Museum of Kind 01: India in Fashion

Museums are such a happy place. You get to learn about art, history, culture, politics, drama and every other nuance about a country. But every now and then, its the unique ones that captures your attention. Coming from a country with rich heritage and traditions, it is often surprising how neglected the artisans culture is often neglected, just for no reason other than the fact no one has the time for such intricate details, it doesn’t pay much, and basic ignorance in the face of the next big thing. India has a lot of skilled folks in the form of weavers, artisans, potters, wood artists and embroiderers. And unofficial figures suggest that we have nearly 200 million of them. This actually makes the sector one of the largest employment generators after agriculture. But the sad reality is that most artisans earn less than ₹10,000 a month. The sector is beset with problems. Most artisans work independently. And that means they simply don’t have economies of scale. They can’t buy raw materials at bulk prices. They can’t rely on technology because they don’t have the capital to invest in it. Their output is limited and they also have to compete with mass-market brands that copy their designs and sell for cheap. That’s the reason why, the hype of recent Indian Met Gala in the advent of a Dior show and the launch of India’s first fashion museum, deserves its due mention.

The exhibition at Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural centre (NMACC) deserves a recognition for many reasons, but primarily its quality of curation. India in Fashion features 10 zones with over 140 rare costumes and textiles from around the world, curated by Hamish Bowles. As both Editor in Chief of The World of Interiors and Global Editor at Large for Vogue, Hamish Bowles is recognized as one of the most respected authorities on fashion and design.

Mr. Bowles has acted as creative consultant and curator for a number of critically acclaimed exhibitions including 2017’s House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, which drew from the wardrobes of the historic Derbyshire house’s most famous inhabitants, among them Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire; Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy; and Deborah Mitford. He has an extensive private collection of historic haute couture and culturally significant garments. He has lent pieces to exhibitions at several museums including: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

It is one of a kind unique exhibition that looks outwards from India to the West and maps the impact of India’s textiles, crafts and architectural forms on the Western textile between 19th and 21st century. While we forget what’s in our own backyard, artists and designers world over have taken a leaf out of the history of a multicultural nation that India is. Their works have reminded us that art is all about the interpretation. One such noteworthy mention would be that of Alexander McQueen, one of the most celebrated fashion designers of his generation, known for his highly original designs that married artistry with exceptional technical ability. In 2009, Gaga was one of the first to wear McQueen’s architecturally masterful heels in her video for ”Bad Romance. In 2010, Alexander McQueen broke the internet when he premiered Bad Romance as the finale line-up track for his last ‘finished’ collection – Plato’s Atlantis. His closing look “Jellyfish” opens the India in fashion NMACC exhibit. The piece is said to have been inspired by the beetle ‘Sternocera Ruficornis’ known for its bright metallic green and blue wing cases.

One of the exhibit is infact Naeem Khan creation for the first lady at white the house, worn during the state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009.

Naeem Khan referenced Andy Warhol’s ‘Flowers’ series of screen prints in his sequined dress for the Obama’s first state held dinner

The exhibit pays its due tribute to Indian cinema with 3 iconic Dharma archival costumes designed by Manish Malhotra – Kajol’s iconic green ensemble for Dilwale Dullhaniya Le Jayenge, Kareena’s flared sharara from Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and Priyanka’s sequined saree from Dostana. Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla’s 10 panel ghagra with mirror worn by Madhuri Dixit in the movie Devdas also features as a bollywood tribute.

Whether it’s Chintz from 1750 to 1800, or Muslin from 1815 to 1870, or the Great Exhibition from 1851, or the work of three great designers (Chanel, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent) who have all been influenced by India in different ways – Each curation has been evaluated from around the world to reflect on their story.

The fabled Chanel Paris-Bombay’ Métiers d’Art collection is a gasping moment for fashion novice like me. It was literally the Paris version of India as an idea. Karl Lagerfeld took inspiration from India for his pre-autumn/winter 2012-13 collection, which he unveiled in all its glory at Chanel’s Grand Palais home. While Karl himself has never been to India but drew on history, imagination, and particularly Coco Chanel’s sari-styled dresses and traditional Indian-inspired jewellery from her Spring/Summer 1939 Haute Couture collection. Interestingly, most of the collection was said to have derived inspiration from Indian men’s clothes rather than women’s clothes since they’re easier to wear.

The house of giant series continues to pay a fitting tribute to Christian Dior, especially in the footstep of Dior’s latest event that showcased its Fall 2023 collection in Mumbai on March 30, thus becoming the first fashion house to unveil the latest lines in India. Everything from sari-inspired skirts to boleros to vibrantly coloured outfits in silks, including those in an Indian pink, were on display, with the Gateway of India as the backdrop in the show led by Dior’s first female creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri to highlight the collaboration between the french luxury house and Chanakya International, an Indian textile craft atelier that has been the brand’s source of surface embroidery for nearly 30 years.

