She was never a writer to mince words. Whether it was in her various roles in mainstream news journalism or as the launch editor of an international fashion magazine in India, Shefalee Vasudev has always valued the ‘surprise’ quotient in any piece of writing. Putting together her experience behind the scenes, her new book Powder Room (Random House India) features candid interviews with both known and unknown names in the Indian fashion industry, providing an insight into contemporary culture and the generation gap.
The glamour world on one hand, and rugged street-side journalism on the other: how do you straddle two contrasting worlds?
My only entry into the world of glamour is from a journalist’s point of view. In my mind, they don’t present a contrast at all. Fashion is my most important writing beat but I explore it with the same level of enquiry, curiosity, respect, research, clinical analysis and a million cross checks that I do with all my other stories.
Which of its characters is closest to your heart and why?
Vishakha Dave (her name has been changed to protect her identity) is my favourite. She is a ladies’ tailor from a small town in Gujarat. Her winsome combination of being befuddled with fashion’s fickle “trends”, and her triumphant little ways to score over them left me amused and aware. For instance, she makes special cholis as Diwali Dhamaka called Don 2 cholis. It didn’t matter, she said, that no one wears cholis in Don 2! Latching on to a hit film or someone being talked about in Bollywood was one of her ways to justify a hike of Rs 20 over her regular stitching charges as these were “specials”. Also, her concept of mini-facials (she is a neighbourhood beautician-cum-tailor) for those who have little money, lot of time and many dreams. She also told me how the easy availability of black bras in small markets had made women like her feel sexy and confident. Many such things which opened out research about the Indian middle class’s relationship with fashion.
What’s the most enduring lesson you’ve learnt working with the Indian fashion industry?
Not to judge it by its clothes. I am more than humbled by the candid interviews and the extraordinary time some people have given me for this book. It has taught me not to be sweeping about it and reflect, reject, select many times over before forming an opinion.
What’s the worst part of it?
The deep funk I felt over many months after assimilating so many personal stories, many of them tragic – as I had no idea how I would do justice to all these revelations and intimate confessions in a subtle, non-vicarious way.
This book promises to reveal the underbelly of the industry. Is there any backlash you’re worried about?
Many people asked me during the course of my work whether it was a ‘negative’ or ‘controversial’ book. It is neither. I have taken a lot of care to narrate the stories sensitively and truthfully. The idea is to show some aspects of modern India through fashion. It’s a sociological kind of book that uses fashion, clothing and the stories of designers, tailors, weavers, the fashion media to reflect upon the times we live in—it’s not an attack. I am an apologist, an insider of the Indian fashion industry, not its judge. But of course I am very nervous as a first-time author.
What kind of changes must the fashion industry bring about to create a fairer environment for all stakeholders?
It is too idealistic a question. But since this industry is officially 25 years old this year, sponsors who now fund fashion events could show vision and invest in younger talent instead of worrying about the newspaper column inches they get as publicity by backing already established names. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) could also relook at its charter. Clear norms against plagiarism, disclosure of working hours and wages of tailors and craftsmen, pricing of garments, disclosure of the geographical denomination of the craft or textile used, a ‘fashion mark’ label (like the Craft Mark, Design Mark) and a united fashion industry, instead of a dozen scattered fashion weeks could, perhaps, spell out some changes.
Do you really think no fashion magazine will ever hire you again, as your profile once stated? 🙂
Fashion magazines work on revenue dependent models of journalism. It would obviously not be strategic to hire people like me who see a conflict between advertiser interest and journalism ethics.
First published in Atelier’s August 2012 issue