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India's Latest Export


Indian fashion gets a modern makeover and captivates a global audience.

Indian-born designer Anand Jon never fantasized about dressing women. "Maybe undressing them," the charismatic 31-year old teases a room full of investment bankers at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. With his long locks pulled into a ponytail and the top buttons of his black shirt undone, Jon resembles a flirt, already thinking about the next hot party. But this morning, Jon is all business -- his apparel business to be exact. He is leading a conference for the Asia Society about the success of his culturally-charged fashion designs -- the kind of success no one would have expected from an Indian designer fifteen years ago.

When Jon arrived in the United States in 1991, there was no voice for where he was from. While prominent designers like Armani and Valentino sometimes turned to India's artisans for fine hand embroidery, Indian designers remained absent from the mainstream. Their designs were believed to be too exotic and too traditional for the Western masses.

Today, however, Jon and India's other latest and greatest designers have found their way onto the prestigious runways and upscale retailers of New York, London, and Milan.Mixing khadi (lightweight Indian fabric) and rich velvet for eclectic dresses (Sabyasachi) and extravagant Bollywood textiles with pop art (Manish Arora), these designers have translated Indian tradition into cosmopolitan chic for the sophisticated and fashionable masses.

Photos courtesy of anandjon.com
Anand Jon's Jeanisis Spring 2007 show at New York Fashion Week.

This East-meets-West sensibility surfaced in 1999 with Jon's first collection, which premiered in New York. The self-proclaimed "bad boy" decided to shake things up and collide American youth culturewith Indian chic. A "cultural exchange," Jon turned saris into sexy modern evening wear and kameezes (Indian tunic) into revealing tops paired with hot pants and knee-high boots. His designs eventually attracted celebrities like Paris Hilton and Janet Jackson as well as major retailers like Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. "Culture evolves," the pioneer Indian designer says, and, luckily years later, it looks like the fashion industry has finally decided to evolve with it.

Photos courtesy of nymag.com
Ashish N Soni's Spring 2007 show at New York Fashion Week.

In 2005, Ashish Soni debuted his version of Indian apparel at New York Fashion Week. "India isn't just about elephants and snake charmers anymore," Soni told Women's Wear Daily in October 2006. "And Ashish N Soni [Ashish Soni's line] isn't ethnic.'" And indeed, his sophomore spring 2007 collection couldn't be any further away from the over-the-top glamour stereotypically associated with Indian fashion. The Ashish N Soni spring line presented minimalist architectural silhouettes in native Indian fabrics, mostly in classic black and crisp white. Even Soni's more glamorous pieces such as trapeze and baby-doll dresses exuded an understated elegance in gold brocades and rich mauve prints.

Also signaling the increasing international presence of Indian designers is Calcutta-born designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who joined Soni at New York Olympus Fashion Week this year. Mukherjee was the first-ever Indian designer at Milan's fashion week in 2004 and like Ashish Soni, he received his invitation to New York after winning one of ten coveted spots in the second annual IMG Modeling and UPS sponsored show, Delivering Fashion's Future. (Past winners also include Asian designers Mary Ping and Doo.Ri.) Mukherjee's spring 2007 Sabyasachi line presented a sophisticated version of his signature quirky eclecticism.

Photos courtesy of style.com
Sabyasachi Spring 2007 at New York Fashion Week.

Models with neatly coifed bobs and thick framed glasses strutted down the runway in trapeze and circle skirts that juxtaposed everything from lush velvets to gold sequins to embroidered khadi (traditional Indian lightweight handspun fabric). Ensembles were often paired with leggings and patent platform pumps for a modern touch, and topped off with kitschy, cute floral headpieces for that hint of girlish innocence. Mukherjee's look could best be described as cosmopolitan geek chic with its bold, but understated clashing of genres, and it's perfectly appealing for the savvy woman looking for something wearable, distinctive, and fun.

Across the Atlantic, India's beloved bold New Delhi-based designer, Manish Arora made his own waves with an outlandish spring collection at London's Spring 2007 Fashion week. Arora became the first Indian designer ever to be invited to the celebrated event last year. Arora's vibrant fall 2005 ensembles stunned audiences with their dramatic flair: metallic printed circle skirts with matching costume headdresses and bright face paint clashed Bollywood glamour and pop art.

Photos courtesy of vogue.co.uk
Manish Arora's Spring 2007 show at  London Fashion Week

For spring 2007 Fashion week, Arora returned to London with a slew of voluminous, printed garden dresses, embellished with feathers and fabric flowers. The dresses were accented, of course, with dramatic masks and even butterflies flittering from models' eyelids and lips. The collection marks his least obviously India-inspired apparel to date and is catching the fancy of aspiring spring princesses everywhere: his acclaimed innovative designs are now available in some of the world's most popular upscale retailers like Harrods (London), Le Bon Marché (Paris), as well as Saks and Bloomingdales (New York).

If Arora's retail recognition isn't proof enough that Indian fashion is the next big thing, there's his contract with Reebok. Through his spin-off label Fish Fry (est. 2001), Arora designed a couture collection of sneakers entitled Reebok's Fish Fry Range in 2005. The line included 12-limited edition designs, and with only a few hundred of each model, the sneakers quickly became an international collectors' item.

But Arora isn't the only Indian designer trying to snatch a piece of the global market through a mainstream staple like sneakers. After years of creating slinky sari-inspired evening wear, the forerunner of Indian designers himself, Anand Jon, is launching his first designer jeans line, Jeanisis, this spring. Truly blending American contemporary with Indian tradition, the line pairs updated classics like a sultry, sheer beaded kameez (traditional Indian tunic) or a midriff baring embellished sari top with skintight low rise jeans. Jeanisis strives, quite blatantly, to bring Indian sexy back. When asked how his revealing designs fit in with India's supposedly "conservative" culture, Jon responds, "Are Indians really conservative? Yea, we invented the Kama Sutra."

Jon's line will be available at several upscale boutiques in Los Angeles and New York. If you don't catch him in stores, you can catch him this spring on a VH1 reality TV show he developed himself.

Photos courtesy of newsimg.bbc.co.uk
Designed by PK Puri.

Yes, it's official. Indian designers are everywhere -- international runways, department stores, boutiques, and now thanks to Anand Jon, the small screen -- and their traditionally inspired apparel is finally reaching the masses just as they had planned.

"I thought the best way was to start by doing something Indian," Mukherjee told the New York Times just before his Olympus Fashion Week debut. "It is no longer perceived as exotic. I see the whole global market like a spice rack. If the pepper is missing, you've got to give them pepper." If this year is any indicator, Indian designers are just beginning to spice things up.


For More information see:

Ashish N Soni: www.ashishnsoni.com/

Manish Arora: www.manisharora.ws

Anand Jon: www.anandjon.com

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Published: Wednesday, December 20, 2006