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The Indian Fashion Industry and Traditional Indian Crafts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 June 2011


This study documents the emergence of the high-end fashion industry in India from the mid-1980s to 2005. Drawn from oral histories, magazine articles, and several databases, the study demonstrates that the Indian fashion industry's unique identity, based on heavily embellished traditional styles rather than innovative Western-style cuts and designs, was the result of the actions of early entrepreneurs.

Research Article
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College 2011

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13 Chishti, Rta Kapur and Jain, Rahul, Handcrafted Indian Textiles (New Delhi, 2000)Google Scholar; Gillow, John and Barnard, Nicholas, Traditional Indian Textiles (New York, 1991)Google Scholar; Irwin, John and Hall, Margaret,Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics (Ahmedabad, 1971)Google Scholar; Mathur, Asharani, Woven Wonder: The Tradition of Indian Textiles (New Delhi, 2002)Google Scholar.

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17 For example, the Second Five-Year Plan of 1956 allocated a total of INR 1.2 billion to support and promote the handloom, handicrafts, and khadi and village industries. See Planning Commission, 2nd Five-Year Plan: Chapter 20, Village and Small Industries,, accessed 20 Oct. 2009. See also Bhachu, Parminder, Dangerous Designs: Asian Women Fashion the Diaspora Economies (New York, 2004), 74Google Scholar.

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19 Planning Commission, “Second Five-Year Plan,” 1956. Also see Roy, Artisans and Industrialization.

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21 Tarlo, Emma, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago, 1996)Google Scholar.

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23 Tarlo, Clothing Matters.

24 Redlich, Fritz, “A Needed Distinction in Fashion Study,” Business History Review 37, no. 1/2 (1963): 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 See Wilhite, Harold, Consumption and the Transformation of Everyday Life: A View from South India (New York, 2008), 3537Google Scholar; Tu, Rachel, “Dressing the Nation: Indian Cinema Costume and the Making of a National Fashion, 1947–1957,” in The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion Identity, and Globalization, ed. Paulicelli, Eugenia and Clark, Hazel (New York, 2009)Google Scholar. There was a very small, highly Westernized group of Indians, who perhaps did not adhere to these norms in their everyday lives, but even among this select set, the dress for formal or festive occasions like weddings was traditional Indian.

26 See KPMG Industry Report, “Growth Strategies for the Indian Designer-Wear Industry,” New Delhi, 2003, 160Google Scholar.

27 In the mid-1980s, clothing advertisements in Femina all featured textile and sari stores, rather than stores that carried ready-to-wear, stitched apparel.

28 Interviews with ten middle-class consumers conducted by the author in September 2006 in Pune, India.

29 Tu, “Dressing the Nation.”

30 For instance, one tailor said to me in an interview that he felt obliged to watch movies that were box-office hits because he knew he would have customers asking him to make “the blouse worn by [star's name] in [movie name],” or to reproduce some aspect of her clothes (like the neckline) in their garments. Interview with Rahul Awasthi, June 2006, Pune, India.

31 Interviews with fashion designers, June 2006.

32 Guha, Ramachandra, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy (New York, 2007), 216Google Scholar.

33 See 2nd Five-Year Plan, ch. 2: “Approach to the Second Five Year Plan,”, accessed on 22 Oct. 2009.

34 1st Five Year Plan: “Introduction,”, accessed on 22 Oct. 2009.

35 Taxation Enquiry Commission, “Report,” New Delhi, 19531954Google Scholar.

36 Hanson, A. H., The Process of Planning: A Study of India's Five-Year Plans, 1950–1964 (London, 1966), 93Google Scholar.

37 See, for example, Wilhite, Consumption and the Transformation of Everyday Life, 146–47.

38 Sengupta, Hindol, Indian Fashion (Delhi, 2005), 255Google Scholar; KPMG Industry Report.

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42 See Sengupta, Indian Fashion.

43 Interviews with designers, June 2006.

44 Sengupta, Indian Fashion.

45 Interviews with designers, June 2006.

46 NIFT Web site: Accessed on various dates in Aug. 2006.

47 New Delhi was home to the largest proportion of these institutes; Mumbai and Chennai came in second and third, respectively.

48 In 2006, for instance, NIFT and NID received twelve and sixteen applications, respectively, for every available seat in their apparel-design programs, compared with eleven and twelve in 2003. Records of the NID and NIFT admissions offices.

49 Femina archives, Mumbai, India. The number of articles on fashion in the magazine increased from four in 1985 to sixty-three in 2005. Twenty-four issues were published each year, and each issue had approximately one hundred pages.

50 Interview with the editor Anu Iyer of L'Officiel, 2 Nov. 2006: “The affluent in India are on par with the wealthy elsewhere and the Western brands were starting to enter the market. So it was important for a luxury magazine like L'Officiel to enter the Indian market as well.”

51 The Office of the Registrar of Newspapers, India,, accessed on various dates in July 2007. Unlike designer firms and training institutes, a nearly equal number of magazine offices existed in New Delhi and Mumbai, presumably because Mumbai was viewed as the center of media enterprises. Interview with senior executive Jonathan Newhouse at Condé Nast Publications. The first issue of Vogue India was published in September 2007.

52 These stores were similar to department stores in the U.S., but early MDOs did not have departments other than those for apparel. Even in 2005, most MDOs had only one shelf devoted to accessories, such as bags or jewelry, in the entire store.

53 Advertisements for stores in Femina, 1985–2005.

54 The expansion of the industry was undoubtedly aided by the rise in disposable income following the rapid economic development after 1991. According to data from the Economist Intelligence Unit, real personal disposable income went from 231 billion USD in 1990 to almost 482 billion USD in 2004. For more on institutionalization, see DiMaggio, Paul J., “Constructing an Organizational Field as a Professional Project: U.S. Art Museums, 1920–1940,” in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, ed. Powell, Walter W. and DiMaggio, Paul J. (Chicago, 1991), 267–92Google Scholar.

