Anniversary Special #20YearChallenge: A Time Of Innocence, Excitement And Supermodels
MW came of age at a time when the fashion industry in India was reaching a critical mass and platforms like Lakmé Fashion Week was getting established. Designer Wendell Rodricks provides a worm’s eye view of the big change.
For the world of fashion, 2000 was a watershed year for many reasons. The biggest one was the fact that it was the first year of India Fashion Week. I recall at the time, I was a consultant with Lakmé, and when they were offered first choice to be title sponsor, they asked me if they should take it up, since it involved many crores of rupees. I thought long and hard, but the fact of the matter was that there were three people involved in the project whom I respected. One was Fern Mallis from IMG New York, the other was Ravi Krishnan and the third was Zubin Sarkari. Between the three of them, they did something that was unbelievable at that time – they managed to get all the designers to sign up and come on board for the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI). I say unbelievable because, at the time, the competition between designers was so fierce that it bordered on hatred. The fact that they got them all to sign on was a green signal for me to in turn green signal Lakmé. I remember sitting on the steps of the New York Library, because I was doing an internship at that time, at the museum at FIT. We decided there – Anil Chopra of Lakmé, Sonia Singh Dubey and I – to go ahead with the project and have the first fashion week, sponsored by Lakmé, even though nobody knew much about Fashion Weeks.
It was a big game-changer at that point. Designers were not prepared for the discipline involved. We were dealing with an American company that was handling New York Fashion Week, who were not used to these designers and their tantrums. I remember them bringing down 4-5 supermodels from overseas for the first show. It was very exciting, because 2000 was seeing the end of the glamour of the ‘90s. The models were supermodels. On one ramp, you would find these beautiful faces who are all stars now – Noyonika Chatterjee, Malaika Arora, Bipasha Basu, Madhu Sapre, Milind Soman, Arjun Rampal and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan were on the ramp at the same time. The make-up and hair industry was just beginning to grow, so there were very few people doing it then, compared to now.
Most importantly, the shows in those days would go on for very long. I remember once watching a Ritu Kumar show in Mumbai which went on for over an hour. That never happens now. Apart from opening and closing shows, designers are usually told that they can show only 40 garments and that the show must last only 15 minutes. People’s attention span is so short now that if you go on for longer, they start reaching for their cellphones. In those days, you could really make a fashion show like a theatrical performance, but all that has changed.
Apart from Elle magazine, we didn’t have foreign glossies, so the whole concept of putting foreign label couture on magazine covers, for example, wasn’t there. I remember doing a cover for MW with Nicole Faria, where I was given the license to do whatever I wanted. I draped her in a coconut frond – nothing more. That doesn’t happen these days. Now they want editorial in exchange for advertising. If a particular brand takes the first few pages of ads, they get their ring or gown on the cover. Now it’s become so brand-centric, it’s like a dual exchange between advertising and editorial.
One must also remember that in those days, the journalists who later on became editors were not afraid to voice their opinions. Nowadays, it would be very rare to see someone criticize me or Rohit Bal, but in those days, they were fearless. I remember reading about someone tearing apart Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, and I was aghast, but not surprised. In those days, the media had the freedom and support from editors to do that kind of thing. Also, because of the lack of magazines, there was very little fashion space allotted. I remember only one paper that had a Saturday supplement that published fashion photos; Amy Fernandes was the journalist in charge.
It’s not like today, where every supplement of every paper features fashion in a big way – on a model, actor or as an advertisement. Back then it was rare. Fashion was looked at as a frivolous thing, not as a business. The paradigm has now shifted. There was no concept of buying editorial space. I would also say that there was a certain innocence and camaraderie among everyone. If I added two or three models at the last minute, the make-up artiste wouldn’t charge me extra.
Now, I think it is better in the sense that people value rates. I remember when Madhu Sapre came back after coming very close to winning the Miss Universe title, the models were being paid Rs 1,500 or so. She hiked her fee to Rs 10,000 and all the choreographers were shuddering – but she made sure that all the other models could also hike their fee because of what she did. Today, Noyonika can charge half a lakh for a show. This mattered a lot because at that time, there wasn’t that much business for models.
The job of a stylist didn’t exist back then. My friend, photographer Farrokh Chothia, told Ambience Advertising and Lakmé Fashion Week that they needed a stylist, and that since I had just returned from Paris, he thought my involvement would make a difference in how the final pictures looked. We had a three-day shoot – as opposed to the one-day shoots we have nowadays – and they put down Rs 60,000 for me as a stylist. The agency and Lakmé both balked at it, because they wondered why they needed a stylist on set at all. People would double up in those days – someone from the agency would iron a garment; Mickey Contractor would drape the sari. But I inadvertently became the first stylist in the country, and I got my fee.
Now, every star has a stylist, sometimes even two. Back then, people weren’t willing to see that as a job. There weren’t many foreign-trained designers like Shahab Durazi, Suneet Verma or me. There was also no jewellery course in India. SNDT started the first one in Mumbai, supported by De Beers. India was the biggest market for smallcut diamonds, but had no designers. I was consulting with De Beers – we started a contest where we found a partner from the export market to make designs created by anyone (it could even have been a housewife) – and put them on, say, Rachel Reuben. That market exploded, and after the first few years, India changed its position from being a supplier to Antwerp and started making its own designs. We don’t need Antwerp now. We make and sell so much jewellery. It was only about gold earlier – now it’s about diamonds, pearls and other precious stones. The entire industry became elevated to an art form.
Another point I would like to make is that this was a time when fashion truly married films. Earlier, designers looked down upon movies, but when Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Sushmita Sen came into the movies, they took along their army of stylists and hair and make-up artistes. Now, fashion is very much a part of the industry. Designers like Manish Malhotra and Neeta Lulla made their name by moving into that industry in the early days, and improving it. Some designers have been snooty, and they look down upon the film industry, but you can’t do that anymore. Even designers like Sabyasachi are doing films now. It’s a happy marriage.
In brief, that time period was exciting, innocent, exhilarating and above all, it allowed for enormous creativity, without a price tag attached to it.