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Fashion without the trappings

Priyanka Sharma  |  New Delhi 

Nagma, 22, is a new model. She isn’t pretty but does have a “model-like body”. Her nails are chipped and she has messy armpits. According to her Facebook status, she is single, uses drugs to keep herself awake, and fasts during Navratras to appease Navdurga, the nine goddesses. Every night, she parades naked – at times in a bikini – in front of “Boss”, a man who smells like Rajnigandha pan masala and vinegar. He is auditioning her for the Kingfisher Swimsuit Calendar hunt.

Nagma (her real identity has been withheld in the book), one of the many characters that walk through Shefalee Vasudev’s Powder Room, isn’t a cliché. Yes, she might be a cokehead. Yes, she is “willing to do anything” for a break in the hierarchical world of fashion. But she has chutzpah. There is not a moment of regret or hesitation; she is unabashed about her lofty ambitions and desires. Ms Vasudev paints Nagma not as a symbol of the Indian fashion industry as a whole, but simply as a character swimming in its dark underbelly.

There is not much that isn’t known about the murky, glamorous world of fashion. So when a book comes along claiming to be the “untold story of Indian fashion”, interest is piqued and speculation is natural. Ms Vasudev, former editor of Marie Claire and currently associate editor at The Indian Express, has access to events and personalities that many journalists would envy. And she uses this access to weave a saucy, and sometimes nostalgic, tale of Indian fashion.

She saunters into the workshop of designer Raakesh Agarvwal, who bares his soul about his sexual abuse as a child, and his disenchantment with a fraternity that is more concerned about which car he’s driving than his ill-health. He even voices his disillusionment with the fashion media when he asks Ms Vasudev, “Why do you keep coming back to me? You don’t even like my clothes! Marie Claire barely featured me, when you worked there. So?” “I feel drawn to you” is all our author has to say.

She sits with Mr Agarvwal’s mentor, the imposing Tarun Tahiliani, who chats about India’s – and his own – obsession with bling. Ms Vasudev undercuts the change in his creative sensibilities as she writes, “The Big Daddy of Indian fashion may be eating healthy food and experimenting more with textiles than with crystals these days but I realised that there is no radical change in his approach to fashion. His ideal showstopper is a sweet, mildly sexy woman in chiffon drapes.” Her conversation with Rohit “Gudda” Bal highlights the fissures between the media and the industry. However, there is shockingly little about female designers.

Ms Vasudev’s research covers a wide landscape — she talks to stylists, fashion photographers, luxury consultants and models; she travels to Nagaland and speaks with Imcha Imchen, a 29-year-old designer suffering from bipolar disorder. Her conversations with Naga people highlight the disconnect between the north-east and Bollywood fashion. To her shock, Naga girls hate bling, haven’t seen any Aishwarya Rai films and think of Kareena Kapoor as “glamorous and stupid”. Why would Naga girls care about Shilpa Shetty’s figure when most of them have a 20-inch waist, she asks?

In one such delightful chapter, Ms Vasudev rubs shoulders with the rich wives of Ludhiana and discusses their monthly “pocket money” and aspirations. They all dress alike, talk alike and think alike, she tells us. The “Punjabi” suit has now given way to tight Louis Vuitton wrap dresses. Designer trunk shows are hot sellers, as are Swarovski bra straps from Bangkok. Bills for all high-end purchases are the only entry passes to their rich kitty parties. Conspicuous consumption was the new high in the city, as Geeta Bector, a popular socialite, also called the “Gauri Khan of Ludhiana”, tells her: “don’t be surprised if you see Bipasha Basu welcoming you at a party — that’s what happened at a wedding party recently. It’s all paise ka khel.”

There is, however, a disappointing element: Ms Vasudev’s judgemental sermons at several points in her narrative. About the Ludhiana ladies she writes, “Those who do work do so as a part-time indulgence in their husband’s businesses. No wonder being a social hostess is the most coveted top job.” While she splashes figures and reports to trace the growing luxury market in India, Ms Vasudev is unable to explain what has prompted the luxury boom. Is it the aspirational upper-middle class or the flexible positioning of these brands in India?

Her language is breezy and engaging. Her narrative is decorated with delicious factoids (Marie Claire’s fallout with Shilpa Shetty, for one; rumours about Karan Johar exchanging unused LV wallets for “other products”, for another). Yet, she falls into her own trap when it comes to her own community. Lamenting that fashion journalists are not taken seriously, she writes, “There is no enquiry into the daily wages that designers pay their karigars, labour union problems … enquiries into child labour.” Would loyal readers of Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle read such stories?

I don’t think so.

The Untold Story of Indian Fashion
Shefalee Vasudev
Random House India; 352 pages; Rs 399

First Published: Fri, August 10 2012. 00:45 IST