55 FDCI Articles of Incorporation and Memorandum, FDCI archives, New Delhi, India.

56 The FDCI started with one Fashion Week a year in 2000. In 2006, however, the FDCI began to organize two Fashion Weeks to coincide with the global fashion calendar (the Fall–Winter collections were presented in February–March, and the Spring collections in September (see These events were held in New Delhi.

57 Blaszczyk, Producing Fashion.

58 KPMG Industry Report.

59 On average, between 1985 and 1988, six articles on fashion were published each year in Femina, while fifty articles were published in each year between 2002 and 2005.

60 Interestingly, 1994 was the first year in which designers became “staples” in the magazine's coverage of fashion.

61 For instance, an article in the Economist stated that “85% of the sales at Delhi Fashion Week were to Indian buyers who like more traditional sub-continental styles.” “India's Fashion Industry: Stepping Out,” Economist, 3 Apr. 2008, 69.

62 See Aldrich, Howard E. and Fiol, C. Marlene, “Fools Rush In? The Institutional Context of Industry Creation,” Academy of Management Review 19, no. 4 (1994): 645–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 In the pages that follow, the source of all direct quotes not attributed to articles from Femina is a set of interviews I conducted in 2006 (June to December). I conducted forty-four open-ended and semi-structured interviews of individuals who were part of the fashion industry (fashion designers), as well as individuals who were part of the broader field of the industry, engaged in related activities (faculty in fashion-design institutes, fashion journalists, trade associations, buyers, and retailers). Most interviews were conducted in person, although five of forty-four were conducted over the phone. I interviewed the three earliest fashion designers in India, as well as five of the youngest fashion designers. I interviewed seventeen designers and two nondesigner CEOs of fashion firms, seven members of the media, seven faculty members at fashion-design training institutions and three fashion historians, three buyers and retailers, three FDCI office-holders, one model and one organizer of Fashion Week in India. The interviews usually lasted between one and two hours, and all inperson interviews were recorded and transcribed later.

64 See, for example Wilhite, Consumption and the Transformation of Everyday Life, in which his interviewees talk about “casual clothes” when they mean Western-style clothing.

65 Interview with owner Tina Tahiliani, 21 July 2006.

66 Interview with designer Varun Bahl, 4 Dec. 2006.

67 Interview with faculty member at NIFT Vandana Bhandari, July 2006.

68 A newspaper article in 2007 estimated the wedding industry (which would include not just clothing and jewelry, but also catering and decoration services, as well as location rentals) to be worth INR 1.25 trillion annually, growing at a rate of 25 percent per year. See Boroian, Michael and De Pois, Alix, India by Design: The Pursuit of Luxury and Fashion (Singapore, 2010), 88Google Scholar.

69 Femina, 1 June 1997.

70 While these clothes were not innovative, they were “quoting from past clothing styles” and can therefore be characterized as fashion. See Lehmann, Ulrich, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 2000)Google Scholar.

71 Interview with designer Ritu Kumar, 7 July 2006.

72 For instance, the All India Handicraft Board was established in 1952 to protect and promote the Indian handloom sector and revive broader public interest in the traditional crafts of India. Prominent leaders of this government-sponsored movement included Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Pupul Jaykar, and Indira Gandhi. See Bhachu, Dangerous Designs, 74. Also Tarlo, Clothing Matters.

73 Fashion Group International Records, N.Y.P.L. 1970, FGI archives, New York Public Library.

74 Femina, 1 Mar. 1998.

75 Interview with Vandana Bhandari, July 2006.

76 “Tradition Lives,” Femina, 15 May 1998, 138.

77 Sengupta, Indian Fashion, “Introduction.”

78 Fashion Design Council of India, Memorandum of Association Rules & Regulations, 1999, FDCI archives.

79 Femina, 8 Sept. 1994.

80 “Designing for Dusseldorf,” Femina, 8 Nov. 1995.

81 Interview with designer and CEO of design house Sanjay Kapoor, 23 Nov. 2006.

82 Sengupta, Indian Fashion.

83 “When Fashion Stormed the Capital,” Femina, 1 Oct. 2000, 28.

84 Meenu, “Spinning the World Around,” Femina, 15 July 1996, Femina archives.

85 Kawamura, The Japanese Revolution in Paris Fashion.

86 The market for Indian fashion designers was largely confined to India until the Fashion Weeks started, when buyers from stores in the U.S., France, and the U.K. as well as the Middle East attended; the bulk of sales volume nevertheless came from India. See Bhachu, Dangerous Designs, 68–82.

87 “Kuxe!” Femina, 15 Sept. 2004.

88 Skov, Lisa, “Fashion-Nations: A Japanese Globalization Experience and a Hong Kong Dilemma,” in Re-Orienting Fashion, ed. Niessen, Sandra, Leshkovich, Ann Marie and Jones, Carla (Oxford, 2003), 215–42Google Scholar. Finnane, Antonia, Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation (Sydney, 2007)Google Scholar.

89 “Trend Mill,” Femina, 1 Sept. 2002, 30.

90 Eric Wilson, “From Calcutta, Just the Ticket,” New York Times, 7 Sept. 2006.

91 Suzy Menkes, “Whose Sari Now?” T: New York Times Fashion Magazine, 18 May 2008.

92 See Niessen, Sandra, “Afterword: Re-Orienting Fashion Theory,” in Re-Orienting Fashion, ed. Niessen, Sandra, Leshkovich, Ann Marie, and Jones, Carla (Oxford, 2003), 243–66Google Scholar.