The magnetism of Mumbai
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The hands that fastidiously thread, stitch and embellish the clothes produced by the world’s biggest luxury houses usually go unnoticed – and uncredited. Hours, days, sometimes even weeks are spent on the intricate beadwork or embroidery of a garment, but often only the brand’s name is acknowledged on the label.
Dior’s show for prefall ’23, presented at the Gateway of India monument in Mumbai, was intended to correct this, highlighting the work of the artisans that the house has longstanding relationships with. The collection referenced traditional Indian silhouettes and used techniques employed in different parts of the country for centuries: an appliqué method developed in the western state of Gujarat festooned the back of a jacket; block printing, which originated in Rajasthan and Gujarat, created fuchsia flowers on a long robe; while cropped jackets were trimmed with gold couching and satin stitching practised in regions across the country.
The collection was made in collaboration with Chanakya ateliers in Mumbai, with whom Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri has worked for more than 25 years, first at Fendi, then Valentino, and now through the French maison. “Craft is really embedded in our culture – every village in India has their own identity through their craft, and it’s a way of celebrating that,” says Karishma Swali, Chanakya’s artistic director. “What is unique about what we are able to offer at Chanakya is a take on these traditional techniques, making them relevant to today and also marrying them to the signature DNA of each brand.”
Dior’s acknowledgement of India as a place of exceptional skill is significant given its affiliation with French couture and culture. It also nods to the potential growth of India as both a producer and market for the global luxury industry. As a BRIC country, India has been identified as one of the world’s rising economic powers for decades but, despite steady growth since the 1990s, there hasn’t been a big domestic appetite for international luxury brands. But things are changing. India was recently labelled a “bright spot” in the midst of a global downturn, with estimates that it could outpace Germany and Japan to become the world’s third-largest economy over the next decade. With India’s population surpassing China’s this year, according to the United Nations, and with 66 to 100 million in the middle classes, according to the Pew Research Centre, the country is increasingly appealing as a consumer opportunity. Apple recently opened its first store in India, in the financial capital of Mumbai, while Tata Group, the country’s largest conglomerate, recently partnered with Richemont to sell Cartier, Piaget and Jaeger-LeCoultre locally. Bain & Company estimates that luxury spending in India, around €7-€8bn in 2022, is expected to reach €25-€30bn by 2030, propelled by changing attitudes and the behaviours of younger customers.
“In India, the luxury fashion market is not that old – probably about 20, 25 years,” says Divyam Mehta, a New Delhi-based fashion designer who launched his first line in 2007. “Before that we went through a period of industrialisation, where the industry was more driven towards what was basic or necessary, but when the economy grew in the ’90s, that was when we really started focusing on design and building luxury brands.”
Mehta’s brand champions the textiles and local craft of India, creating modern ready-to-wear that plays on classic silhouettes. He says the growth in luxury spending is tied to a renewed appetite for artisanship in India, driven by a group of designers who are shunning mass production in favour of slow, handmade – and more expensive – fashion. “Craft is luxury,” adds Mehta. “There is a movement that we’re seeing, of more brands feeling the same way. With industrialisation, you’re always trying to find a commercial solution to things, but when you do that you lose the emotion that goes into making things by hand.”
One of this year’s LVMH Prize nominees, Karu Research, was founded by New Delhi-based designer Kartik Kumra, who makes quilted drawstring trousers and separates from hand-loomed cotton. “I couldn’t see any Indian luxury brands at the best international stores, like Dover Street Market or Selfridges, nothing representing the culture,” says Kumra of the gap he sought to fill. “Dries Van Noten has done his embroidery here for a long time, and so does Bode. A lot of people make clothes here,” he adds. “But other than bridal couture, there haven’t been any cool ready-to-wear brands coming out of India for a really long time. No one had really cracked presenting India as a global luxury concept, and there weren’t really people talking about working with craftspeople.”
Kumra, who was studying economics in Pennsylvania while launching his brand, went back to India to visit different artisan groups to develop his supply chain and find people who could make the designs he had in mind. “The idea is that every piece has to have some level of artisanal involvement – we work with around 60 different groups,” he says. Karu Research was picked up by Mr Porter and Ssense in its first season, and now has 30 stockists around the world.
Kumra says only five per cent of his business comes from within India – a fact he puts down to a lack of interest in homespun local craft. “It’s super-hard to sell India to India,” he adds. “When you’re not proud of what you’re presenting, and you don’t support your own local designer economy, at least in ready-to-wear, out of the context of a wedding, then it’s hard for a brand.”
Despite that, the international market has provided impetus for many, giving fresh opportunities to support cottage industries that, as in many other countries, may otherwise become obsolete. New Delhi-based Kardo, which was founded in 2013 and is stocked throughout North America, Europe and Asia, includes a tag with each garment detailing the provenance – and the people – involved in making it.
Nila, a Jaipur-based initiative, was founded by Carole Bamford in 2016 on the principles of preserving traditional craft while utilising natural dyes. “We work to develop and support the value chain, whether it’s in cotton or other natural fibres or indigo and natural dyes, looking at farming, spinning and weaving,” says Anuradha Singh, head of the Lady Bamford Foundation. “We are here to support arts and communities, to relook and rethink their craft spaces and their techniques, and use sustainable indigenous ways of producing, keeping their skills intact and giving them design intervention.”
Singh adds that the emphasis on luxury and craft in India is also, in part, down to an acknowledgement of its importance to the economy and culture. “A lot of us have taken craft for granted, because it’s been so much a part of our lives,” adds Singh. “But I see that there is a renewed interest, in terms of people understanding more how valuable it is, not only for our culture, but also what it’s doing for our country economically. The artisanal and craft industry is the second largest after agriculture. So I think this revival is also recognition from people overseas valuing that.”