Book Review: Contemporary Indian Fashion

Thanks to globalization and India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse in the last decade, the latest bout of Western infatuation with all things Indian is arguably the most intense it has been since the heady days of British colonialism. There has been a a recent artistic renaissance, coupled with a steady increase in both interest and export. First it was a small curiosity about Bollywood films, solidified by Slumdog Millionaire, followed by the wild success of Indian contemporary art in the last five years. It is no wonder that the next area of focus would be fashion. Contemporary Indian Fashion, edited by Federico Rocca, is a visually stunning and well-curated coffee-table book featuring 24 leading young designers working out of India. They not only represent the here-and-now of Indian fashion, but its future as well.

This is, essentially, a picture book. Made up of 6 to 12 page spreads, the work of each designer is showcased along with a very short rundown of their background and an interview. All of the clothes are wonderful to look at, and I found myself flipping through it again and again, as I would a really great magazine. Each spread nicely balances editorial flourishes, pages featuring multiple looks from a collection, and several detail shots. In the case of Indian fashion, the prominence of the detail shot is absolutely essential due to the meticulous details of the clothes themselves.

One of the things that sets Indian designers apart from their international counterparts is their use of traditional hand-craft techniques. Everything from embroidery to beading, cut-work to weaving, is used to maximum effect. As Rocca points out in his introduction, for Indian designers, “God is in the details.”

There is text in this book, too. The short introduction manages to give the reader a primer on Indian-ness and the current influence of ’80s-style consumerism that has swept the sub-continent. However, while mostly concise, the writing style has a few problems. At times it can be convoluted and confusing. Rocca doesn’t seem to know whether he wants the writing to be analytical and academic or simply a casual blogger-style presentation of the now. Also, it (especially in the intro) conveys an affected pretentiousness. He states that the book’s aim is to answer the question: “Will an Indian designer ever dress Western women?” He then makes repeated references to German film director Wim Wenders, Mies van der Rohe, and Latin and French phrases. It seems that Mr. Rocca, an Italian fashion journalist, wants to distance himself from his non-Western subject. This is sad, since the designs featured here are more than enough to quell any prejudiced notions of third world inferiority.

The fact that the content of this book has been defined in the terms of the West is annoying, an exercise in Eurocentric validation. These are designers that could potentially, or have already, broken into Western markets. The uniqueness of contemporary Indian design is the melding of both eastern and western aesthetics, all the while staying true to traditional Indian textile and adornment processes and techniques. The combination is elegant, lush, modern and beautiful; India does not need to be patted on the head by foreign fashion editors.

And it may be due to the distance between the author and his subject, but I get the sense that not much on-the-ground research was done – indicated in part by extremely short designer interviews (so short, in fact, they might easily have been conducted via text message). Beside thorough and sumptuous fashion spreads, these tiny interviews feel either superfluous or totally insufficient. When put together, these gaffs and gaps suggest Rocca is an unreliable narrator, calling into question the thoroughness of the book as a whole.

In addition to these issues, Mr. Rocca and the good folks at Damiani should remember that readers appreciate the little things – like a table of contents, an index, and PAGE NUMBERS! Information regarding the number of designers featured in this book and the number of pages dedicated to each was brought to you by this reviewer’s ability to flip pages and count. Although initially distracted by the gorgeous pictures, when I wanted to go back and find a particular designer or look, I had to search page by page. Completely unacceptable.

However, although problematic in its motivations (and a tad in its execution), this book is really the only one of its kind out there, and it’s been a long time coming. There has been a definite dearth of comprehensive looks at the major changes the Indian fashion industry has undergone in the past few years. In that sense, Contemporary Indian Fashion is a great starting point from which to dive into the beautiful, colourful, and detailed designs being produced in the sub-continent. At the very least, it will make any lover of fashion absolutely happy.

Well, until they try to find something twice.

Contemporary Indian Fashion, by Federico Rocca, Damiani, 2009
Reviewed by Anisha Seth

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Contemporary Indian Fashion

  1. Wow, those textiles are stunning. I agree, I’d love to see a whole series like this by country. Ahem, publishers?

  2. The pictures are tremendous… I love it when I’m able to see a lot of designs from a collection. I’ve had a look through this book and it really is beautiful.

    BUT WHO DOESN’T PUT IN PAGE NUMBERS? That’s just plain mean!

  3. I really enjoyed this insightful review! It would be easy to be lulled by the beauty of the textiles. Good for you for also taking the publishers to task (lacking a table of contents sounds cheap and lazy) and contextualizing the Eurocentric attitude.

  4. okay, several things:

    For India, shouldn’t it be ‘GODS are in the details’? (sorry! couldn’t resist)

    Also, can’t believe that the text is so Euro-centric! India is a fashion powerhouse in its own right! It’s bad enough we refer to ‘Bollywood’, despite India’s film industry being much much larger than America’s. It reminds me of the article in our last issue about an encyclopedia of world fashion, and how we really have to get away from defining fashion along Western lines.

    Slash, I love the image of Anisha literally counting pages, declaring ” Completely Unacceptable!” to herself.

    Slash, will have to atleast flip through this next time I’m in the office. Is my man Manish Arora mentioned?

  5. Max, that’s your man featured in the second photo from Spring/Summer ’08. The skirt featured on the cover is also his from the same collection.

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