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More Manish Than Marchesa | By Sarah Khan

Check out my piece in the Wall Street Journal this week.

 

7-wsj-manish-marchese-sept-2009

 

More Manish than Marchesa

A girl never forgets her first fashion show.

Mine was when I was 14, an amateur affair at a small auditorium in Hyderabad in the early 90’s, featuring collections from local design school grads. Back then, fashion shows were more social events than business opportunities, but I was still dazzled by the vivid fabrics drifting down the runway on an army of sultry, brown-skinned waifs.

In that era, the nascent Indian fashion industry was moving beyond the local tailor, or darzi, stitching Bollywood knockoffs on demand and into a legitimate business. At the peak of my awkward adolescent years I could hardly be considered a fashionista, but I was hooked on this glamorous world. Whenever I went back from my hometown in Boston to visit my grandparents in India, I’d follow fledgling local designers by tuning into shows like Khoobsurat on Zee TV, where then-little-known models like Arjun Rampal and Lara Dutta (who have gone on to become Bollywood megastars) were first seen strutting on the catwalk for early design icons like Rohit Bal. I’d request copies of popular magazines like Femina and Elle and Verve whenever anyone was coming back from India, savoring the colorful couture of Tarun Tahliani, Ritu Kumar, and Sabyasachi. As the industry boomed into the new millennium, so did my interest: ever since India’s first fashion week debuted in 2000, I’ve dutifully paid pilgrimage to websites and blogs to follow the latest collections in realtime.

Though my own fashion aesthetic is decidedly more H&M than Hermès, I’m carried away by the eclectic designs fusing traditional fabrics, hues, and textures with unorthodox silhouettes. I drool over my roommate’s sexy Suneet Verma saris, and I linger at New Delhi’s upscale Crescent Mall, playing dress-up in JJ Valayas, Manav Gangwanis, and Rina Dhakas that I could never afford. When I went to my friend Gauri’s wedding in New Delhi, I was one of the few people who fully appreciated her bridal trousseau’s impressive lineage: Pallavi Jaikishan, Anamika Khanna, Shantanu and Nikhil, and even a Manish Malhotra cocktail dress I later saw in the pages of Indian Cosmo. These names resonate more with me than Chanel, Zac Posen, and Marchesa.

In the last five years, Indian fashion has truly gone global. Indian cotton and embroidery have always been popular with foreign design houses, but now the designers themselves are cultivating an international following. Bibhu Mohapatra shows his collection at New York Fashion Week. The eccentric Manish Arora dresses Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. The much-lauded Indian edition of Vogue is celebrating its second anniversary this month. And international brands are turning to India more than ever before—Jean-Paul Gaultier, Lancôme, and Cartier are just a few big names that have recently launched India-inspired collections.

These days, I work a block away from the hallowed tents at Bryant Park, but the fashion weeks that really capture my mind are held thousands of miles away. In the last decade, India’s fashion industry has evolved into a serious business. As the Indian middle class has become wealthier and wealthier, fashion has gone from a privilege of the elite to a staple of the masses. Today, there’s no shortage of venues for Indian designers to promote their lines: there’s Lakme India Fashion Week and HDIL India Couture Week in Mumbai, and Wills Lifestyle Fashion Week in Delhi—which is hosting its spring-summer 2010 lineup this week, with more than 110 designers scheduled to showcase their collections to 175 national and international buyers. The industry is no joke: according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, it’s poised to rake in more than $160 million by 2012. Big business, indeed.

But for me, my quirky obsession with Indian fashion is about much more than numbers and figures. There’s something about seeing people who look like me floating down the runway, donning creative takes on the colors and fabrics of my heritage. I may not shop at sample sales or subscribe to any fashion magazines, but from October 24 to 28, when the catwalks light up again in New Delhi for the spring/summer 2010 collections, you can be sure I’ll be glued to my laptop, hunting for my desi fashion fix.

—Sarah Khan is an editor at Travel + Leisure and blogs at www.bysarahkhan.com.