Fashion's plus point: Freeing clothes of their sizes

A new generation of designers in India has made the anti-fit popular, and is freeing size, one outfit at a time

Published: Feb 25, 2016
Fashion's plus point: Freeing clothes of their sizes
Image: Getty Images
Sonakshi Sinha has often been attacked by fashion press for her full figure

You can be an extra small in a Rohit Gandhi and Rahul Khanna dress, but a large in a Monisha Jaising kurti; a small in an Alexander McQueen stretch knit dress, yet a large in a pair of Zara cotton trousers.

Yes, contemporary sizing can be very confusing. But fashion is reflective of the times. And size is a complex, bewildering issue today. Back in the 1950-60s, Marilyn Monroe at size 12 was considered a sex symbol. And the Indian leading lady in Bollywood was wide-hipped without fear. But things were simpler then. For one, the concept of size zero hadn’t yet become all-pervasive.

That, of course, changed everything. Consider that though the Kate Moss ideal seems to have given way to the curvier Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian’s half-sister apparently suffers from body image issues despite her 27-inch waist size. In India too, a land of curvy beauties, the fashion press attacks Sonakshi Sinha for her full figure; and if Aishwarya Rai Bachchan puts on a pound, she becomes “too out of shape” to be a red carpet style icon.  

The price of celebrity (read paparazzi and snark) must be paid, but here’s the good news: In India, particularly in recent times, thanks to its heritage of custom tailoring, awareness of body types and an evolving fashion aesthetic, curvy women are increasingly less short-changed in the high fashion department.

For instance, despite their DNA being ‘ready-to-wear’, most fashion designers are happy to take custom orders. Even at online retail portals such as Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop (PPUS), you can have an outfit made to your size. “Since most outfits have the option to be custom-made, we can actually cater to women of all sizes and shapes,” says Pernia Qureshi, the founder of the website, who is also an actor and an author (Be Stylish with Pernia Qureshi, 2013). “In a country where almost everything designer is custom-made, there is no need to have a separate line for plus-sized women.”

Sounds utopian but this is a point Mumbai-based designer Nachiket Barve echoes. “We are a very accepting and customer-friendly market, especially when compared to global standards. You can easily place orders or even find large sizes off the rack. And honestly, what can be less size-ist than the sari?” In fact, many Indian designers keep their sizes more generous than their western counterparts as Indian women are curvier, he adds. “And because women feel better when they buy something in a size smaller than what they had expected,” Barve says. But this size evolution can be largely pinned to the new kids on the block.

It is interesting that a new wave of young designers with a more size-friendly approach has arrived at a time when Indian designers are more comfortable with being, well, Indian. It has been over 15 years since the country held its first Fashion Week; and the first ‘weeks’ were, inevitably, all about being seen as ‘Western’. Many of the designs on the ramp were simply watered-down versions of what had just shown in Milan, Paris and London. The sari as a drape was mostly ignored, and Indian fabrics were snubbed in favour of form-fitting synthetic fabrics. Now as international brands have made a beeline for the country, Indian designers have realised it is best for them to be comfortable in their own skin, and that being ‘Indian’ is what sets them apart.

Shefalee Vasudev, a well-known fashion commentator and author of Powder Room: The Untold Story of Indian Fashion (2012), observes that the sari is currently seen as “the showstopper garment of au courant fashion”. With the most recent Amazon India Fashion Week finale celebrating the weaves of Benares, Indian fashion has never been more Indian, but in a new and contemporary way.


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Pernia Qureshi (left), founder of Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop; Rahul Mishra,  the current poster boy of Indian fashion

This aesthetic is exemplified by the likes of Rahul Mishra, who is the current poster boy of Indian fashion. Having shown in Paris for the last three seasons, his label is available in London’s Harvey Nichols and Paris’s Colette and is giving India’s new take on fashion an international visibility. “The fashion we saw at Indian fashion weeks with jersey drapes and lycra was a trend but cannot be defined as the new Indian aesthetic, which is based on the great past that India has and in creating a new universal look and adding surprising newness to it,” Mishra says.

And Indian fashion is traditionally more forgiving too. The silhouettes are roomier, if you will. So, as young fashion designers look back to Indian roots, they are redeveloping silhouettes such as the angrakha and kameez into shirt styles. At the same time, there is a shift from lycra and jersey to natural fabrics like khadi and silk. The result is more size-neutral clothing.

This is also good business sense. When you speak to most designers, you will find that it is the M and L sizes which sell best—it isn’t just skinny women who are spending on fashion. Perhaps this realisation has given new impetus and direction to young designers in Indian fashion whose clothes are all about anti-fit. Think labels such as Eka by Rina Singh, Lovebirds by Amrita Khanna and Gursi Singh, and Bodice by Ruchika Sachdeva. The focus is on clothes made with simple but natural eco-chic fabrics that are all about functional fashion. Indian fashion is developing a new handwriting and young designers are leading the way.

