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The Score!
Text by Sohiny Das and Photographs by Bajirao Pawar
Published: Volume 18, Issue 5, May, 2010
This year marks the 20th industry anniversary of the queen of Indian resort and ‘inventor’ of the kurti. Sohiny Das meets Monisha Jaising and discusses changing definitions in design, the recession and its effects on the global fashion outlook

Styling by Sohiny Das and Rishika Roopchand
Make-up & Hair Courtesy: Jean Claude Biguine, Mumbai.
Models courtesy: Surelee Joseph at Celebutante Talent Management.
Preeti Dhata, Archana Vadnerkar, Gaelyn Mendonca and Sneha Upadhyay at Elite Model Management.

Resort is suddenly the key Indian fashion buzzword. The category has encompassed a large part of the country’s apparel for decades, but the formal coining of the name only happened here a few seasons back, post a global trickle-down of terminology. At present we even have fashion weeks dedicated to lounge attire for haute holidays. Actually, resort is now mainstream.

Monisha Jaising is smiling. Two decades ago, when the design industry in India was at a fledgling stage and taking the traditional craft route on a grand scale, she envisioned a cleaner, more modern application of our heritage which could be easily absorbed on a global, day-to-day basis. “I started my career as an exporter,” says the veteran. “My target was mainly the West, where it was easier to sell clothes under the ‘resort’ tag.” Over the years, the domestic market also showed a demand for designer ready-to-wear. “We have embraced the holiday culture; there are more spas and resorts that have opened up and more people are opting for separate travel wardrobes. Also, our weather demands free-flowing shapes and breathable fabrics like cotton mul, georgette and chiffon – which we have access to, and colour has always been our strength. Therefore, resort here is not restricted to holidays alone.”

The alumnus of the American College of Applied Arts and Royal College of Art (both in London), since the beginning, had a prêt vision. Her education, travels and export background gave her a perspective from both within and outside the country and honed her focus regarding the specialty of her brand. Under her eponymous label and another one called ‘Azzure’, Jaising presented well-tailored, user-friendly separates that embodied everyday chic at attractive price points. But her designs were not just about flab-concealing kaftans; they were aimed for a fit, body-conscious woman – not necessarily the Hervé Léger type, but someone who made a conscious effort to maintain herself and followed an active lifestyle. The ‘smart’ factor of her clothes meant that a woman from any part of the world could wear them, but a touch of desi-ness was identifiable in every piece, along with a luxurious feel. Jaising became ‘the princess of bohemian luxe’.

After retailing successfully from prominent boutiques and stores across other continents and home turf alike, the forerunner of Indian designer prêt hit the runways when the country’s fashion weeks came into existence in the early 2000s. Jaising created a rage with her interpretation of the demure desi kurta; it became shorter, sexier and more urban. Arguably the inventor of the ‘kurti’ (the kurta in this nouveau avatar), she made it a staple of all her collections – teaming it up with trousers, shorts and jackets; styling it with a corporate edge or a sporty vibe. Her prints and embellishments were always placed effectively, working in tandem with shape and construction details; neither dominating over the other. Effortless dressing – the art of getting attention without having to shout for it – was mastered.

quickly became a respected brand name – a design force to be reckoned with – dependable for her unfailing aesthetics, competitive pricing and distinctive detailing. Runways and rails were conquered alike. She even collaborated with high street retail brand Wills Lifestyle for a sub-range under her own name, for the label. True, she was not an ‘innovator’; she did not create dramatically memorable moments or step into the ‘avant garde’ circle, lauded by critics or hailed as a fashion messiah. But she was a safe bet to deliver ‘what works’ – sartorially superior options. Always.

Since the mid part of the present decade, the number of players in the Indian industry started growing rapidly. What was earlier a particular designer’s forte began to lose the security of distinction. Inevitably, there emerged those who were ‘inspired’ by Jaising. She tactfully avoids commenting on this (often deliberate) overlap of images and instead, speaks of “the talented breed of new designers in the country over the last five years. In another five years, the whole scenario will dramatically change.” Despite the competition, she is calm and secure, rather appreciative of “the youth – they are all so creative. There are more design school options now and most of them are very well trained. Actually, this injection of numbers is a great thing.”

And then the dreaded ‘R’ season hit us. The Indian apparel industry was badly affected. “Since I also deal in exports, I sensed early feelers,” she says, deciding to temporarily withdraw from participating at the fashion weeks, due to the thin trickle of buyers. “I wanted to concentrate on my existing buyers and showcase my collections directly, as during this time, I wouldn’t have met any new clients at these trade events.” But along with the downside of the doldrums, Jaising also observed a benefit. “Asia – particularly India and China – has been a major manufacturer and exporter. We can deliver a good product at a good price. The West was far worse hit than us here, which sort of turned the focus towards us. Earlier, designers from Italy or France would come to India to source material and production units. Now, they’re also looking at our minds, to source design and creative thinking. Asia’s where fashion is headed.”

But there is no need for us to get complacent. “Even now, for outsiders, India equals cheap labour; so cheap prices,” Jaising tells us. “During recession, budgets would be set aside for houses in America and Europe, and then, if there was anything left over, other countries would be considered. For something higher than the export level market, they are not ready to experiment yet; they’d rather buy from Italy than India. It will take some time.” The point of our trade events is…? “When we started our fashion weeks ten years back, there were more buyers because India was a new destination. Ever since, and also because of the tough couple of years, the number of foreign buyers has dwindled. If we deliver quality products at competitive prices, then that will be our best bet.”

With the recession hopefully behind us, Jaising plans a return to the runways. After a hiatus of three seasons, she presented a collection at the HDIL India Couture Week 2009 in Mumbai, entitled ‘From Resort to Red Carpet in 30 Minutes’. “I aimed to appeal to a younger audience for couture, who wouldn’t be intimidated by its concept or the daunting price tags.” Simplifying the frills and excesses associated with couture (literally), she put together a luxurious range of wearable pieces in quality fabrics, avoiding an overdose of embellishments. But was this elevated prêt then? Have distinctive boundaries blurred? “If we go by old definitions, couture essentially had to be ‘Made in France’. That was before countries outside Europe started showcasing collections. We have a hand-made tradition here. A quality garment from Lebanon or India adheres to other parameters or requirements to qualify as couture. We cannot overlook those. Over time, definitions change. The boundaries still exist, but are more flexible now. That was bound to happen.”

Rules are altering. Centres are shifting. The present seems like a crucial time for Jaising and Indian fashion alike. Everyone here is gearing up and hoping for a post-depression boom. With her experience, intuition and enviable foresight, she is all set to conquer a third decade amidst competition from fresh blood and China. Twenty under her belt have put Jaising in a limited elite set of Indian marathoners who are still running strong. She has the assurance of a leader and the measured optimism of an experienced but passionate creator. And one foot on the future, it is presumed. “No I can’t pat myself on the back,” she laughs at my question. “It is because I have never felt like I’ve achieved lots and maintained my drive, that I’ve survived twenty years. Still a long way to go.” Go where? “Just go with the flow. No planning. That is the charm, isn’t it?”

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