Dr R Balashankar
Powder Room- The Untold Story of Indians’ Fashion, Shefalee Vasudev, Random House, Pp 352, Rs 399.00
The past decade witnessed one of the fastest growths for fashion industry in India. In a ripple effect, beauty contests became a must do at local fairs and schools and colleges. Beauty parlours cropped at every nook and corner. Along with all these came the change in the attitude of the rich and the neo-rich. Gone were the days when modesty was considered a good quality. The rich wanted to show off their wealth and indulged in what could be best described as exhibitionism. If there was an exclusive hi-end product launched in Paris or Milan, it was in India less than a week later. Today, the malls are overflowing with global brands selling wares, a piece costing as much as a middle-class family’s annual budget.
Shefalee Vasudev, the former editor of one of the leading fashion magazines Marie Claire acts as the fly on the wall in this fashion world to tell us ‘The untold story of Indian Fashion’ in her debut book Powder Room. “The narrative of clothing and fashion in modern India seems to be a close indicator of new social behaviour, rifts inside families, generational differences, and the compulsions behind fanciful consumption. If financial independence of Indian women has led to a large societal change and their sexual liberation, fashion has certainly added to tangible liberties,” she says. From the designer to the last point in the chain of the industry – the salesgirl in the retail showroom, Shefalee takes a complete tour. She had been part of this trade, albeit only as an observer. But that is what helps the narration. A ‘within it and yet above it’ view.
Fashion in India has very little of Indian content in it. Even the formal lehenga has undergone such a change in the hands of designers. The below navel waist and minimum use of material for the choli have all transformed the dress worn by women on formal, serious and somber occasions. Priced in lakhs these have become ‘statements’ rather than dresses. Fashion also today means wearing less of clothes and revealing more of the skin. This of course is applicable to women only. In fashion shows, the men are always over clothed and women could do with a few inches more of cloth on them. Sociologists Ashis Nandy aptly told Shefalee, “It is those who forget that besides business, trendiness, and liberty, fashion is about aesthetics, become hostile towards it.”
The author interviews and discusses almost all the known names in the fashion industry – Raakesh Agarvwal, Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal, Khosla…
Intertwined into the narration are the stories of two girls – a salesgirl Jennifer, who works for a hi-end global brand in a luxury mall in Delhi and Nagma, an aspiring model, whose final destination of course is Bollywood. Shefalee tracks Jennifer for months and notices the subtle changes that happen to the girl as she slips into the comfort zone of fashion and wealth, which contrasts with her ordinary lower-middle class home that does not boast of scented washrooms and fresh air. She gains a sophistication that distances her from her boyfriend and her siblings, who now see her as ‘slave of the foreigners.’ Girls like Jennifer, the quick learners are sent abroad for training on behaviour, right down to how to pick yourself up if you fall. Nagma is willing to do whatever it takes to become a model. She too comes from an ordinary background but believes that she has the looks. Then there are the male models, several of whom swear that they too go through the casting couch and often are picked up female clients.
Big brand names Fendi Peekaboo, Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Armani, Jimmy Choo, Dior, Bvlgari and more float throughout the text. Interestingly, most people who bought luxury items paid by cash. The sale figures and the price tags could be mind boggling. For instance, Shefalee says about a hundred Dior watches sold every month in 2010. While the sale of watches priced above one lakh was slightly affected, those in the range of 60,000 to 80,000 flew off the shelves during ‘depression.’ A limited edition watch for twelve lakhs sold out in 2010 as did watches from the Sharon Stone limited edition priced above nine lakhs. The luxury market in India is estimated to be worth $30 billion by 2015, according to the book. Of course this is just a fraction of the China sales.
‘The Ludhinana Ladies’ is an interesting chapter. The way Shefalee describes the women who are on a shopping splurge is nauseating and amusing. “In the next few hours, I saw more international brands in the form of shoes, bags, pins, clips, sunglasses, T-shirts, jeans, belts, watches than I had seen in months. I had seen LV wraps only in magazines before this, but I saw one here. Groups of fashion obsessed women seemed to have walked out of magazine pages into the small banquet hall.” Sadly despite all this wealth, Ludhiana also is among those reporting highest female foeticide. Women may have the cash but they definitely don’t have the voice, as pointed out by a lady doctor there.
The journalism side of fashion comes under scrutiny by Shefalee. Having been an involved party in this, she is most scathing about it. She reveals how the fashion magazines are just hand maidens for the brand promoters and how the content and colour are decided between the marketing people of the brands and publications with editors and writers just filling in the space with pre-scripted material. Same is true of the fashion programmes on TV. ‘Peanuts as salary, Free Trips to Paris’ brings out the angst of the author, who unable to bear more quit the job. Editors are treated with generous gifts by the brand promoters. There is hardly any focus on the weavers, the struggling models, and the non-glamorous side of this glittering industry. This is also a reason why fashion is treated lightly. The only time fashion people hit the headlines are when someone is ill or if there is a scandal.
Shefalee interviewed 300 people as part of the research for the book. What one gleans from the book is not attractive. There is too much of falsehood, pretense and dirt in that world that smothers make-up to cover the ugly spots. Shefalee wipes that make-up clean. One wonders if that is how the fashion world is, outside India too. Shefalee presently works as Associate Editor with The Indian Express and writes Unfashion, a column and blog.
(Random House Publishers India Pvt. Ltd, Windsor IT Park, 7th Floor, Tower B, A-1, Sector – 125, Noida-201 301, www.randomhouse.co.in)