A Star is Worn: Indian Fashion’s Obsession with Bollywood

Kareena Kapoor Khan plays showstopper for Anita Dongre at LFW SR17

THE THIRD DAY of India’s largest fashion extravaganza, Amazon India Fashion Week Spring-Summer 2017, is in progress at the NSIC grounds in Okhla, Delhi, sprawled over several thousand square feet of exhibition space. The October dusk is mellow as fashion patrons, buyers, designers, models, bloggers and journalists mill about, observing or posing as their profession dictates. About 110 designers are participating this time at the biannual event organised by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), and the collections on display promise to be spectacular, with a path-breaking ‘Guru-Shishya’ show as a grand finale on day five, when an older, established designer will mentor a younger one to present a large show of over 60 looks together.

The media enclosure, however, has other preoccupations. A gaggle of photographers gossip about the newsworthy events of the day. “Tisca Chopra is coming today,” says one. Ears perk up. “That’s a relief,” says another lensman, adding, “Except for Disha Patani on day one, it has been thanda (cold) so far.” “I heard Nimrat Kaur and Athiya Shetty are coming tomorrow evening,” says a third. “I’ll come only in the evening then,” decides the second one, a freelance paparazzo with several media houses on his roster. “None of my newspaper or TV clients are bothered about shows without Bollywood celebs anyway, even if the designers are big. There’s no masala in Delhi. Just fashion.” “You Mumbai- waalas have it good,” the others murmur wistfully.

Sonakshi Sinha hoots for Varun Dhawan in Kunal Rawal's show
Sonakshi Sinha hoots for Varun Dhawan during Kunal Rawal’s show

To a fashion insider, this skewed media focus on film stars during a so-called industry event would appear farcical, and even disappointing, but the paps have got one thing right: stars attract eyeballs. In that sense, though Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai is usually smaller in terms of acreage and number of shows and designers than its FDCI counterpart in Delhi, it more than makes up when it comes to Bollywood muscle. On the very first day of the Summer-Resort 2017 event held in February at Jio Garden at the Bandra Kurla Complex, Arjun Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha turn up to cheer Varun Dhawan on the ramp for their designer buddy Kunal Rawal—of Shahid Kapoor’s wedding wardrobe fame—and photographers and fellow guests go into a tizzy of clicks. Over the next few days, it seems as if all of B-town has been roped in to walk the ramp, from Vaani Kapoor, Bipasha Basu, Karisma Kapoor, Nimrat Kaur and Rahul Khanna, to Tabu wrapped up like an exquisite cream puff for Gaurang. And this is besides the celebrity patrons who drop by to give a few media bytes between shows. Finally, in the grand finale orchestrated by fashion baroness Anita Dongre, Kareena Kapoor Khan walks the ramp just six weeks after delivering her first baby, a vision in white and gold having gained as much news value as maternal glow. Scores of other celebrities line the front row to cheer her on, from Juhi Chawla to Pooja Hegde. Journalists and other oglers go into raptures, the shutterbugs hit pay dirt. “That was a great show,” everyone agrees. No one remembers what the models wore.

In the past two decades, the fashion industry has no doubt matured and developed a more organised infrastructure of fashion weeks, commercially driven ramp shows and a backbone of PR managers, professional stylists and choreographers. But another factor has taken firm root along the warp and weft of Indian fashion: the star power of Bollywood. Unlike the global trend where celebrities mostly turn up as front-row guests of the designer, and where only top models play showstopper, things work differently in Bollywood-obsessed India. Tinseltowners are our supermodels. They pose in fashion advertisements and play social media fashion icons and the face of the Indian fashion industry— besides acting in films, of course. Fashion creators need the wide reach and appeal of Bollywood films and stars to draw attention, media coverage and business. Stars need designers to help them look trendy and updated when they attend events. It’s a marriage made in designer heaven.