The influence of the beautiful country of India has been infused with the codes and essence of the house of Dior since the 1950s by Monsieur Dior himself. Christian Dior often named the majority of his most distinctive creations after cities, friends and loved ones. In 1955, within his collections he presented “Soirée de lahore” translation in English to “Lahore Evening”.

The exuberance of the house’s third creative director Gianfranco Ferré and the femininity of Dior resulted in one of the most stunning ball gowns I’ve ever seen “Robe Koh-I-Noor “ from the Christian Dior Fall 1996 Haute Couture Collection.

The next in house of giant series would be Yves Saint Laurent. India remains one of the major sources of inspiration in the work of this couturier, a country whose culture and history he learnt mostly through his expansive collection of books. From his first 1962 Spring-Summer collection, he reinterprets the clothes of the imperial wardrobe in a personal and feminized vision of the traditional Indian coat. For his latest collection in 2002, he displays an array of draped dresses that draw on the fundamentals of the sari, the traditional dress of South India. In North India, Yves Saint Laurent finds a mixture of elegance and magic which inspires his revisiting of the sumptuous coats of the sovereigns of the region. He develops a taste for precious silk brocade gold, embossed metal embroidery and sophisticated costumes embellished with jewelry, influenced primarily by costumes of the Mughal court, the dynasty that ruled India from the 16th-19th century.

Can we ever think of India without a mention to its rich ethnic wear? The sarees in its traditional and modern drapes, lehengas that makes you think of creating a wedding scrapbook is enough to keep you going. And then the cherry on top – Ambani heiress with the first and only lehenga designed by Maison Valentino. The traditional Indian silhouette is enriched with gold embroideries and swarovski crystal.

John Galliano’s 2003 collection was another controversy that took inspiration, Leigh Bowery, icon of early ’80s London club culture and combined it with Indian-inspired colored powders from Holi and jewelry. The general message the collection conveyed was about the enjoyment of color, which had emerged as a major trend for spring (see the first image below). During the autumn/winter’ 17 show held during Paris Haute Couture Week, sari-inspired drapes and contemporary nose rings took centerstage under the name of Jean Paul Gaultier. In 2012, Gaultier put turbaned male models on the ramp, and the next year, showcased a collection that took cues from Rajasthan, and Indian ‘gypsy brides’. The most famous silhotte under the Gaultier name would be the velvet gown (last image) with a single strand of gold beads edged on the pallu that turns into a hood)

Each of the curated item has been loaned only because of the patron status of the Ambani family. The loaned pieces originate from the remarkable galleries of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and more. The fact that the loan list also looks into wall-to-wall insurance, transport and a long list of assurances says everything about the collection. Why that’s a big deal? Well, most international exhibitions do not come to India because we do not have a space of this magnitude that has the ability to showcase priceless artifacts in steady temperature, humidity and special lighting 24/7.

If you have walked through hallowed halls of other museums in India, you will be aware of the dusty corners and dim lightings that are so evident. Designed to protect and yet display such grandeur, requires an affinity for creating the perfect WOW moment. Ambanis delivered it in spades. From special mannequins to exquisite display cases, this was a mammoth of an task that was carried of eloquently with the help of a dedicated team that involved Indian fashion designers, conservators, specialists who know how to install vintage garments. For example, Chanel is inspired by the staircase in the Rue Cambon. So the designed cases have mirrors which reflect upwards and have the verticality of that amazing staircase. For Christian Dior, the cases resemble crystals because Christian Dior used embroidery and crystals in an extraordinary way, in his work. Then in Yves Saint Laurent, a kind of fantasy of Indian stepwells were reimagined through 14 meter high step-well made of gold rods of steel welded together on a bar scale.

Special commissions were undertaken for the project that looked into creating a new chapter of vision extraordinaire while remembering the past. Nothing speaks greater of Indian artisan affluence in the current Indian fashion domain than Rahul Mishra and Sabyasachi.

While being a constant favourite amongst our Bollywood brides, India’s most acclaimed fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee joined forces with red-soled shoe powerhouse, Christian Louboutin to produce one exquisite and unforgettable collection – asymmetrical Kedia, tulle lehenga and veil from the ‘Bater’ collection. Hand-dyed tulle, organic cotton, merino wool, silk chiffon and muslin embroidered with reverse appliqué, tilla, zardosi, hand-cut sequins and bullion.

On January 23, the opening day of Paris Haute Couture Week Spring-Summer 2023, the Noida-based designer Rahul Mishra showcased ‘Cosmos.’ Mishra is a proud endorser of the skill of Indian craftsmanship with each creation that takes up to 3,000 man hours to complete. Layers and layers of embroideries dance with appliquéd details, dramatic beaded fringing, glittering panels, and ornate renderings of flora and fauna – each layer speaking of a fantasy that one can barely imagine.

Can there be a better end? Past, Present and Future coming together in 50,000 sq.ft of area in an immersive journey.

Further readings:

The Museum of Kind is a series of unique experiences, as perceived by me. It is not a debate on which is the best of all.

01 – India in Fashion

02 – Neon in Junkyard

03 – Kimchi

Related (and not-so related) Posts:



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