourful accounts together into this book. The book includes stories of transformations of lives of real people, such as Jennifer, a salesperson at DLF Emporio (New Delhi), who begins to get used to the scented loos and fresh napkins at work and no longer likes the toilet at her house, the one “with its bucket, mug and plastic stool.” Then, there’s the Noida-based tailor, Akhtarbhai, who wouldn’t mind dipping into his savings for tailoring classes from designer Sabyasachi.
Assuring us that despite her past and present affiliations, she wasn’t torn between telling it all and being tactful, Vasudev does concede to having faced certain limitations when we quiz her about the financial aspect of the industry. Her book states that top models earn just about Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 per show (given the cost of good make-up and what models must invest in beauty regimes, this hardly seems sufficient), and that new designers have to chase boutique owners for payments.
Noted designer Rajesh Pratap Singh even claims, “Designers don’t make money worth their salt.” Yet, surely, someone’s making money in the business. “We have approximate ideas, but it was impossible to get anything on paper,” Vasudev reveals, sharing that lawyers wouldn’t allow her to insert guesstimates and, “annual turnovers were absolutely unavailable to me.”
“Fashion does sell however,” Vasudev asserts, telling us about adventurous designers whose explorations of niche markets have paid off. “Rahul and Shruti Reddy, for instance, have found loyal clientele in Japan,” she tells us, sharing that Leena, of Ashima-Leena has honestly admitted, “We are because the Sheikhas shop.” Rahul Mishra, who Vasudev calls the poster-boy of responsible fashion, also manufactures khadi abayas for a middle-eastern company. “Symbolically, he embellishes some of his garments with traditional Islamic patterns on one side and Hindu patterns on the other.”
Unintentional though it may be, social commentary jumps out at you from within these pages. Price on Request, the second chapter of Vasudev’s book, opens with a quote from Silvia Venturini Fendi. Vasudev asked Fendi what luxury meant to her and she replied, “Freedom.”
Yet, designer Sabyasachi has been quoted as saying, “I want to teach taste to my rich clients,” — where’s your freedom to dress as you like there? — and Vasudev’s friend K seems downright shackled by her fondness for designer-labels. Bubbly, star-crazy K who learns of her husband’s infidelity when a Hugo Boss shirt is delivered with a message that reads, “Wear this till you take it off for me,” simply accepts this. “The deal is that I do what I want, buy what I want, go wherever I want, but I shouldn’t nag him.” Is that freedom? Vasudev weighs this momentarily.
“Material comforts, whatever form these may take, are largely addictive,” she admits, “Independence is a difficult idea and most of us recognise that money isn’t easy to make. So, it is hard to yank yourself away from what you’re used to and retain a sense of self.”
So, what appealed to Vasudev about K’s story was what she describes as a, “renegotiation of identity through brands.” “These are women who’re wealthy anyway, and what I found interesting was how branded goods have replaced their large diamonds and Rs 3,000 per metre salwar kameezes,” says Vasudev, reminding us of the comment of Dr Vanie Thapar, prominent Ludhiana gynaecologist.
“The investments of both husbands and the girls are all neck down,” he says in the book. “The same people who give them diamonds also put emotional and social pressures on daughters-in-law. The priorities of this swish class are skewed. They are modern in their wardrobes but remain feudal in their mindsets.”
Then perhaps, this whole country is one giant room, loaded with inflammable gunpowder, just waiting to explode. 'Fashion is in a desperate place right now. It is not a clean, decent industry. If you are looking for truth and honesty, it doesn't exist. If you are looking for money, best of luck. For those who want to hold on to values, fashion is not the easiest place to be in.'
Coming from Rajesh Pratap Singh, one of the industry's most respected designers, this wasn't idle rumination. Reticent, erudite, ponderous, Pratap has little use for swagger. Representative of minimalism, one of the three dominant genres visible in Indian fashion alongside wedding couture and dramatic kitsch, his personality reflects his brand. He is quietly irreverent-shuns fashion parties, doesn't have Bollywood stars on his speed dial, firmly avoids the media and unless his show is sponsored by a corporate giant, doesn't even hire a PR agency to sell himself and his clothes.
The creation and management of hype that the glamour industry lives by is anathema to him. Yet his shows attract committed craft revivalists who are otherwise unflinchingly critical of designers and don't want to be seen at fashion weeks. Pratap's label has a strong, original signature. His garments are non-fussy, classic, structured and 'solid', to use a favourite cliché of Indian customers.
Interestingly, Pratap has never made a wedding lehnga in his career. The dazzling world of crystal bling and wedding couture hasn't kissed his creative flurry yet. For him it is his white and black cotton shirts with fine pleats or deconstructed bandhgalas made out of textiles, which hang in the most important wardrobes in the country. His clothes have a loyal clientele abroad and sell the most in Japan and the European markets. 'New York, Paris or Delhi, my customers have the same mindset. They are men and women who enjoy clothes, are independent minded and interested in how they are made instead of just the influence of the finished product. They are certainly not logo bearers,' he said with a reluctant smile.
Ostentation disturbs Pratap's world view. Unlike many other designers who issue press releases when they as much as touch a yard of khadi, the last thing he would do is to make a song and dance about reviving textiles despite his commitment to them.
I chased him for more than six months for this interview. Enough people in the industry had told me that he avoided journalists like the plague. We had had a couple of phone conversations earlier when I worked at Marie Claire, but he had maintained a studied distance that I admired. For a fashion exhibition curated by us for the annual awards event of the magazine, he had contributed by sending a bike made from a few hundred pairs of scissors for display. But he didn't turn up at the event. At the rare gathering that he would be spotted at, I would walk up and say hello; he would respond courteously but turn away almost instantly. It was always difficult to catch Pratap's eye. For this conversation, he agreed to meet me only after I sent a request through some of his friends. Once he agreed to be interviewed, he didn't hold back.
When you drive into Pratap's office and workshop near Surajkund on the outskirts of Delhi, it is like arriving at a quiet farmhouse for a relaxed weekend. The sense of having left the city far behind wraps you like a thin shawl and you want to keep wearing it as a layer. The waiting lounge in his large working arena is functional, well-lit, pristine, and uncluttered. I was soon ushered into a front office that bore his spartan stamp: a single imposing sculptural installation besides a large table in wood and comfortable seats all around. He came in to sit across me and it took a good amount of warm up time for Pratap to look directly into my eyes as we chatted. He is a tall, good looking man and wears his more pepper, less salt hair usually long- sometimes tying it behind in a ponytail. Born and brought up in Rajasthan, Pratap, now 42, looks his age and his cautiousness only adds to his thoughtful demeanour.
His sister-in-law Sapna manages the finances of his company. People in the industry often talk of her as a 'fabulous business aide'. Pratap's wife Payal who recently launched her own fashion line manages the manufacturing of her label from the same premises. Inside this workshop, Pratap weaves his own khadi on ambar charkhas (hand cranked machines). As he took me for a guided tour, I saw huge swatches of Ajrakh and other textiles strewn around and he told me he was designing his next collection. He works with handlooms in villages in Rajasthan and Bengal to create authentic, hand-spun yarn for his clothes.
Excerpted with permission from Powder Room, by Shefalee Vasudev, published by Random House India