In 1935, culture critic Walter Benjamin laid the foundation for modernity by showing how technology could open the doors for a new democratic aesthetic, one that would upturn the world as we knew it. A century on, Indian fashion designers, armed with every tool money can buy, more information than any generation before them had an access to, ornaments that would have dazzled a Mughal emperor’s court, and fabrics from the ends of the earth, have shown that with all this you can produce – blah! India Runway Week had all the sensory zing of dental floss dragged across a hung-over furry tongue on a Sunday morning.
Design is a big word but it means something pretty simple. At its heart, design is an elegant solution to a problem. A cycle is a solution to mobility problem; a pencil is a solution to a communication problem; a sports bra a solution to a boob problem. Aesthetics, which in turn is enmeshed with culture, is important. But a pencil that doesn’t write is never going to be an elegant pencil. It isn’t going to be a pencil at all.
So what is the ‘problem’ that India Runway Week was aiming to address? The most unfortunate takeaway from it is that most designers aren't even asking this question, let alone answering it.
It’s hard not to conclude that too many young designers have been spending more time watching B-grade saas-bahu soaps than studying the history of design. Laziness mixed with ignorance is the perfect recipe for design disaster. Nancy Sood’s outfits, for example, had nothing but tasteless bling. Ankur J claimed to draw inspiration from ancient Egyptian culture for his collection, but his knowledge of it seemed to have been drawn mainly from reruns of The Mummy Awakens.
Some, like Ritambhara Paliya and jewelry designer Aakassh K Aggarwal, relied on celebrity show stoppers to make up for their insipid imagination. Paliya’s ensemble worn by Shamita Shetty was a case study in identity crisis. Swara Bhaskar seemed to be weighed down, quite literally, by the gargantuan piece of jewellery Agarwal made her wear – a bizarre necklace which left you wondering when Indiana Jones would dive down from the Thyagaraj Sports Complex rafters to retrieve the giant goddess dangling in the middle.
Mithi Kalra deserves a mention here, for her ‘Moonlight’ collection stood out for its no-fuss sensibility. Working with chanderi fabric, Kalra kept her dresses clean in terms of cuts and embellishments. Having said that, there wasn’t anything particularly cutting-edge about her work, either – and that’s sad, for a young designer at the cusp of her career.
If it weren’t for the Mumbai-based designer Kristy De Cunha, the last day of this ambitious fashion event would have left us without anything to even smile about. Her bold, inspired-by-Africa and high-on-entertainment finale, came after a series of shows so underwhelming that the competition was unfair. The silhouettes were clean, the colours lively – the kind of thing you could look all cheerful in at a pool party.
Let’s face it, though: if the best Young India can produce is Simba-the-Lion Happy-Happy-Happy, this doesn’t say much for the future of Indian fashion.
This is, in a very real sense, tragic, because India is home to the biggest youth cohort in its civilisational history. This youth cohort is looking for identity – and fashion is an important part of that. India is home to all kinds of toxic identity politics right now, at least in part because we haven’t succeeded in imagining what an Indian modernity might taste, sound, or look like. There are literally tens upon tens of millions of young people who head to malls and high streets looking for interesting clothes, made with interesting fabrics, that speak to their lifestyles, at work and at play – but they find nothing. There’s young women wearing jeggings because no-one has led the way in rethinking work-wear; men who wear hideous, sweaty shirts because there’s no experimentation with usable fabrics. That’s because the design leadership has nothing, zip, nada, to say.
Let’s think hard for a second: what’s the last fashion revolution we had in India? Blue jeans brought by Hippies overland? T-shirts? How about an Indian one? Or is that too much like hard work?
(The writer is Associate Fellow (Gender) at Observer Research Foundation. She can be reached @TedhiLakeer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)