Thu, Apr 06, 2006 - Page 13 News List

India's fashion industry finds its feet

AP , MUMBAI, INDIA

India's top designers have been unveiling ready-to-wear collections rich in hand-embroidery with an eye toward Western markets as global buyers scout for fresh talent at Mumbai's fashion shows.

Elegant jackets with subtle beadwork, fluid skirts and linen tunics in off-whites and earth tones along with silk and wool have dominated the autumn-winter shows at the five-day Lakme Fashion Week, which ends Saturday.

Better known for garment factories that make clothes for big Western retailers like the Gap and Banana Republic, India is slowly gaining a reputation as a land where high fashion can be found alongside silk saris.

Hollywood movie stars such as Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench have worn Indian creations. Indian designers sell their labels at high-end boutiques in London, New York and Paris, and a handful of Indian labels are available at London's Browns and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

Still, the Indian designer market remains in its infancy -- about US$49 million in domestic sales compared to the sizable US$35 billion global market.

India's total garment exports are worth about US$5 billion a year. While there are no exact figures for how much of those exports are high-end fashions, experts say it's likely not more than a minuscule percentage.

In the past, most Indian designers looked to the local clothing market -- currently about US$4.8 billion in sales.

But now -- as was clear at this week's fashion shows in Mumbai -- they are now being aggressively courted by Western buyers.

``India is hot now, everyone is interested in India. Designers must not let the opportunity slip by,'' said Lavelle Olexa, a senior vice president at American retail chain Lord & Taylor. ``With the recent trend of embellishments, department stores are looking for fresh and new Indian detail.''

Albert Morris, a buyer from London's Browns, came to India looking for new styles.

``I'm looking for new silhouettes, crisp designs,'' said Morris. ``I'm looking for something that could stand near an Armani that should make people say, `Oh, that's new and fresh. Who's the designer?'''

Reflecting a rising interest in Indian design, global and domestic buyers will move from Mumbai's catwalk to India's capital New Delhi for another major fashion show beginning next week.

Designing for an international market entails toning down vivid colors and cutting back on extravagant embroidery that do brisk business locally. Indian designers say overseas recognition will be gradual.

``Designing for the precision couture segment takes time,'' said Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who has shown his collection at the Milan Fashion Week and retails in British and European stores. ``I'll stick to growing slowly -- first I need to learn the market in Europe and then move into America.''

Well-known designer Ritu Beri, the first Asian to head French fashion house Scherrer's ready-to-wear line, said she uses softer color palettes for clothes sold abroad.

She said a fusion of Western silhouettes with rich Indian brocade or cotton fabrics worked well. ``What buyers are looking at is tops and jackets with an Indian spirit without directly spelling out India,'' she said.

Rajesh Pratap Singh, India's top menswear designer, makes no changes when he retails abroad -- he bridges the East-West divide with uncluttered, sharp designs. ``I keep it simple with subtle embroidery on wool and an emphasis on cut and new shapes,'' said Singh, who sells his clothes in stores from Palm Beach to Paris.

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