Take Shivan & Narresh, the design duo known for their swimwear and resort line; sizing is, of course, key to their designs. “Indian fashion has so far been all about layering and keeping the silhouette away from the body, and hence, sizing has never really been a focus. Attribute this to the unique Indian body type, which is curvy and fails to fit into a particular size chart or the language of fashion which has existed historically,” says Shivan. “However, for a brand like ours that works closely with the anatomy and contours, sizing is of prime importance. We spent almost a year on R&D at the very outset to develop specialised bodice blocks for swimwear that work for women across shapes and sizes.”

Ruchika Sachdeva, winner of the Vogue India Fashion Fund and part of Forbes India’s 30 Under 30 List of 2015, started her label Bodice four years ago. She too finds a “more size-friendly approach to fashion, especially with younger designers”. “I feel everyone was just bored of being ‘size-ist’. Oversized is like a breath of fresh air and everyone is loving it, at least for now,” says Sachdeva. “Even the traditional Indian labels are now experimenting with an oversized fit in clothes, so clearly something is changing.”

Even an industry veteran, Tarun Tahiliani, who has been a designer for over 30 years and is known for his love of drapes, corsetry and fluting, acknowledges the change. When you think of Tahiliani, you think of Mehr Jesia and Lisa Haydon, women known for their tall and lithe figures. But consider that Tahiliani is also keen to start a line called Luscious Delicious. “Ideally one should have a separate line for plus-sized women. This is because, technically, the line should have different patterns, layers and different fabrics to make larger women feel contemporary, sexy and appealing. It is named Luscious Delicious to make women who are large or luscious feel special and desired,” he says.

Fashion's plus point: Freeing clothes of their sizes
Image: Getty Images
A Shivan & Narresh design. Sizing is key to the duo, known for their swimwear and resort line

But though high fashion in India is taking tentative steps towards free size, the curvy woman is still feeling left out. As Zahra Khan, a Mumbai-based former fashion editor and now the CEO and editor-in-chief of the newly launched fashion website Hauterfly, says, “Let’s not kid ourselves—larger women have been marginalised for a long time and the practice continues even today. If I go to a fashion-forward online retailer like Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop, I’m hard pressed to find a great designer garment in size L sometimes, and you can forget about XL. I’m not sure if that’s a call by the retailer or that the designer just doesn’t make garments for larger women, but it’s very disappointing. It’s like the retail equivalent of #youcantsitwithus. And God help you if you’re forced to check out the plus-size collections of other online fashion retailers like Myntra or Jabong; those pieces look like they were designed for your grandmother.”

Not surprisingly, social media has adopted this cause, sporadically. When Khan was the director of content and communications at www.stylista.com, a fashion online portal, they actively looked to use real people in their campaigns, she says. They found that this is what appeals to the online consumer. “I remember constantly hearing questions from shoppers like, ‘I’m sure this outfit looks great on a tall and thin model, but how will it look on me?’ So we started doing collaborations with bloggers to showcase our clothing on real-life women. It was a big hit for us on social media because it reinforced the idea that real women come in all shapes and sizes and we cater to them as well.” Even globally, hashtags such as #IAmSizeSexy help promote a more size-neutral approach, keeping the conversation alive.

Leading the way is one of Lancome’s most celebrated faces, actress Kate Winslet, who introduces a clause in her contracts with beauty brands about not retouching her pictures. Both her body and face must appear as it is, she insists. Even models like Gisele Bündchen prefer their pictures in campaigns not be retouched.

This attitude has trickled into India, thanks to actors like Vidya Balan and Huma Qureshi who believe in this body-positive approach to fashion. Qureshi has even appeared on the cover of the women’s magazine Femina saying, “I don’t owe you perfection.”

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Models applaud designer Ruchika Sachdeva (left); Masaba Gupta walks the ramp as Wendell Rodricks’s showstopper

But these are exceptions. Fashion magazines, for the most part, have stayed with the traditional 24-inch waist models (except for that one token ‘shape’ issue that most fashion titles do in a bid to appear size-friendly). As Tahiliani admits, when it comes to shows, a standard model is always preferable for the runway. “Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of designers say it’s a matter of aesthetics to optimise your clothing so that it looks more appealing on a tall and thin model. But what real women are you catering to?” asks Khan.

Well, fashion will make the odd gesture, whether it’s putting Vidya Balan on the cover of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, or Goan designer Wendell Rodricks having the curvy Masaba Gupta walk the ramp as his showstopper. This, however, appears to be tokenism rather than a real embracing of the full-bodied woman. Indian fashion, of course, is still young and perhaps will adopt an even healthier attitude to body image. In fact, there is still confusion within the industry, of understanding what Indian fashion stands for—and addressing size often gets lost in that uncertainty.

As designer Shivan says, “The Indian fashion fraternity is going through a phase of finding its relevance and place in the global fashion market—a complex quest to understand where it really belongs. Should it look at largely domestic consumption or play a role in the global fashion platform? It is within this state of affairs that fashion magazines and designers alike tend to covet skinny women, including a few curvier models, but restrict them largely towards the category of Indian wear.”

Here’s the hope though: As order settles in Indian fashion, an overall democratic, egalitarian approach will come into style. After all, enough designers are already declaring ‘only-skinny’ old hat.

(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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