Western fashion feasts on the East

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By Fatima Najm

Stylistically speaking, Indian ethnicity is in.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the creator of Cats, launched his newest west-end musical, Bombay Dreams, with music by Indian maestro A. R. Rehman this summer.

British newspaper The Guardian dubbed Indian fashion designer Ritu Beri the “Donatella Versace of Bollywood,” for her work on Moulin Rouge.

Claire’s Accessories sells bindiyas (the decorative dot worn in the middle of one’s forehead) at its Toronto Eaton’s Centre outlet, while other popular clothing companies, such as Le Chateau, feature shirts embroidered with beautiful beadwork.

According to Katherine Bosnitch, a professor of fashion design at Ryerson, fashion’s obsession with the east is nothing new.

“It has been going on since the impressionists brought Asian art influences into Europe around 1909,” Bosnitch says. “Then [Yves St. Laurent] brought ethnic design into high fashion in the seventies. In the last few years Japanese prints and Chinese characters have been prominent, but most recently the trend has been distinctly Indian.”

Fashion is fickle, bringing trends in at full force, and then fading them out just as fast. However, Christine Yu, a third-year fashion design student, says Indian-influenced clothing is here to stay, “at least ‘till next season.”

Yu spent the summer working as a designer at Le Chateau’s head office in Montreal.

“Bollywood was the theme of their storyboards!” she enthused. “Buyers from Le Chateau went to the Milan and Paris fashion showings and brought back samples that were totally South Asian in style.”

So what is the mass appeal of ethnically inspired apparel?

“It’s very bohemian, very ethnic and has a feminine appeal, because until now, fashion was focusing on being very minimalist,” says Candice Bairstow, a third-year fashion communications student.

Krista Lewicki, a third-year early childhood education student, wears a bright medallion style Indian print on her Le Chateau top.

“I loved the beading,” she says. “It’s very bohemian, and you know immediately that [the design] is very eastern.”

First-year fashion design student Samantha Low says Toronto is the perfect place to mass market Eastern fashions because of its ethnically diverse makeup.

“You no longer have to go to Chinatown, or [Little India] to get this kind of thing where many of the vendors may or may not speak English. You can walk into a mall and walk out with something ethnic and chic.”

Second-year journalism student Mary Nguyen disagrees. She relates an incident she witnessed on board a streetcar.

“Two girls, all dressed up to go out had the bindiya on their forehead, and you could tell they didn’t know the cultural context because there were two people, probably from India, speaking loudly in their language, and as soon as they got off the streetcar the girls started imitating their native tongue.”

Toronto, the world’s largest official multicultural city, provides a diverse view of what’s popular in different cultures.

And it appears that in the west, marketing gurus have latched onto Eastern fashion as the newest and coolest, says Andrea Kovacs, the visual merchandising manager at YM Inc., the parent company of urban Planet.

“The look that’s hot off the catwalk in Los Angeles, where we source from, is not specifically from one region,” she says. “Our merchandise is designed so it could be Moroccan, could be Indian, but is definitely ethnic.”

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