I am quite certain I was the first person in India to interview Valentino Garavani. The legendary Italian designer, known only by his first name, was presenting a fashion show in Mumbai in 2004 at the iconic steps of the Asiatic Library. I had just returned from Italy and had fallen in love with all things Italian. Valentino, Prada, Versace, Roberto Cavalli (who was a huge deal then), and Rome’s historic Via Condotti. It was an email interview as Valentino spoke no English, and my Italian was mostly pretentious. The interview was published on the front page of The Indian Express. Sadly, there is no online edition of that delightful piece.
Italian fashion is most comparable with Indian fashion. Their idea of luxury was ‘fatto a mano’ or ‘made by hand’. Their designers had the personalities of rockstars. They loved expensive and luxurious fabric, like cashmere and high quality leather. They loved glamour, blow-dried hair and sensuous red lips. The Indian fashion industry was just taking shape then, and no one knew it then, but we were basically Italian at heart.
Last week, the 91-year-old Valentino’s partner (in life and business) Giancarlo Giammetti spoke to the Financial Times, on behalf of the designer who had just been given the Outstanding Achievement Award by the British Fashion Awards. His interview went viral when he said that Valentino would not be able to launch a brand today. “We left because the industry changed and meetings were all about money, not design. Sales forecasts decided what got created. The conglomerates made each label work to the same model. We couldn’t launch today. If we did, we’d be doing slow fashion, inviting fewer people to buy, at the highest quality. You don’t have to be judged on the number of dresses you make.”
His words may be controversial to the rest of Europe. Especially to the global domination seeking French. LVMH had famously tried to swallow up Gucci in 1999. Giammetti’s interview is also loathsome to the tone-deaf US, which loves its casual dressing and athleisure too much. But we in India still make clothes by hand, with our heart, and with a firm eye on the pursuit of beauty. We believe the path to God is ‘satyam, shivam, sundaram’ or truth, godliness and beauty. Like the Italians who famously say, “l’occhio vuole sua parta” or “the eye demands her share, too”.
We hear Valentino’s words through Giammetti, and we believe that slow fashion is real fashion. We also hear them at arguably the most opportune time for Indian fashion. The last two years have seen some of our biggest fashion designers seek investment from Indian corporations. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Tarun Tahiliani, Rahul Mishra, and Anamika Khanna are seeking to dress a larger group of people for much less money. Others like Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango, and Gaurav Gupta are still holding on to their labels, much like Italian heavyweights like Prada, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana. Rohit Bal, in ill health and with slim chance of reviving his gorgeous label, has not planned his succession at all.
I don’t know how Indian fashion labels will fare once their founders give up creative control. But I do hope we continue to make clothes with the same emotion, devotion, ardour and lust for beauty. I do hope that those who design the clothes and those who market them realise that just as important as them are those who make the clothes: weavers, tailors, embroiderers and dyers. I do hope that in order for fashion to win, craft does not lose.