Last year at the exhibits area of Lakme Fashion Week, I had a long talk with an upcoming designer from Kolkata. There weren’t too many people around and he was in a chatty mood so we ended up talking about things beyond the fashion shows. Among other things, he recalled his first fashion week party, when someone turned to him and asked, “Who are you wearing?” “They are so fake, and they love name-dropping,” he grinned. Just then, a designer friend dropped by, and both started making jokes about the appalling amount of bling they’d seen at the ongoing fashion week shows.
This kind of candour is unheard-of in the fashion industry, and this is the barrier Shefalee Vasudev has tried to break through in her first book Powder Room. In the book, the ex-Marie Claire editor explores the underbelly of Indian fashion, attempting to demystify the “beautiful” industry and focus on the fashion professionals’ not-so-glam life. In the process, she also comments on Indian society, its aspirations and the value attached to labels (high fashion brands and Bollywood icons).
Benarsis, Bling and Bollywood
Powder Room takes us on a journey across the fashion industry through a series of stories shared by fashion insiders. For instance, Tarun Tahiliani speaks about brides’ tantrums and bling, an aspiring model says she is willing to jump on the casting couch, and a family of Patola weavers shun Bollywood stars.
Yes, the Patola makes an appearance too- one of the several traditional weaves that’s dying slowly. There are only a few who understand the need to revive region-specific textiles even as boundaries disappear. So you can get a kanjeevaram sari that’s not made in that town, or Maharashtrian paithani that’s made in Varanasi. I’m not sure how many fashionistas would want to own any of these.
Shefalee has travelled across India while writing the book, meeting people and reporting their stories and experiences. A journalist to the core, her reportage is carefully worded to let the reader decide on what they feel about the spendthrift Ludhiana Ladies and the small-town ladies tailors “copy” big designers.
Crafts and Commercials
However, you do feel the indignation as she reports on a family of Patola weavers who struggle to keep the craft alive, even as they shun Bollywood stars and “commercial” versions of their products. The indignation turns to amusement as she writes about the “editorial support” luxury brands offered to Marie Claire.
The contrasts that exist in Indian society often creep their way into the narrative. The monthly salary of the ambitious sales assistant at Emporio Mall cannot buy her more than a belt at the store. Meanwhile, the rich seek out designer wares, and middle class women want Zara copies and “Katrina blouses”. I remember seeing Preity Zinta’s “Veer Zaara suits” at the local fabric stores and Mangaldas Market. And Vidya Balan’s saris are everywhere already.
As part of my experience working at a fashion brand, I’ve learnt that almost everything in fashion magazines is up for sale. All you got to do is the fill in the cheque with the right numbers. And if you read extensively on fashion, you’ll know how a writer “loves” this designer’s collection, and already has that brand’s dress on her “wishlist”. Shefalee calls for fashion writing to be part of mainstream journalism- backed by facts and investigative reporting rather than just gush pieces. After a famous Bollywood-cum-bridal designer’s fashion show, a journalist muttered, “That was ghastly!” But of course, that would never get reported, not even in the mildest form of real fashion criticism.
What should you do with Powder Room? Depends on who you are- if you’re part of the fashion industry or want to be, then read it. And if you’re not part of the industry and never want to be, you should read it. Fashion is, after all, a business like any other.
Powder Room by Shefalee Vasudev is available at leading booksellers and online stores.