Out Of India

In vivid colors and fine textiles, the sub-continent shows its exuberant style

May 21, 2006|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Shopping in India, darling, is as important a cultural experience as sightseeing," a wise friend told me before I traveled there this spring.

Taking her advice to heart, I left with one suitcase, and returned with three. Each was nearly bursting with tablecloths, napkins, bedspreads, pillow covers, tunics, trousers, slippers, carved wood, plates, bowls and psychedelic posters depicting Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and other Hindu gods. I'd even commissioned the manufacture of an enormously quirky beach umbrella -- its interior and exterior are different patterns of hand block-printed fabric -- under which four adults, perhaps more, can seek a shady respite from global warming.

After only two weeks, India had transformed my sense of style, as it soon may seduce yours. For the past 15 years, India has been the second fastest-growing country in the world (after China) and a 2003 study by Goldman Sachs projected that in 50 years, India's will be the most robust of all the world's major economies. Cultural power accompanies economic might, so trend-spotters predict India's aesthetic will grow accordingly in global influence.

Bear in mind that, though fashion has been Euro-centric for roughly the past century -- we look to France for chic, Italy for bella moda -- throughout most of history, Asian and Indian sensibilities held sway in matters of worldly taste. Traders have crisscrossed the subcontinent for centuries, looking for exotica to export. The togas worn by Roman senators, for instance, were made from Indian cotton.

What will tomorrow's treasures from India look like? I'd come to see (and shop) for myself.

Kings of bling

Diana Vreeland, the fashion maverick, once famously quipped that hot pink is the navy blue of India.

What she meant -- that the country's "uniform" is actually a riot of color -- is more true today than ever. Indian ladies sashay about in jewel-toned saris; men wear turbans with the heft and hue of cotton candy; and both sexes daub pigments at their hairline or between their eyes, sometimes blending in glitter, a sequin, even grains of rice. Indians love color so much, in fact, that every year during the spring festival of Holi, the whole nation goes on a merry, rainbow rampage, tossing about powders in Day-Glow shades.

This passionate palette is combined with an unsurpassed expertise in textiles (Indian fabrics have been admired worldwide since the 15th century), and generations of families that excel at crafts such as carpet weaving, stone carving and pottery. Equally likely to work on royal palaces or Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic temples, these artisans create an extraordinary cross-fertilization of culture and commerce, high art and low, the sacred and profane.

"We like to adorn ourselves," said Harmeet Bajaj, a fashion publicist who lives in Delhi. "India really invented the idea of bling."

I was curious to see how this dynamic street culture would percolate down into contemporary clothing and, as luck would have it, my visit coincided with Delhi's seventh annual Fashion Week. For several fascinating days, I went to museums in the morning and attended runway, or "ramp" shows as they're called here, in the afternoon. I met merchandisers from all over the world who are anxious to export Indian fashion and to anoint the newest "star" of sub-continental style.

Maybe it will be Manish Arora, who already has a lucrative deal with Reebok for Fish Fry, his whimsical line of sneakers. Gold lame, anyone? With wings, of course. Or, Malini Ramani, whose sexy, flirty clothes are already a hit at Indomix, a store in New York that sells up-to-the-minute Indian couture. Or, Rajesh Pratap Singh, whose tone-on-tone shirts -- exquisitely subtle in their embroidery --soon will be available at Bloomingdale's.

The abundance of embellishment on these clothes -- hand-loomed fabrics, raffia and felt applique, tie-dye, crystals, beads and sequins -- was like nothing I'd ever seen before.

Hoping to learn more about Indian textiles, I visited H.P. Singh Fabrics, an emporium at Nehru Place in Delhi that attracts fashion designers from Asia, Europe and America. "The main industry in India is cottage industry," Bashi Singh, the store's managing director, told me. "Every 500 kilometers, the crafts and culture completely change. Nearly every village has its own distinctive art form and its own dialect and its own traditional garments. And, as the garments change, it reflects different methods of weaving."

Dumbstruck, I wished aloud for pillow covers or even some pants to be made from these gorgeous materials. Shazzam! A business card was pressed into my hand, and I was soon consulting with a tailor who -- in two days -- made me 10 pairs of trousers (fabric and labor costs combined, they each were less than $20). One pair is hot pink.

Everything beautiful

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