Indian begums and British vicereines were interlinked in their love of zardozi. In 1903, Lady Curzon, the vicereine of British India, had worn an iconic Peacock Dress to the Delhi Durbar. Composed of gold and silver zardozi on silk taffeta, lined with Indian cotton muslin, the pattern mimicked the feathers of an actual peacock. It was designed by Paris-based Jean-Philippe Worth and embroidered by Delhi-based Kishan Chand. Even then, the threads of Paris’s ateliers ran through India. Even then, the vicereine had “baulked at their prices”.
Lady Curzon’s wardrobe staples in silk and zardozi are the star attractions of the biggest costume art exhibition India has seen. This week, Mumbai gets a smashing new cultural hub, as Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) opens its doors in Bandra Kurla Complex. Set in the business heart of the city, the centre means business. Three blockbuster events mark the opening: ‘The Great Indian Musical’ by Feroz Abbas Khan; ‘Sangam’, a visual art exhibition, co-curated by Ranjit Hoskote; and ‘India in Fashion’, a fashion exhibit with 140 garments that trace India’s textile relationship with the world. From April 3 till June 4, the show covers over 250 years of Indian karigari.
In incredible timing, international luxury giant Christian Dior is also presenting its India-inspired pre-Fall 2023 collection at the Gateway of India on March 30. It is the first international luxury brand to do an official calendar show in India, and highlights creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri’s decades-old relationship with the Mumbai-based Chanakya Craft Collective. Fashion stylist and creative director Anaita Shroff Adajania, says over the phone, “Fashion Week just got a new definition. Two global fashion celebrations in Mumbai in one week: that’s so special. I love the appreciation of our aesthetics, craftsmanship, and influence. India is full of flavour and love, and I’m very inspired to see what unfolds.”
Elaborating on the two events, she says, “Mrs Nita Ambani’s intense passion and dedication has made this show into a huge global exhibition. ‘India in Fashion’ is comparable to any show, anywhere in the world. As for Dior, Maria Grazia has shown continued support for the crafts of India. Over the years, many brands have used Indian embroiderers, but never acknowledged the source. Maria Grazia is one designer who has stood up and said, ‘I’m working with the Chanakya School.’ And, to do the show at Gateway is so monumental. To see a house like Dior showing their pre-Fall collection — a proper calendar show, not just an offsite celebratory show — is a big deal.”
One with the fashion capitals
‘India in Fashion’ at NMACC has borrowed garments from 15 international museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Musée Yves Saint Laurent in Paris; private collectors, such as the Ambanis themselves and actor Sonam Kapoor; the personal archive of the show’s curator Hamish Bowles; and the collections of India’s biggest designers, including Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, and Ritu Kumar.
Bowles, editor-in-chief of the design bible ‘The World of Interiors’ and global editor of Vogue, has also co-written a coffee-table book to accompany the show. With frankness, he writes in the introduction, “Beginning in the 17th century and continuing to this day, India’s impact on Western fashion has been a complicated and layered history of admiration, appropriation, exploitation and celebration.” The show is a course correction in that sense.
All dolled up
As beautiful as the creations are, the sets are more than its match. The stunning scenography has been designed by Patrick Kinmonth with Rooshad Shroff. Right now, the exhibition space is still in a state of undress, with mannequins getting installed, and drapes and pleats being fussed over. Shroff, an architect who has spent three years on the project, walks us through the space. “Pavilion 1 is designed in a way that it is as per museum specifications, in terms of climate control and the right humidity,” he says. “Spread across 50,000 sq ft, we were given an open canvas, almost free of pillars, with a fantastic ceiling height of about 12 metres. That allowed us to create individual architectural moments that have some relationship to the period we are looking at.”
