Monday, Dec 05, 2022

On the Loose: Dress to Kill

How two Delhi designers reached the red carpet in Hollywood

Of late, the party-loving bride in India has a new must-have in her trousseau — a gown. A magnificent, flouncy, dreamy, ankle-length gown reminiscent of Grace Kelly and European cinema of a certain vintage. This is worn at one of the string of events preceding the marriage, popular referred to as the Youngsters Night. In Indian fashion, this space of girly, shimmering tulle ensembles has belonged almost entirely to 30-something designers, Gauri and Nainika Karan. The petite and dainty sisters have come a long way since their first label, Magnetic Rag, which they launched in Delhi’s Santushti in 2002, attended (widely) by family and friends. (Full disclosure, I have known them since the ’90s). Before fashion became their business they were popular girls, well entrenched in Delhi’s trendiest circles where everyone had one common problem. “Nobody had anything to wear,” says Gauri, recalling afternoons spent scouting dingy basements in GK-1 M-Block Market, the only place where you could hope to find a cocktail dress (usually a tacky garment sourced from Bangkok).

Black pants and a top was a staple uniform for evening wear. Gauri and Nainika started with making corsets and pencil skirts, the kind of styles they found lacking in their own wardrobes. Within three years, they developed their USP: formal Western dresses. The look was a return to feminine beauty and old world glamour with a strong emphasis on hourglass silhouettes. Their gowns are priced between Rs 20,000 and 60,000. Every Indian actress has worn their clothes several times over. At the Toronto Film Festival in 2014, Priyanka Chopra wore a dramatic black and white gown with asymmetrical lines that propelled Gauri and Nainika into the international spotlight.

Recently at the Oscars, American TV host and anchor of Entertainment Tonight, Nancy O’Dell was wearing a one-shoulder, structured, and sweeping black gown made by them. Charlotte Riley, actor and wife of Tom Brady from The Revenant, was also wearing a G&N creation, a severe black lace and silk dress. Singer and nominee Tori Kelly chose them for the Grammy’s and so did anchor Guiliana Rancic for the SAG Awards. Even the most insignificant actors who have the privilege of being invited to the Oscars are besieged with outfits and accessories (for free) from top designers and fashion houses around the world. For a relatively small and unknown brand from India to enter this exalted mecca of style is no small feat. Even more remarkable, Gauri and Nainika are not banking on exotic Indian embroideries, weaves, kanthas or zardozi to stand out. In fact, they may very well be the only Indian designers who’ve never made a sari or a lehenga. They’re competing in a wholly Western aesthetic, a cluttered space in Los Angeles one would imagine, but are beginning to get noticed. “When celebrities are seen in our clothes, it really is the best advertisement,” acknowledges Nainika, quoting how many more hits they received on their site after the Oscars. The sisters are just discovering the power of social media and have 50,000 followers on Instagram.

At their store in Lado Sarai, a rack of bubblegum pink gowns and sunny blue dresses stares down at me. Another has voluminous couture styles in bursts of orange and crimson. Everything is happy, flirty and young. Edgy is not a word I would use to describe their outfits. Maybe not even original. Lady Gaga would never find anything to wear here.

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However, everything is elegant, timeless and beautiful. In the Indian fashion scene, Gauri and Nainika are the undisputed leaders of the evening dress but are criticised for not doing anything new or brilliantly different. The rich heritage of Indian textiles seems to have escaped them entirely, by choice. “We admire designers like Sabyasachi and Rohit Bal for their craftsmanship. It’s not our look,” agrees Nainika.

Sometimes, we overestimate the value of creating a spectacle over something just plain pretty. Classy and fabulous can be good enough.

First published on: 14-03-2016 at 12:00:11 am
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