The year was 1966. The town of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh had declared a holiday to mark a mega event — the Hakoba Mills fashion show. The crowd went wild and the models had to be rescued. It was the first such experience for Saharanpur. But not for India, which had seen its first-ever fashion show in the 1930s. That was an all-European show, with European clothes and European models. Besides, it was a pre-Independence event. Independent India’s personal tryst with fashion shows started only later, sometime in the 1950s, with the Spencer sisters — Sylla and Nergish. “And what a rage they were,” recalls 85-year-old Jeannie Naoroji, who entered the arena in 1962, sometime after the Spencer sisters stormed the fashion scene with their choreography and designs. For several years that followed, Naoroji was their only contemporary.
“We had no designers then, but we had plenty of fashion,” says Naoroji, who will be closely tracking the five-day fashion week being held in Delhi. Sitting in her home in Mumbai, she will watch as the 115 designers, including the country’s best known, showcase months of their hard work and creativity. The ‘Godmother of fashion shows in India’ likes to know what the new designers are doing and where the industry she’s been associated with for 50 years is heading.
Naoroji might not be a trained designer, but textiles companies and every model from the ’60s to the early ’90s aspired to be on her show. “The Spencer sisters weren’t designers either, or trained choreographers. But between the two of them, they too pulled off spectacular shows,” says Meher Castelino, Miss India 1964 who modelled in over 2,000 fashion shows. “Their shows went to as far as Russia, Africa and Yugoslavia,” says Castelino, who travelled with them to Yugoslavia and has painstakingly chronicled India’s fashion history in her book, Fashion Kaleidoscope (Rupa & Co, 1994).
The initial shows were mainly for raising funds for organisations such as the “blood bank or the blind institute,” says Naoroji. Some were purely entertainment evenings. A 1950s picture by Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist, captures one such event. The show on the theme of ‘Costumes of India’ had young women and little girls walking the ramp with the map of India in the background.
The travelling shows The scene and the setting changed once textile mills came into the picture. The Indian fashion show went commercial. “Every time the mills brought out new fabric, they held shows,” says Castelino, now a fashion consultant. Tata Textiles and the Delhi Cloth Mills — more popular as DCM — also held week-long presentations. Towards the late ’50s, Hakoba Mills and Ahmedabad’s Calico Mills (under Ambalal Sarabhai) popularised the concept of travelling fashion shows. Some of these events would go on for six months at a stretch and were like movie shows — there was the 2 o’clock show, the 3 o’clock show, the matinee show and the late night show. Every region of the country was covered. For example, the North Hakoba tour covered Delhi, Lucknow, Agra, Kanpur and yes, Saharanpur.
The textile mills and the apparel industry used the shows as live expositions of their products. The show would end and the sales would begin. Truckloads of garments and fabric were sold off immediately. Castelino, who travelled to Vijayawada for the Calico Mills show, recalls how farmers came to watch the event with money stuffed in their dhotis. “They thought they had come to watch a drama and could not understand why the girls on the stage were not speaking a word,” she says. “They were also confused about why the girls were walking in and out in different clothes,” she laughs. That apart, the Andhra city saw Calico’s highest sale. “After the show, many farmers bought clothes in bulk,” says Castelino. The sales at Vijayawada touched Rs 10 lakh to 15 lakh per day. This, in 1971-72!
As for the models, they were paid by the month — “Rs 1,200 per month plus a daily food allowance,” says Castelino.
Fashion in a dome & on ships But the travelling show also had logistical issues.
Getting the right venue was one. Calico found a solution that became iconic — the Calico Dome. “The dome could be put up within five hours and came in varying sizes,” says Castelino. Vijayawada, even though it saw the highest sales, had a small dome, while Bangalore had a bigger one. It was in these domes that the shows were held.
Music was another issue. There were no audio tapes, and certainly no CDs. “We modelled to a live band,” says Castelino. This meant that while travelling from city to city, there was no guarantee the choreographer would find the right band. Naoroji solved this problem by introducing taped music.
“The shows had a lot of tamasha. We’d recreate the ballroom scene or have a ballet,” reminisces Naoroji. “Among those who came to see the initial shows was Simone Tata, who’d joined cosmetic brand Lakmé (started in 1952). She wanted to see if these could help promote Lakmé,” says Naoroji.
The swinging ’60s and the sensational ’70s also saw the famous ‘Ship Shows’, held on Norwegian, American and British luxury liners that docked at the Mumbai port, says Naoroji. Burlington was one of the companies which organised these ‘ship shows’ where models would showcase Western outfits made from Indian fabric with Indian embroidery.
But ramp fashion didn’t go beyond fabric and textiles, until Sangeeta Chopra descended on the scene and brought in shoes, beverages, even car accessories. Lights, sets, music and choreography became more pronounced. “Sangeeta turned the shows into virtual productions,” says Castelino. If anything was missing, it was trained designers. But it was only a matter of time before they too would make an entry.
Enter the designers The mid-’80s. Rohit Khosla arrived from the UK. “He and Ritu Kumar were truly the pioneers among Indian designers,” says Professor Nien Siao, head of fashion design, Pearl Academy of Fashion. Khosla, along with Tarun Tahiliani, went on to open India’s first fashion boutique, Ensemble, in 1987. Naoroji fondly recalls how “Rohit would come to watch my shows and ask if I would choreograph them”. Around this time, the Ministry of Textiles set up the National Institute of Fashion Technology, the country’s premier design Institute. “India’s first batch of dedicated designers — Rohit Bal, Ritu Beri, JJ Valaya — started coming in,” says Siao.
But to promote themselves, the designers had to do their own running around. “Usually, gems and jewellery, or liquor brands would be the sponsors,” says Siao. Shows became designer-specific and were often put together almost single-handedly. “For example, Hemant Trivedi, besides being a designer, would also choreograph the show and style the hair,” says Castelino.
“Those were the years of the solo act. We did it all, from designing clothes to finding the venue and the sponsors,” says Ranna Gill whose creations will be showcased at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week. “Till just about 14 years ago, we would virtually have a zoo on the ramp,”she says. One minute the model would appear in a bridal outfit and the next in hot pants, and then in cocktail wear, she says. “Even the poor model didn’t know where she’d started from and where she’d ended — whether she was playing a coy bride or a seductress,” laughs Gill, “There was no poetry on the ramp then.”
Like designers, even choreographers multi-tasked, says Harmeet Bajaj who has been in the business long enough to know. “I would do the sets myself, help the girls dress, rush to change the music or the lighting,” says Bajaj. She’d also spend days picking the right music. “Designers too would be totally involved from beginning to end,” she recalls nostalgically. It was exhausting, but fulfilling. “Now, it’s a bit clinical,” she rues.
The road ahead But then designers too are racing against time. It’s been only ten years — after the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) was set up — since the industry became organised. “Indian designers have come a long way since,” says Sunil Seth, president, FDCI which is organising the fashion extravaganza in Delhi. He remembers the time he took a group of 17 designers to the Selfridges store in London. “Many of them didn’t even know they needed to put a ‘made-in-India’ label or washing instructions on their clothes,” he says adding that they’ve been fast learners.
Naoroji, the woman who started it all, says she’s enjoying the whole scenario though she finds some creations “frantically funny and weird”. She also thinks that most of the outfits are “too expensive”. Perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of the past, when designer wear was sold off the ramp and even the working class could afford it.