A cut above the rest: Inside India's new couture trends

After battling pandemic desolation for three years, couture is back with a vengeance, celebrating life, honouring heritage, and taking weddings and occasions to the next stage of opulence
Outfits by Rahul Mishra
Outfits by Rahul Mishra

The lights begin to dim and an eerie red hue encompasses the enraptured hall, as the slow beat of a tribal drum begins its persistent thrum. Four striking, nearly identical women wearing what seems like a bouquet of red roses strut onto the innermost of a series of concentric circles that make the stage. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder forming another circle, before slithering away in different directions. Some sort of elaborate ceremony? A cultural rite of floral erotica? No. It marks the return of the India Couture Week after three years of fashion battling pandemic desolation.

While fashion is a feeling, couture reflects the rarefied spirit of society. Back in the 19th century, it was Paris-based Englishman Charles Frederick Worth who introduced the concept of bespoke design to suit the wearer’s taste and personality. Each of his distinctive garments was displayed on live models in a bold move that ushered in the era of haute couture, in the process of transforming the concept of dressing into fashion. Since then, the French have claimed this art as their own, but India, with its long-standing tradition of craft and workmanship, wasn’t to be left behind.

So were the houses of Versace, Chanel and Dior put together outré shows in the 1990s, firmly establishing a place for avant-garde couture in the world’s style zeitgeist, the high-on-drama presentations of design stalwarts such as Manish Malhotra, Manav Gangwani and Rohit Bal in the 2000s roped in the leading ladies and gents of Bollywood as show-stoppers to add an aspirational appeal to fashion.

A common thread that ties it all up is the idea that fashion dresses people, while couture dresses the spirit of the age. Think of Thierry Mugler’s model in a steel blue, translucent cyborg suit for his Autumn/Winter 1995 couture, which Vogue heralded as the beginning of the Internet age, or Amit Aggarwal’s sculpted structures that wove metallic strips with soft fabrics like velvet and satin-faced georgette in 2013, offering an industrial approach to Indian drapes and appeal to the new generation of tech-first millennials.

Fashion can be flamboyant, but couture is theatrical, often outrageous, and never has this been more evident than in a post-pandemic scenario. At Paris Haute Couture Week Fall/Winter 2022, Schiaparelli’s creative director Daniel Roseberry celebrated the relationship of the fashion house’s founder Elsa Schiaparelli with the Surrealistic movement and artists like Salvador Dalí with a striking chest-length trompe l’oeil, grape motif earrings and lobster phone prints. Its Indian counterpart played up the drama through a variety of risqué designs that pushed the boundaries of traditional occasion-wear.

Couture is the expression of an ideal, the physical manifestation of material perfection, and the carte blanche through which artists leave their imprimatur on the collective catwalk. At the recently concluded FDCI India Couture Week 2022, opulence reigned supreme, money flowed freely, and maximalism firmly held sway. This was evident in the dramatic and heavily embellished outfits on display.

It is reflected in the sheer scale of elaborate sets, stunning jewellery, prolonged presentation and painful attention to detail in everything, from seating to lights and music. At the opening of the gala affair, FDCI Chairman Sunil Sethi said, “This 15-year journey of FDCI India Couture Week has been a memorable one of celebrating the unique heritage we possess as a country. This year too, we have 13 of India’s leading couturiers showcasing the finest crafts, which will hold centre stage at the 10-day extravaganza.”

And all 13 of them lived up to the expectations. From the traditional refinement of Tarun Tahiliani, JJ Valaya and Anju Modi’s collections to the contemporary bling of Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna, Falguni Shane Peacock, Suneet Verma and Dolly J. From the experimental modernism of Varun Bahl, Kunal Rawal and Anamika Khanna to the daring and futuristic presentations of Rahul Mishra, Siddartha Tytler and Amit Aggarwal, there was something for everyone.

Together, they set the template of what weddings and red carpets will look like in the coming months and highlighted new silhouettes that combine our classical heritage with a contemporary aesthetic.

A Flair For Skirts

While most designers stayed true to failsafe versions of lehenga, some freely experimented with scale and proportions to dramatic effect

Show-stealer: Anamika Khanna

Anamika Khanna

If Indian occasion-wear for women was to be symbolised through a single garment, it would be the lehenga. This ankle-length skirt worn at formal or ceremonial events has caught the imagination of every designer and fashionista over the years. At the India Couture Week, though most designers stayed true to failsafe heavily embroidered versions, some freely experimented with scale and proportions to dramatic effect.

