Woken from a Sunday reverie three years ago by a friend saying he had a pass for a Delhi couture show, I sacrificed my nap and raced across town. It was a long afternoon: models walked by dressed in ghagra cholis that were so weighed down with ostentatious zari work that they seemed more like the armour medieval soldiers once wore. Their platform-heeled shoes looked like they had been cobbled together at the local mochi. As they tottered so awkwardly I thought they might need walkers, I turned to the beautiful friend of a friend and said she should be up on the catwalk instead. She turned out to be Lakshmi Menon. The New York-returned model was mobbed by the fashion paparazzi as we left, but graciously took this back-handed compliment in her stride.
That disastrous debut put me off fashion shows. The problem is partly that I never know quite what to say before and after events - let alone what to wear. Whoopi Goldberg's famous put-down while hosting the Oscars years ago rings in my ears while unsmiling models stalk down the ramp. Goldberg said of the models who had just been on stage that she could never understand why people this beautiful always looked "so @#$%^& pissed off." This puzzle is compounded in India because Indian men and women have the warmest smiles in the world.
In New Delhi, though, there is no escaping fashion. Fashion is celebrated the way the rest of the country honours festivals. It is a part of the, erm, fabric of life. New Delhi is the capital of flashy weddings; fashion and weddings are joined at the hip. According to Indian Retailer, the wedding apparel market is worth Rs 10,000 crore, twice as much as is spent at hotels and other venues.
New Delhi is also infamous for the +1 invite, whereby the person invited ensures he can add a friend to the list at the door. Tagging along in this way, I found myself at another fashion event weeks ago, this time at the French embassy, which is a gracious, semi-permanent open house. Guests traipsed through a garden full of frangipani trees with candles lighting the way to an auditorium. The models were assembled like mannequins on the floor above and escorted down the winding staircase, treacherous if you were in heels the height of the Eiffel Tower, by chivalrous Frenchmen. Manish Arora's ensembles to my untutored eye, seemed inspired by the styles of the north-east, contemporised for the Space Age. The production values were like something from an Oscars awards ceremony.
I was one of the first to exit after the show was over and found a barrage of microphones had been assembled on the lawn outside. Panicking because I thought guests were expected to make extemporaneous comments about the high fashion on display, I heard reporters calling out, "Joey, Joey." Just as I was about to tell them they had my name all wrong, I realised the object of their attention was Joey Mathews, who was striding with gazelle-like grace past me - and past the paparazzi.
I was reliving some of these fashion show faux pas as I arrived at the BMW India Bridal Fashion Week on Thursday evening. The colleague who dropped me wondered out loud if fashion shows were always boring. A BMW salesman mistook me for a likely customer and was so painfully obsequious that I choked on my Fratelli, which was slightly corked. You might be thinking I had set myself up for another let-down on purpose, but you would be wrong. I learned fascinating details about prospects for renewable energy in India from one guest, heard a plausible scenario for how we get out of the five per cent growth trap from the industrialist Gautam Thapar and chatted with the always stylish Sailaja Tahiliani, who is a new friend in large part because we are addicts of gym classes with odd names such as BodyAttack and Step.
The show was a classicist's dream come true. Tarun Tahiliani had used sheer silks and tulle, customarily seen in wedding gowns in the West, which gave an ethereal airiness to the Indian wedding outfits. For sheer sumptuousness, it reminded me of the film Jodhaa Akbar, but the clothes were more practical. The embroidery was an intentional throwback to the Mughals, the tiny Swarovski crystals adding even more glamour. One of the last models wore a classic red wedding ghagra choli, but with the twist that the diaphanous dupatta followed behind her like the train of a wedding gown. My mother walked down the aisle in a cream and gold kanjeevaram sari with a veil at St Mark's Cathedral in Bangalore when my parents married, so I have sentimental reasons to applaud this east-meets-west approach. There was so much beauty on display that I left a little light-headed. The men's outfits - jodhpurs that were also sleek churidar-like for an evening of ghazals - were astonishing. The black dhotis for men looked so elegant and easy to wear with bandhgalas that even clubs in Chennai would celebrate them. It was a call to arms for men to wear Indian clothing to formal events again.