On Indian Minimalism

As a Movement Crystalises, the Fashion Press Insists on Clichés

Kantha embroidery on handloom cotton wool, a textile from emerging New Dehli fashion label Bodice.
Kantha embroidery on handloom cotton wool, a textile from emerging New Delhi fashion label Bodice.

INTERNATIONALLY VERY LITTLE IS known about the history of design in India, the local dress or drape, or the diverse cultures that Indian designers draw upon. The exciting field of contemporary Indian fashion is often overlooked. For example, not a single Indian designer is stocked in the eclectic, pioneering concept store Dover Street Market.

Why do so many misperceptions of Indian fashion still exist in an international market where everyone is always looking for the next best thing? Perhaps it’s due to histories of representation that obscure the view. The issues that frame entrenched perceptions of Indian fashion date back to the early era of the European drive to expand into the ‘Far East’ in the sixteenth century. India was the exotic land of spiritual mysticism and exquisite textiles such as chintz. The progressive British colonial dismantling of India’s textile industry was followed by its rise as a cheap market for fast fashion brands to source from. Only more recently has the renaissance in India’s craft, aligned to its burgeoning economy, led to the nation’s new role as a source of embroideries for luxury brands including Fendi, Gucci and Lanvin.1 But deeply embedded perceptions of Indian fashion persist in popular culture. Even supposedly cutting-edge cultural magazines including i-D and Another resort to hackneyed orientalist cliches of blue gods and outrageous chromatic bling whenever they come close to ‘Indian inspiration’ in editorials.2 Vogue India fell into this trap when Mario Testino shot Kendall Jenner for its tenth anniversary edition. The result was a reaffirmation that in the eyes of some photographers India exists only as an exotic back drop for hedonistic white people.3 Because what are the all-pervasive representations that Westerners have of India? Raj nostalgia in a never ending slew of costume drama box sets? Yoga, mysticism and a souvenir of rudraksha beads in Rishikesh or a beach holiday in Goa? Beyonce and Chris Martin doing India with heavy dose of nautch exotica and lobbing coloured Holi powder with abandon in ‘Hymn for the Weekend?

Which begs the question, what are the aesthetics of an emerging post-colonial economy? And when something different from what we expect arises, why don’t we have the interpretative frameworks to understand its nuances?

Take for example Bodice, a popular contemporary label by Ruchika Sachdeva launched in 2011. Bodice combines an architectural purity of line with tonal colour palettes in minimal, loose-fitting but elegant separates and dresses. Architectural shapes in Modern Indian architecture and geometry are a consistent preoccupation in Sachdeva’s work. Yet it’s intriguing how often the India fashion press and foreign buyers exclaim how ‘Scandinavian’ Bodice’s aesthetic is. They often seem amazed an Indian designer could express herself in such a ‘minimalist’ way. Indian labels like Bodice are not understood as one expression of a whole panorama (and history) of Indian design; instead they are stereotyped as imitating Scandinavian design which is in itself a catch-all coda for minimal fashion. Minimalist has become a buzz word in international design, denoting the cross-fertilisation of a conceptual design philosophy across the areas of architecture, furniture design and fashion.

Part of the problem lies in how often fashion journalists resort to cliches and emphasis on trends rather than on robust knowledge of micro-currents in design history. It was particularly evident when ex-Mint Newspaper journalist Shefalee Vasudev lumped Bodice into a group of designers, labelling them with the cringe-worthy term ‘Hindustani Normcore’ and declaring they represent an aesthetic ‘alien to India.’4 

In understanding micro-currents as international fashion trends rather than Indian design legacies, Vasudev fails to understand these designers within a rich legacy of Gandhian philosophy, non-figurative art and modernist painting, as well as architecture, craft and design in India. Such commentators paradoxically privilege Western histories and perspectives on fashion even whilst they tub thump about the heritage of Indian craft traditions.

In sum, Western concepts are imposed upon Indian fashion, and nuance is lost in the process of translation. In fact, the aesthetic that Bodice embodies is far from ‘alien’ to India, but integral to India’s history of design, art and political resistance to colonialism.

Bodice, along with a host of young Indian design labels who have emerged since 2012 including Lovebirds, Antar-Agni, Eka, Anomaly, Anavila Mishra, Rashmi Varma and P.E.L.L.A, can be seen in continuity with the older generation of designers, notably Wendell Rodricks, Abraham and Thakore and Rajesh Pratap Singh, who all began their careers in the 1980s, as well as an interim generation that includes Gaurav Jai Gupta, Kallol Datta and Arjun Saluja, who have built reputations as designer’s designers in the last decade. All have successfully carved out careers in Indian fashion whilst firmly orientating their aesthetic signature and therefore commercial business in opposition to the all-dominant market for opulent bridal and ethnic formal wear. Whilst each is distinctive, they share common ground in exploring the unadorned surfaces of textiles (often handwoven), they question the commercial dominance of embroidery as ornament, often using appliqué or beading with waste materials, they address the relationship between traditional motifs and contemporary design, as well as forge an ongoing dialogue between traditional, local Indian dress and global currents including street-wear, athleisure and androgyny.

