NEW DELHI Fashion designers in India, known for shimmering silks and other rich textiles, must be true to their roots and play up these strengths, along with a fine hand for detail, if they aspire to global recognition, says veteran couturier JJ Valaya.
A little more than a decade after India held its first fashion week, its fledgling industry is trying to break into the international market. But more than 80 percent of buyers are still from home, where disposable income has soared.
"If we take our sensibilities and tidbits of our culture and throw in all the madness, the quirkiness ... that is going to be the answer to the future of India fashion," Valaya told Reuters.
"And I think there is a huge market for that all over the world. Huge."
Though textiles, embroideries and fabrics have been sourced from India for years, Indian designers still struggle to make it to the catwalks of more prestigious fashion weeks in Paris, Milan or New York.
Indian designers have tried their hand at Western designs but there are few success stories. One of the exceptions is Manish Arora, known for his psychedelic outfits. He made his Paris Fashion week debut in 2007 and has dressed Kate Moss and Rihanna, among others.
"The problem with Indians is ... we think we do great gowns, we think we do a great dress, something which will make it to the pages of the glossies but which will not let you make a business of the whole thing," Valaya said, on the sidelines of India's premier bi-annual fashion event in New Delhi this week.
"What we have is craft. What we have is fabric, weaves, we have to play on it, it's our strength."
A traditionalist himself, Valaya is known for his exquisite bridal trousseaus, weaving elements of culture and history with contemporary style. His pret collection influenced by the Ottoman Empire will bring New Delhi's Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week to a close on Sunday.
MOVE TO THE EAST
In an increasingly globalised fashion industry, there is a perceptible move toward the East, which Valaya credits to the emerging markets of India and China.
"The focus is now shifting to this part of the world -- China, India, here everyone's got the bucks," he said. "They are ready for new things ... that will be a paradigm shift and that's what we should focus on."
About two decades ago, Valaya was among the earliest students to enroll at the National Institute of Fashion and Technology in New Delhi, an unusual move at a time when designing was considered little different from tailoring.
"Most people thought it was a tailoring institute," he said. "People could not understand the concept of having a person's name on a garment."
Even now, Indian high fashion, which emerged after the country's liberalisation in the 1990s, remains small. It accounts for barely 0.3 percent of the international industry's net worth, according to an estimate by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).
But India has seen a huge rise from a primarily bridal and wedding wear market to a billion-dollar industry, which ASSOCHAM sees crossing 110 billion rupees net worth by 2020. It was estimated at about $55 million in 2007 and about $150 million currently.
The country's middle and upper classes, with growing wealth and disposable incomes, are creating huge opportunities for designers. Even men are also becoming fashion conscious and ready to experiment.
"The men have changed a lot. When I started my career, they all got married in three-piece suits and look at them now, they are the peacocks, they want to compete with the women," Valaya said, referring to the current fad for luxurious weddings and designer wear.
With India deemed a booming market for luxury brands, designers face competition at home from big fashion houses that have penetrated the market and are coming up with products made to suit the Indian palate such as the Hermes sari and Jimmy Choo's Chandra clutch.
But Valaya sees most of the competition in ready-to-wear, not in couture, with international brands like Bebe, Mango and Zara available in the country.
"Every possible ready-to-wear brand is going to come to the country and what they offer is great quality, a huge merchandising mix and fantastic pricing," he says.
"If they (Indian designers) don't wake up, they will be working for export houses. So they have to make the look different, yet relevant."
(Reporting by Arnika Thakur; editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte)
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