So, the kalamkari section is designed like a Mughal garden, with water droplets projected on the floor, and a soundscape filled with bird calls. Of the work of sound designer Sanaya Ardeshir, Shroff says, “There is lots of layering of sound. Through the exhibition, you hear instruments that have some synergy with the context.” The muslin section is designed like a lily pond, with the costumes placed on giant pads. Separate areas have been marked out for the three big fashion houses: Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent (YSL). “The Dior garments are heavily embellished in crystals,” says Shroff. “So, the décor, too, is inspired by crystal formations. For YSL, we designed the iconic stepwells, but created it in wire mesh. So, the garments really pop out.” Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar is recreated for the section covering batik and block prints, with works by John Galliano and Ritu Kumar.
This is a recurring leitmotif in the show with an international label often juxtaposed with an Indian one. As Adajania notes, “That shows our homegrown talent as well as how India has been interpreted by international designers.” For instance, the exhibition opens with a 1956 sari-inspired, brocade dress in silk and gold by Dior, complemented by another tulle piece by Tarun Tahiliani. “So, parallelly, you see an Indian designer who works in a similar silhouette and textile,” says Shroff. The muslin section also has works by Abu-Sandeep and Raw Mango. A few outfits have even been designed for the show, such as a kalamkari reimagined in delicate, foliate embroidery by Rahul Mishra.
From 1750 to 2023, from Balenciaga to Givenchy, from Naeem Khan to Manish Malhotra, from maharajas to Michelle Obama, the show doffs its hat to all the movers and shakers. It traces the arc of Indian fashion, which is revealed in the Ambanis’ shopping sprees as well. In the 1980s, reportedly, Nita Ambani would visit Bhuleshwar to buy her bandhanis. In 2018, for one of Isha Ambani’s wedding outfits, Valentino had designed a gold-embroidered extravaganza. It was the only Indian lehenga they ever made. In the coffee-table book, Bowles concludes on this note, “As Rahul Mishra becomes the first Indian designer to present his haute couture in Paris, and Sabyasachi opens a flagship store in Manhattan, India continues to impact global fashion, as it has through the centuries.”
Dior in the house
Like many fashion directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri usually dresses in a uniform. It is power dressing defined by slicked blonde hair, all-black clothing, and kohl-rimmed eyes. Those eyes have now sharpened their gaze at India, not just for its embroidery workshops, but also its next big market.
On March 30, Gateway of India will see the likes of supermodels Naomi Campbell and Cara Delevingne, flaunting tigers, peacocks and elephants in “versions of salwar kameez and busy carpet prints”. An insider tells us that 400 rooms have been booked at the Taj Mahal Palace and another 150 in Trident Hotel. Cocktail-infused soirées have been planned in the cavernous rooms of the Great Eastern Home, in Byculla, and Snowball Studios, in Worli.
Snowball Studios is the side venue for another Indian-art-meets-Dior event. In 2022, Chiuri had commissioned Chanakya to create large-scale, hand-embroidered textile panels of the artworks of New Delhi-based artists Madhvi and Manu Parekh. These were then installed as backdrops to Dior’s Spring/Summer 2022 show at Musée Rodin in Paris. These works make their way to India for the first time, for a month-long showcase called ‘Mul-mathi’, curated by Asia Society India Centre. Open to all, the panels capture in thread the intense colours and bold brushstrokes of the Parekh duo’s paintings.
It is largely because of Chiuri’s long association with Chanakya that Dior is coming to Mumbai. In an Instagram post, she had written, “I have worked with the Chanakya Atelier for over 20 years, developing a close friendship and working relationship with its founders Nehal [Shah] and Karishma Swali. I personally wanted to celebrate and showcase the incredible knowledge India offers to international fashion in the field of embroidery, the mastery of the artisans who continue to work on this craft, and the commitment of Chanakya’s founders to preserving India’s history and culture.”
At the launch of the pre-Fall 2023 collection in December last year, ‘Vogue Runway’ had written: “Mirrored embroidery, hot pink sequins, rich golden borders, and filigree lace are all deftly elevated to a level of sophistication that could only come about through the joint ambition of Indian artisans and a French house to make something new in the service of modern, wearable fashion.”
It is as Chiuri told them, “I work with India every day.”