In various ways they propose a version of Indian minimalism, which is both recognisable as such in global fashion, whilst articulating uniquely Indian concerns.

Minimalism: A Morality Tale

Minimalism in its various forms implies taste and a certain intellectual superiority to those who prefer an excess of ornament: it’s why labels like Phoebe Philo’s Celine come with such undertones of intellectual superiority. Modernist architect Adolf Loos’s infamous treatise Ornament and Crime (1910) disseminated the idea of ornament as somehow indicating weaker taste, morality and an absence of sound judgment. His controversial writings elaborated on his own architectural style by denouncing ornament as synonymous with a spectrum of social ills. As a writer he had a major impact on twentieth century architects, including Le Corbusier. In tune with cultural evolutionist ideas prevalent at that time, Loos saw ornament as a sign of cultural backwardness; he vilified for example the Polynesian tribal practice of tattooing. He wrote, ‘Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength,’ and believed in the progressive absence of ornament as part and parcel of ‘cultural evolution.’

India has its own history of moral coding through a rejection of ornament, inextricably tied up in its colonial past as well as the search for a visual language of Indian modernity post-independence in 1947. At its centre is hand-woven cloth and craft like embroidery.

This moral coding begins with nineteenth-century European anxieties regarding the adverse effects of the industrial revolution on community, urban life and the decorative arts. This led intellectuals such as John Ruskin and William Morris to look to India as a model of pre-industrial life. India was a rich source of inspiration for the English Arts and Crafts movement, which idealised it as a utopian economy and culture based on village production and traditional crafts. Form was only acceptable if it followed function, and labour where craft was embedded in local community was required to provide wealth to all.

The connecting thread between the Arts and Crafts movement and contemporary Indian fashion is Mahatma Gandhi’s drive for independence known as Swadeshi (indigenous production). After reading Ruskin’s anti-capitalist polemic Unto this Last, Gandhi developed his philosophy of Swadeshi as the basis for the struggle against British rule. Piles of imported cloth from Manchester (the import of which had all but destroyed India’s own industry) were publicly burnt, and Gandhi revived long forgotten methods of hand spinning and weaving to produce coarse cotton cloth known as khadi. He made the wearing of khadi symbolic of national identity and a visible challenge to colonial rule with its Western dress codes. Gandhi believed India’s future lay in its rural villages. Art historian Partha Mitter writes, ‘Gandhi inspired the Indian elite to discover, then romanticise the peasant.’ Consequently, a central thread of Indian minimalism is charged with a moral set of ideas regarding making and surface aesthetics.

Eka’s loose-fitting, simply-cut tunic dresses in rough textured cotton khadi, and Anavila’s earthy linen saris most visibly embody a ‘Gandhian’ aesthetic in terms of an adherence to the idea of ‘simplicity.’ Gandhi believed only coarse, hand-spun, hand-woven khadi could embody Swadeshi, both in terms of its production providing maximum employment and its aesthetics flattening caste and class distinction though a simple uniformity. This coarse Indian cotton, then, comes with a subliminal moral charge for contemporary consumers, although there is irony in that these designer iterations of Gandhian simplicity can be afforded only by the wealthy. These kind of clothes also sell well in stores such as Knightsbridge’s Egg, or in European concept stores.

Loos’s treatise has been critiqued for how, even whilst condemning ornament, it encouraged the fetishisation of a new type of style, in which an entire building in fact becomes a kind of ornament. Loos’s architecture is every bit as concerned with ornament as those he vilifies for their love of pattern and decoration. But the ornament he uses is abstracted and blended seamlessly into the very structure of the building. This is the architectural version of inconspicuous, conspicuous consumption, a form of display signalling a specific form of taste to a cognoscenti.

Like Loos Modernist buildings, the unadorned khadi becomes a form of ornament in itself, recognisable to those in the know and coinciding with the rise of stealth wealth that plays out in the aesthetics of an emerging economy where new money is shaking up old structures of class and caste and making good taste the final frontier of social hierarchy.

However, there is another key thread to Indian minimalism, influenced by Bauhaus design, which further illuminates the complicated relationship between minimalism and morality in Indian fashion today.

