The elegant sari as ‘the ultimate garment’

In early May, a plethora of Indian designers will land in London for Indian Premier London Fashion Week, the first event of its kind, to introduce their designs to London’s fashion buyers. Their timing couldn’t be better, for western catwalks and red carpets are currently replete with references to India’s celebrated sartorial trademark: the sari.

When Gwyneth Paltrow took to the red carpet in March for an awards ceremony, her look paid homage to the key sari motifs of asymmetry, subtle draping and intricate embroidery. Elizabeth Hurley, actress, model and wife of Indian textile heir Arun Nayar, chose to wear a sari at this year’s Love Ball during London fashion week. Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai has worn her national dress not only on home territory but also at a recent appearance on the US television show Oprah.

On the spring/summer catwalk the references are equally noteworthy. Carolina Herrera, Kenzo, and Chanel couture featured vivid colours typical of Indian fabrics, as well as one-shoulder styles. Then there was Amanda Wakeley: “I was passionately inspired by traditionally dressed Indian men and women,” says the British designer of her spring/summer 2010 collection. “The way the women wear their saris with such creative ease; the soft silhouette; the flowing fabric; the layering of textures and flashes of embellishment.”

There is also a growing trend for western women to wear the traditional Indian dress in a western setting. Debonnaire von Bismarck, a sleek brunette, has worn the sari at parties in Europe. “I have a beautiful black sari dress Alexander McQueen made for me a few seasons ago as well as one made in the 1980s by Antony Price.”

“[That sari dress] was modelled by Naomi Campbell on the catwalk in saffron yellow”, recalls Price. “I think the sari has had an effect on this season with the dresses that cut across the shoulder. What is particularly beautiful is the hand-embroidery: it’s a dying art that would cost thousands of pounds to have done here [in the UK].”

London-based, Indian-born fashion designer Saloni Lodha, 27, agrees. “I love wearing chiffon saris in the summer with American Apparel tube tops and flat shoes, and the more dressy versions with lots of jewellery,” she says. “Now there are many new versions of the sari. Many come half-draped, half- stitched, and you can slip into them like an evening dress, which makes them easy to wear.”

As well as the sari-inspired gowns of Herrera, Kenzo and Wakeley, it is possible to find traditional Indian dress at shops such as Abu Sandeep, which has outlets in Mumbai, Delhi and London. The Indian-born designers behind the brand, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, dressed Sarah Brown while on her husband’s official visit to India in January 2008, and provide authentic saris as well as styles adapted for a European consumer. Their “made sari” (prices from £3,000) has a pre-tucked and pre-pleated waistband that dispenses with the traditional fiddly fitting. They also advise women on how to wear the traditional version.

“I love the textiles and how it falls over the body, but I have never worn it in the west because I feel it can look a bit contrived,” says Kim Hersov, the editor-at-large of British Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Although the fashion designer Allegra Hicks has worn the sari only in India, she believes it has a significant place in fashion: “The sari is the ultimate garment, not only because of its history but because of its elegance that transcends any trend and any season.”

Knock-out kaftans

The sari is not the only eastern-inspired dress to fascinate western women, writes Elisa Anniss. The kaftan is making the leap from holiday favourite to year-round wardrobe staple courtesy of catwalk designers such as Emilio Pucci and Diane von Furstenberg and high-profile fans such as Jimmy Choo founder and president Tamara Mellon, who calls the airy dress “a must” in her wardrobe.

“At Missoni the kaftan has always been a staple piece,” says Angela Missoni, creative director of her eponymous family brand. “For me, the appeal lies in the versatility and laid-back glamour for the wearer, taking you seamlessly from the poolside or beach to a restaurant or bar at night.”

For Lady Eugenie Nuttall, founder of the resort wear line Jeannie McQueeny, kaftans are perfect for anyone who does “lots of entertaining at home, with lunch followed by cocktails and dinner. It’s very useful in mountain resorts such as Gstaad, not just in the Bahamas.”

“These aren’t just good beach cover-ups, but could look cool if you are off to a party,” says Matches’ buying director Bridget Cosgrave. “They are great for heady summer days, or trips away to the sun.”

It was “trips away” that inspired Nuttall, who regularly travels to the Bahamas where she was born. Nuttall’s luxury Jeannie McQueeny kaftans, are fashioned in linen, silk or a bamboo jersey fabric and often incorporate semi-precious stones around the neckline because, she says, women are often reluctant to take precious pieces of jewellery on holiday.

“Kaftans are sexy and romantic at the same time; I love their fluidity and lightness,” says Gabriella Cortese, the designer behind Antik Batik, the Parisian label launched in 1992, who was originally inspired by batiks she found in Bali; prices from £255.

Meanwhile, Singapore-based brand Raoul cites the Middle Eastern abaya as an influence on its striking kaftan silhouettes. “Cuts and lengths have been modified to suit a modern, westernised lifestyle,” says creative director Odile Benjamin.

Ultimately, it is the kaftan’s versatility – it fits almost every body shape, geographical location, and budget – that explains its growing popularity. Witness Cressida Lewis’s collection, Smooth Delight Dresses, composed of cotton kaftans and gossamer-thin cotton beach dresses (prices from £25). During the winter months, Lewis sources fabrics in India and turns to a trusted tailor in Delhi who makes her 2,000 dresses that sell out every spring at her market stall in east London.

As for shoe designer Olivia Morris, she buys her kaftans at La Maison du Kaftan in Marrakech, “an Aladdin’s cave of probably 2,000 kaftans,” (prices from £20 if you haggle).

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