In the world’s second-most populous country, most of the money, attention and design that goes into clothing are focused on a single event in a woman’s life: a huge, opulent wedding. Even the subcontinent’s most cutting-edge ready-to-wear designers fund those lesser activities with sales from their couture bridal collections. Indeed, bridal wear accounts for 80 per cent of India’s fashion industry.
So it’s no surprise that Mumbai’s glitterati were in full attendance at the showing of the Swarovski-studded collection put on by Tarun Tahiliani at last year’s India Bridal Fashion Week. Tahiliani is a noted Indian designer, both of ready-to-wear and bridal fashion, infusing some western elements into his richly coloured gowns and taking advantage of a growing $20bn-a-year industry.
Other Indian designers, such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Rohit Bal, also do big business in bridal wear. “The big weddings will last four, five, six days,” says Bandana Tewari, fashion features editor at Vogue India. “And while for the most radical westernised couples you might have a segment where you can wear something foreign – even, say, Comme des Garçons – the main day will always be extremely traditional. You’d never wear western clothes.”
At Tahiliani’s show, male and female models hit the catwalk in blood-reds, deep maroons and golds weighed down with crystals. There were traditional sari-like gowns as well as more European silhouettes, inspired largely by the regimes that preceded the English Raj, especially the Mughal dynasty. “It was a time of great art, literature, dance and philosophy, no different from the Renaissance era in the west,” says Tewari.
As Tahiliani says, “bridal is the one time that Indians dress up”. “The pageantry of the past, the customs, the traditions, the song and dance – all go into making a wedding the most celebrated moment in an Indian’s life. It’s also recession-proof. Mothers start saving for a wedding almost when a child is born.”
They had better. Tahiliani’s pieces start at $4,500 and rise quickly to $60,000. And a good Indian wedding will include different outfits for different days.
The boom in bridal wear isn’t just powered by tradition. As in China, the other emerging market powering the world’s luxury industry, India is bursting with new millionaires eager to spend. “People in western countries have lots of ways to spend money. In India, we don’t. But for a wedding, all of our family and friends get together,” says Vijay Singh, chairman of India Bridal Fashion Week. “It’s a time to showcase your wealth.”
Singh says the bridal fashion industry is growing at 20-25 per cent a year, with destination weddings becoming quite the rage. In the past two years, locations such as Bali, Florence, Istanbul and Monaco have hosted the nuptials of some of India’s rich cosmopolitan families.
“Indians love bling,” says Tewari. “A wedding here is all about unapologetic energy, colour, shine and embellishment. People are not going to scale down just because the western world has decided drag-down chic is cool. No Indian bride will compromise on the Indianness of her bridal dress.”