Post-independence, The National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad was founded on the basis of The India Report (1958) by Bauhaus exponents Charles and Ray Eames. They were commissioned by first prime minister Jawarlahal Nehru to visit India and investigate design’s potential to alleviate poverty and shape India’s industrial future. They proposed a pedagogy blending Gandhian philosophy with Modernism, which continues to shape many textile and fashion designers’ approach to ornament today. This was also an era of high Modernism in architecture with Nehru commissioning Corbusier to design the model city of Chandigarh. Modernist architecture promised to provide a visual expression of postindependent India, free from colonial associations, especially pertinent where the Raj had used Indian decorative elements to adorn colonial buildings that were designed to assert power using familiar visual idioms. Loos’s condemnation of ornament and belief that restraint displays spiritual strength takes on a completely different meaning in India’s post-colonial context.

It’s undoubtable that perceptions of the morality of minimal design play out in the specific milieus of the Indian urban elite. Many designers attempt to bring together this history of Gandhian activism, the search for a post-colonial Modernist aesthetic, and the Bauhaus influence on Indian craft in their work.

Abraham and Thakore (A&T), who met at NID as students in the late 1980s, consistently challenge the idea of ornament, embodying the NID pedagogy of abstracting traditional patterns, eliminating details and reducing colours to monochromatic contrasts, attempting to create and define a language of Indian modernity. As Indian designers, they also work in distinction to the dominant market for bridal wear with its heavy embroideries, conspicuous displays of wealth and reputation for ‘bling.’ Negotiating these dynamics Abraham and Thakore have challenged codes of minimal taste, applying gold foil under slashed khadi as they attempt to explore what Abraham calls ‘lustre without bling.’

One of the key things minimal Indian designers seek to do is break down perceptions that Indian fashion only excels in surface ornament whether as bridal wear or as sourcing destination. Designers like Rajesh Pratap Singh focus on cut, reinventing traditional garments such as the dhoti, salwaar kameez or kurta with sleek tailoring.

Yet internationally perception of Indian fashion still shifts between the extremes of hippie kitsch or Gandhian rough hewn, handloom purity, and many designers feel pressured to present themselves within existing interpretative frames where foreign journalists lap up mystical quotes by Rumi or go misty eyed over the idea of hands labouring many hundreds of hours over embroideries.

Where international expectations of Indian fashion are kitsch and bling or at the very least high embellishment, these may contain latent cultural evolutionist ideas vis-a-vis Loos of this ornament taking precedence over the ability to ‘design.’ It is perhaps due to this latent prejudice that fashion journalists in India have internalised ideas about Western minimalism versus Indian excess that they can only imagine a designer like Bodice to have Scandinavian influence.

However, a new generation is shifting these parameters. Bodice and Antar Agni both recently won the womenswear and menswear respectively, of the regional India-Middle East round of the Woolmark prize. Both represent core aspects of Indian minimalism, showing that the strength of this work is finally filtering through to the international fashion industry.

After all, why should an Indian designer have to be ‘Indian’ in her design? It’s a question that has persisted around the rise of the Japanese designers, and Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto’s rejection of the ‘Japanese’ tag is well known. Yet at the same time, when globalisation means everything increasingly looks the same, surely local and rooted ideas of dress have much to offer.

It’s not just that the rise of emerging economies is shifting the dynamics of global luxury consumption. Nor that young Indian designers are exposed to global influences and produce collections that deftly integrate these. It’s also that in fact because of the weighty history of misperception as well as moral ideas regarding restraint versus excess, emerging Indian designers are driven to produce something with a peculiarly unique alchemy for global fashion audiences, beyond cliches and speaking an exciting language of the now.

Phyllida Jay is an anthropologist and author of the book Fashion India.

  1. S Menkes, ‘India Embellishes High Fashion. Discreetly but proudly, Mumbai wears the halo of haute couture,’ Vogue, February 6, 2016. http://www.vogue.co.uk/article/suzy-mumbai-haute-couture-embroidery-india-embellishes-high-fashion 

  2. N Theodosi ‘If you’re tired of London you’re tired of Life,’ i-D, May 3, 2017.https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/papbby/if-youre-tired-of-london-youre-tired-of-life-1 

  3. N Theodosi, ‘Mario Testino Takes Over Vogue India’, WWD, May 3, 2017. http://wwd.com/business-news/media/mario-testino-takeover-vogue-india-kendall-jenner-10879422/ 

  4. S Vasudev, In Indian fashion, greynow sells, October 15th 2015. http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/DuBZRTQCcEonYL8U9qEwNM/In-Indian-fashion-grey-now-sells.html