Designer Mandira Wirk and Malaika Arora
Designer Mandira Wirk with actress Malaika Arora

“THEY’RE CALLED celebrities for a reason: everything they do or wear is celebrated,” smiles top Indian couturier JJ Valaya with a twinkle in his eye. “There’s no doubt a Bollywood star wearing your garments gets a lot of attention. They’re gods among mortals.” Seated in his luxurious House of Valaya showroom at the Gallery on MG in Delhi, he cautions, however, “Having a celebrity showstopper can be both a boon and a bane. A boon, because there’s a recall value, and potential buyers are attracted to the glam factor. The bane is that it can take away from the real champions of the show, which are the clothes themselves.” Valaya—who was the wedding wear designer for cricketer Yuvraj Singh and actress Hazel Keech last year—believes in a ‘maker- muse’ relationship, and only invites stars such as Kangana Ranaut who inspire him. “She has been my showstopper four times, I relate to her a lot. We’re both from small towns; she was once ridiculed for her accent. But she has an inherent sense of style and has single-handedly become a fashion icon without any stylist’s help,” marvels Valaya, who himself went from chartered accountancy to fashion without any backing in the industry. His ideology is reminiscent of global fashion greats Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, who were inspired by film stars, models and even regular people (Karl Lagerfeld used one of his own bodyguards to launch a menswear campaign) as their muses and not just brand ambassadors. “If you have a strong collection with a language of its own, use models to keep the focus on the fashion, and then get film stars to wear your clothes off-ramp,” he says, pragmatically. “There’s no denying that the influence of the Indian film industry on desis is incredible; it’s the only language they understand.”

Jacqueline Fernandez for Ashish Soni at LFW AW16 low res
Jacqueline Fernandez for Ashish Soni at LFW AW16

Fellow veteran fashion designer Ashish N Soni agrees. “Having a Bollywood actor or actress wear your garments definitely helps sales,” he says, adding that many designers do use celebrity images to successfully market their pieces online. Stars like Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Jacqueline Fernandez have been his showstoppers in the past, but Soni too insists there needs to be a ‘brand synergy’ between the personality and the designer for the partnership to work and translate to sales. “And it’s not just about walking the ramp and the subsequent media coverage. Fashion and Bollywood are now integrated to a much larger extent,” Soni explains. “We’re also friends with many film personalities outside of work. They wear our clothes to events and film promotions, they post pictures on social media, and so the interaction and interdependence is much greater now than earlier.”

Social media, in fact, has done more to integrate fashion and Bollywood than any other marketing channel ever could. With hashtags such as #BollywoodFashion or #BollywoodStyle on Instagram and Pinterest as the primary source of fashion trends for most of the younger Indian online audience, everything a celebrity wears is shot, uploaded and scrutinised by their fan clubs and fashion blogs dedicated to celebrity style—whether it’s a red carpet gown or denims worn on a quick trip to the local grocery store. Stars themselves put up candid shots on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and most have adapted to new media needs and urgencies. “Social media has changed the game immensely,” says Anaita Shroff Adajania, fashion director for Vogue India. “You can see celebrities wearing clothes literally off the runway, the day after a show—it helps create huge hype for the designers.” The whole charm about social media, she says, is that it is democratic: “I love it that people are not shy to give instant feedback on a star’s look.” Adajania, who has designed costumes for films such as Love Aaj Kal, Cocktail and the megahit Dhoom series, and who styles stars such as Deepika Padukone off-screen, also thinks it is healthy that online followers get to see their role models in their real-life avatars, whether stylish or laidback. “I advise my celebrity clients to be true to themselves and their real voice. They don’t have to look like mannequins 24/7,” she says.

Deepika Padukone wearing Sabyasachi at NEXA IIFA Awards 2016
Deepika Padukone wearing Sabyasachi

The virtual spotlight on Bollywood has bred a new generation of celebrity stylists, such as Aastha Sharma, founder of Wardrobist Consultancy. The personal stylist of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Esha Gupta amongst others, Sharma’s job is to closely follow fashion weeks and designer collections, advise her clients on the latest trends, guide them about designers that would suit their personal brand, besides styling and sourcing their looks for red carpet and promotional events, even the airport. A former fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar India, Sharma believes social media has changed behaviour both ways: “Fashion fans have become more comfortable seeing pictures of their favourite stars in casual looks online. On the other hand, stars have become more trend conscious and fashionable because of the easy availability of high street and ready- to-wear designer trends in India,” she says, sharing an insider’s secret: after shooting for days, sometimes in rough and grimy clothes, “It’s a nice break for the stars to dress up in designer ensembles and step out and be clicked in a brand new look.”

