Where east and west meet in the middle


One of the things I found hard to get my head around when I was working in India last month was the disparity between traditional design and modern fashion. The magazine I was launching was an international title which is nothing new, as the emerging markets are opening up of course all the magazines want a presence. Elle, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire have been in India for a few years, Vogue launched last year, this year should see Glamour, Grazia, In Style and (I believe) Harpers Bazaar. What was confusing was that my initial editor (an Englishwoman) made a point of saying the magazine needed a 50-50 mix of Indian and International fashion and features while her Indian successor insisted that references to Indian traditions were kept to the absolute minimum. This meant no mention of saris, kurtas, mother-in-laws or maids if we could help it. As the very person this magazine was targeting – the single middle class, twentysomething working woman – her reasoning was that the modern Indian woman wants to be ‘international’. She travels abroad, she watches American sitcoms so she wants access to those brands and lifestyles that she has experienced in the western world. All very understandable, however I couldn’t help feeling that it was a bit of a shame.

Here is a country with such great history and culture, not to mention an amazing textile heritage, but to have any hope of succeeding outside India or appealing to the new Asian middle classes, designers have to move away from traditional Indian style and design with a more western-influenced eye. The same seems to go for Chinese and Russian fashion (example: Kova & T). Clearly, a balancing act is needed. The designers that inspired me when I was in Mumbai were those like Drashta which combined cocoon-like western shapes with the sequins and saturated colour we associate with India. Anupamaa designs simple kaftans and silk shifts in the most breathtaking fabrics, while Manish Arora is now a household name with his wacky Indo-Western psychedelic-pop prints. I’m not knocking Wendell Rodricks or Gauri & Nainika, their accomplished designs are certainly worthy of attention from overseas but will find it harder to stand out amongst similar fare from American and European designers. The ultimate challenge for designers from emerging nations is learning how to design for the western market while throwing in a taste of local flavour that reflects their heritage.

Pic: Drashta aw/08

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11 Responses to Where east and west meet in the middle

  1. enc says:

    I really like the beautiful traditional Indian dress; I hope it doesn’t completely disappear with the changing times. But then again, if it completely disappears, it’s no longer relevant, is it? We don’t wear powdered wigs and frock coats anymore, do we? (Well, except for Elton John and Prince.)

  2. indigo16 says:

    This certainly helps explain why Vogue Japan features so few Japanese women or the oriental fusion dressing we in the west covet so much. It is a shame that so many cultures have aspirations based on the western notion of beauty, when there is much to celebrate within their own.

  3. susie_bubble says:

    I wouldn’t say this is true for Chinese magazines as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar as well as local titles all support young emerging Chinese designers and regularly feature designs that incorporate Chinese heritage… there’s been so many 30′s Shanghai editorials, I’ve lost count!

  4. Super Kawaii Mama says:

    I have to agree with your sentiments here. I find it somewhat ironic that here in the west we love the fantasy of life in these ‘exotic’ places, our minds immediately conjuring up things like saris and maids bringing trays of chai, whilst we lounge around in cool and drapey concoctions.
    I think that no matter where you come from, there is a certain amount of ‘Cultural Cringe’ for those things which your country is known.

  5. Make Do & Mend says:

    Difficult one as lets not forget we left trussed up clothes firmly behind as women in the UK. And also please spare me any mother-in-law articles in UK mags. The trick is probably to reference and keep the beauty of the colours, which in the end I’m sure will happen. Loved the Drashata designs – glorious styling and what great looking models. They looked older than 14/18 and had great figures!

  6. Make Do & Mend says:

    Difficult one as lets not forget we left trussed up clothes firmly behind as women in the UK. And also please spare me any mother-in-law articles in UK mags. The trick is probably to reference and keep the beauty of the colours, which in the end I’m sure will happen. Loved the Drashata designs – glorious styling and what great looking models. They looked older than 14/18 and had great figures!

  7. Make Do & Mend says:

    Difficult one as lets not forget we left trussed up clothes firmly behind as women in the UK. And also please spare me any mother-in-law articles in UK mags. The trick is probably to reference and keep the beauty of the colours, which in the end I’m sure will happen. Loved the Drashata designs – glorious styling and what great looking models. They looked older than 14/18 and had great figures!

  8. Make Do & Mend says:

    Difficult one as lets not forget we left trussed up clothes firmly behind as women in the UK. And also please spare me any mother-in-law articles in UK mags. The trick is probably to reference and keep the beauty of the colours, which in the end I’m sure will happen. Loved the Drashata designs – glorious styling and what great looking models. They looked older than 14/18 and had great figures!

  9. Blue Floppy Hat says:

    As far as traditional clothing goes, despite the constant laments of the culture police I think it’s safe to say it’ll never die out (though I despise the bastardised sequins-and-glitter ethnic look of Bollywood), the trouble is most Indian designers (I’ve said this before) just don’t seem to be very sure of what they want to do (of course, you might know otherwise, having worked with them). And Indian clothing by Indian designers will never go out of fashion- the massive popularity of designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee stands as proof of that, but the trouble is I don’t know how many designers really make clothes- either trad or ‘western’- that are relevant to people who aren’t super-partygoers and just want clothes they can wear, and I’ve said this before- the cutting can be pretty crap for the money you pay. Though I reckon all the surface embroidery and texturing is a way to make up for that…
    As for the other issue, that of wanting to be ‘western’, I reckon anyone who’d ever had cliches associated with their nationality can get tired of it. But I don’t understand why some titles feed all the cliches (Bollywood, maharajas, elephants) and leave out the relevant stuff (maids are an issue I’ve dealt with too, pretending we don’t have issues unique to this country is a bit daft).

  10. Win-Ni says:

    ahh…we can never have enough of the eastern flava, can we?

    have a look at south east asian designers. they do quirky pieces, it’s a different twist of asian flava in the South East Asia region – good ones like Thailand, Malaysia (that’s where im from!), indonesia, singapore..etc

    x Miss Cake

  11. atelier says:

    I totally agree with you. It’s ironic and sad at the same time, but in most countries they like anything but their own designs…

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