Falguni Shane Peacock and Dolly J drew inspiration from the full skirts of Victorian times with their caged corsetry by highlighting the petite waists of the models as stiff, structured skirts ballooned outwards. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the fluid body-shaping drapes of Anamika Khanna, who described her sensual pieces as having been inspired by the ‘Goddess’ in a modern, glamorous and unapologetic avatar.

Known for her out-of-the-box thinking, Khanna’s daringly distinctive display consisting of shredded satin ensembles, heavily embellished patchwork on unusual silhouettes, and tribal artwork offsetting fine fabrics, heralded a change in her own sartorial style by “peeling off the old and beginning anew”.
Described as an ‘open field for experimentation, Khanna’s ‘An Experiment’ line drew inspiration from the tribal cultures of Rajasthan presented through the lens of modernism.

Her desire to experiment was evident in her varied colour palette, which opened with sombre blacks, before moving on to delicate lace in ivory and ended with statement reds and emeralds. Metallics and pearls were also used to add drama and texture.

“This collection represents a personal journey I have been on during the past few years. I wanted to convey an element of change. Couture is a state of mind, and its interpretation differs for everyone. I don’t want to define it and box it in. The shapes in this collection are inspired by the costumes worn by Gods and Goddesses, like fitted silhouettes of skirts and blouses. The idea was to exude power while also being flexible and fluid,” says the designer.

No Strait-Jacketing This

From short jackets with peplum awnings to long, structured ones with masculine shapes, this fashion must-have truly stood out at ICW 2022

Show-stealer: Varun Bahl

Adding layers to outfits serves the dual purpose of protecting one from the elements and adding versatility to an otherwise purist outfit. From short jackets with peplum awnings to long, structured ones with masculine shapes, from flowy capes to cute boleros, jackets truly stood out at ICW 2022. Many designers, including Rahul Mishra, paired them with sarees for an interesting effect. His penchant for everything floral played out in his matching jacket-and-saree sets rendered on sheer long layers.

JJ Valaya’s gilet-style jackets were sequinned, Tarun Tahiliani’s matched the outfits tone-for-tone, and Tytler’s acted as striking standalone pieces to which the rest of the garment was merely incidental, and Varun Bahl added them to increase the outfit’s appeal. From open jacket dresses paired with bralettes to long sheer cover-ups that provided dimension, he explored the medium thoroughly.

The fashion industry’s darling since his debut in 2001, Bahl is fondly known as the ‘Couturier of Flowers’. He stayed true to this design philosophy for his collection ‘New Leaf’, which brought to life an imaginary mystical forest in a labyrinthine set adorned with flowers. Clothes boasted intricate upcycled patchwork embroidery, a smattering of beads, gemstones, 3D-embroidered flowers and leaves. His outfits are meant to appeal to a contemporary global aesthetic within a traditional milieu.

Though many of his pieces had Indian silhouettes, they were not restrictive in their scope. They embraced the global couture, where the outfits are experimental yet wearable, consisting of layers that can be styled in multiple ways. Bahl defines ‘New Leaf’ as a selection of Indian wedding wear and red-carpet looks that have universal appeal as they break away from the rigidity of traditional couture. 

He says, “With New Leaf, I am styling couture in a new way, to cater to younger generations, and hence, reinventing the idea of couture completely. Every garment shown here is inspired by grand and mystical forests, flora and fauna, and my love for nature all around us.”

A Card Up The Sleeve

Amid embroidered and fitted sleeves, playfulness and regality showed on the ramp with equal aplomb

Show-stealer: Anju Modi

Creations by JJ Valaya (left) and Modi
Creations by JJ Valaya (left) and Modi

An easy way to change the look of an ensemble is by playing with the shape and pattern of its sleeves. Though summer time encourages a boycott of this element of the outfit, India Couture Week’s showcase is for colder climes, and sleeves play an important role, both as insurance against the weather and as receptacles of propriety.

Valaya and Tahiliani stuck with traditional embroidered and fitted sleeves of varying lengths, while Dolly J added a tuft of feathers at the shoulders to add playfulness. It was the doyenne of traditional craftsmanship, Anju Modi, however, whose sleeves really stood out.

Not many can lay claim to the skill of traditional north Indian craftsmanship like Modi. As an ardent supporter of Indian crafts and textiles, she is synonymous with couture that reflects, enhances and celebrates the varied cultural aspects of India. She achieves this by working closely with master craftsmen and weavers across the country.

For her collection presented at ICW 2022, ‘The Road Less Travelled’, she took inspiration from her own travels across India. This theme shined through in her distinctive offerings as well as the manner of presentation. Some of her sleeves included long drapes open at the elbows for a soft, flowy look, while others were the product of sheer belted dupattas draped across the shoulders to create an illusion of being covered. Her styling alluded to royal dressing, where modesty is held above all else, though grandeur is never compromised.