Not all film looks are rough and grimy, of course. Many go on to become iconic trendsetters for an entire generation. In fact, some argue that Bollywood influences street fashion more than fashion weeks ever could, even if the clothes are first worn on catwalks before making their debut on 70 mm screens. “Fashion is elitist, Bollywood is plebeian,” states Niharika Bhasin Khan, the award-winning costume designer for blockbusters such as The Dirty Picture, Rock On!! and The Lunchbox. “The common man can’t afford designer clothes—even I can’t afford them; I only go to designers I know because they’ll give me a discount. So for the regular person, movies or TV dictate the latest trends.” She believes no costume designer deliberately sets out to create a sensational street fashion trend—such as Kareena Kapoor’s Patiala salwar in Jab We Met or Anushka Sharma’s short kurtis in Band Baaja Baaraat. “It happens organically. You create a character, not a trend. If the film is a hit, then fans want to dress like the star in it, and so the clothes become trends. But it all depends on the success of the film,” she says. Having worked hard for several months on big-budget period dramas like Bombay Velvet and Mirzya, which eventually tanked at the box office, Khan has learnt that effort in one aspect of film production doesn’t necessarily translate to triumph unless the whole package is successful. In any case, as Ajadania adds, the costume designer’s intention is to be true to the character, not sell clothes.

Athiya Shetty for Namrata Joshipura
Athiya Shetty for Namrata Joshipura

Even so, the influence of films and film stars on what regular people wear is undeniable. This impact of Bollywood on the lives of its fans is well captured in a new documentary Filmistan made by award-winning filmmaker Yasmin Kidwai, co-produced by the Ministry of External Affairs and due for release this March. The film features stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Saif Ali Khan and several others, including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who says in the film, “When we were kids, I would hear my mum and other ladies talk about the saris worn in a certain film. Now, of course, fashions have changed. Now you have brides emulating what they’ve seen in movies for their own weddings.” Film critic and TV show host Anupama Chopra is also quoted in the film as saying, “It’s very different in the West, where the film and fashion industries are separate. You may have a film like Breakfast at Tiffany’s which is all about fashion, but it’s not like somebody will wear what Madhuri Dixit wore in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and suddenly every woman is wearing that backless purple choli. I don’t think that happens anywhere but here.” Talking to Open, Chopra elaborates that wedding fashion is one area where Indians everywhere—in India and abroad—take inspiration first and foremost from Bollywood.

Kidwai, who incidentally is also a women’s wear designer with a Sufi-inspired label called House of Qidwa, is of the view that Bollywood and its protagonists have always been influencers in India. “Bollywood is a harmonious melting pot of all communities and religions; it doesn’t matter who the star on screen is—whether he is Muslim or she is Gujarati in real life. What the fan takes away from the film is its essence, its emotion, and how it made them feel. And clothes are a big part of the effect,” she says, adding that for people in far-flung locations away from India’s fashion centres of Mumbai and Delhi, Bollywood is perhaps the only source of fashion inspiration. “While what the more popular actors wear in films starts mass trends in smaller towns and cities, their off-screen appearances influence the fashion choices of the urban population,” says the designer-filmmaker, whose critically acclaimed documentaries have often focused on women’s issues including one called Purdah, which is an effort to understand the relation between the woman and the veil.

Tamannaah Bhatia in a Raw Mango lehenga and Amrapali Jewels 1
Tamannaah Bhatia in a Raw Mango lehenga with Amrapali Jewels

Film trade analyst, magazine publisher and TV show host Komal Nahta has another take on why Bollywood costumes are great blueprints for real life occasion clothing: “Why do you think [costume designer] Manish Malhotra has so many NRI clients for his bridal wear? They see his creations on the big screen in films [like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Om Shanti Om, 2 States, and so on] and they want the same thing for their own weddings. They know how the outfit will look in videos, the evidence is before them, and they don’t have to rack their brains,” he laughs, adding that actors are brazenly revered for their fashion. Indeed, everything a star wears is the final word on the matter, which is also why fashion majors line up to have Bollywood actors represent their brands in India, unlike the West, where supermodels are the default choice for ad campaigns.

“Moving forward, I believe Bollywood and fashion will connect in a deeper way,” JJ Valaya predicts, “when film stars and designers will collaborate even off-ramp to create something entirely new, rather than just one thinking, ‘Oh, she’s popular, let’s use her’.” Exciting times, these. Fashionistas, take your seats: the show is about to begin.

This article was first published in Open magazine

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