Modi’s creative oeuvre is inspired by elements of architecture, poetry, mythology and literature. The cornerstone of her work is the revival of traditional crafts and textiles, such as long-lost forms of weaving, vegetable dyeing, block printing and traditional embroidery.

“The whole collection was about the road less travelled because I wanted to express my own design ideas and learnings of the past 30 years. It is an ode to the Kashmir Valley, Leh and Ladakh, where I developed my craft by working with the craftsmen. I made it a point to travel by road, and the romance of a road trip has been captured in my collection. Every piece has been made with the objective of being subtle and not too shiny. Even the embroidery is done in such a way that the ensembles are not heavy to carry around, every single aspect of the outfit is lightweight and wearable,” says Modi.

Universal dressing with a purpose

Adding fluidity to fashion saw designers offer feminine pieces with a masculine edge, flexible shapes and interesting cuts

Show-stealer: Kunal Rawal

Kunal Rawal (inset) and his collection
Kunal Rawal (inset) and his collection

What is fashion if not fun? In an age where inclusivity and diversity have found pride of place in plebian discourse, trendsetters are readily embracing the concept of universal dressing. Men wearing silhouettes and embellishments traditionally associated with women, and women shunning intricate adornment in favour of understated and comfortable men’s garments, is no longer an unusual practice.

Where Amit Aggarwal dressed his male and female models in feminine pieces with a masculine edge, Siddartha Tytler played with gleaming fabrics, interesting cuts and flexible shapes to enhance the body in its purest form. It was, however, Kunal Rawal who did it best by keeping his garments traditional and wearable while still pushing the boundaries of what is deemed gender-appropriate fashion.

Celebrating 15 years of being in the business, Rawal delved deep into his creative practice to shun the strict confines of menswear. The result was an interesting amalgam of creative and comfortable clothing. His outfits ranged from jackets, kurtas, sherwanis, and suits styled with liberal use of drapes, paisleys, brocades, patterns and textures that aren’t traditionally associated with Indian menswear. This creativity, he believes, is the result of his artistic evolution over the last few years.

‘Dear Men’, as the collection was called, was a celebration of men’s fashion across ages, sizes, ethnicities, regions and sartorial personalities, displayed on children, older people, plus-sized models and women to show that couture has no gender or form.

“I believe couture is a celebration of oneself. There is an element of smart design and the functionality of garments, but I don’t feel couture is only about luxury. It’s about being happy in the clothes you wear, being proud of your body type and who you are. It’s about feeling your best, so you look your best. It’s not about following wedding trends. I have an interesting design philosophy. Every time I make a collection, I design it with about 12-14 of my close friends, who have different fashion personalities, in mind. This way, I feel I make clothes for everyone, ensuring that the wearer is having fun throughout,” says Rawal.

The World’s a Runway

With global trends influencing millennials, designers drew inspiration from international destinations to pander to the changing clientele

Show-stealer: Falguni Shane Peacock

One thing all Indian designers agree on is that couture need not be confined to traditional Indian wisdom. As the clientele becomes younger and more Digi-savvy, their exposure to global trends is increasingly influencing their purchase decisions. To this effect, many designers drew inspiration from international destinations and trends.

So, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna’s sequinned and sexy gowns, sarees and dresses were made for ‘dancing at a sangeet one evening and waltzing across Vienna’s historic ballrooms another’; Suneet Varma’s theatrical representation of the modern Indian woman who lives in a digital age yet embraces the romance of traditional Indian couture, drew on multiple global influences. 

Yet, the internationally inspired collection that stood out the most was designer duo Falguni Shane Peacocks. As purveyors of the finer things in life, they have always been at the forefront of global couture presented in an Indian setting. Their latest collection, ‘Love Forever’, was no different. Inspired by their travels to Europe, particularly the rich French tapestries and artworks of the Renaissance period they encountered there, Falguni and Shane Peacock made a collection of charming gowns, sarees and lehengas.

The pieces were embellished with sequins, crystals, feather and ruffle details, which were played up through the use of chrome applique, and sported motifs inspired by scenes of European art and architecture. The use of soft hues like ivory, blush pink, rose and peach as well as deeper ones like red, green, metallic pewter and gilded gold gave the collection interesting depth and range, while accessories like embellished face veils provided a layer of whimsy.

“The designs in the collection share a story that draws inspiration from Art Nouveau and French architecture whose intricate elements are married to Indian architectural facets like minarets, archways and domes, among others. We wanted to celebrate the land that is home to innumerable artworks and some of the most celebrated masters in the history of modern art and design, Chagall, Braque and Le Corbusier, to name a few,” the designer duo asserts.

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