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When we cried loco chanel
Earlier this month the Indian media impulsively shelled Chanel's Paris-Bombay Mêtiers d'Art show held at Paris' Grand Palais. For the show, Karl Lagerfeld - the fashion house's famous head designer and creative director, and also the man in the line of fire - said he drew inspiration from India. Much of the criticism directed at Lagerfeld and the show has been on two grounds.
The lesser of the two charges entails a critique of the designs on display at the show, in that they are not indicative of either the titular Bombay or even broadly speaking, a contemporary India. And the other, more grave offence has been his commentary on the show. Discussing the show Lagerfeld later said, "It sounds terrible to say this, but India is the one country where even the poor have something very chic about them. " He then added, "Even if she has nothing, the poorest Indian women will have two three bangles (and) an elegant pink sari. It's very courageous, really. " It must be pointed out that perhaps the title of the show is a faux pas;for whatever its worth, 'India-France' would've been more fitting. However, if one were to even so much as think of all the strange things that go down in Mumbai each day, this misnomer of sorts would have not even figured as a minor blip on the radar. In addition, as a resident of the city, I'm always happy when someone blithely calls it 'Bombay'.
Be that as it may, Lagerfeld has never been to the city. Post the event he underscored his reliance on his idea of India, honestly stating that he knows nothing about the reality, and that, consequently, he might 'have a poetic vision of something that is maybe less poetic'. Fair enough? Perhaps, but as many would agree, creative license is still not entirely last season.
Such 'licences' and 'permits' are the mainstay of the arts, and mostly taken for granted. And yet for those who run these domains as their fiefdoms, fashion is not art. In their defence, however, there are no easy answers forthcoming vis-?-vis the conundrums of fashion and art. Not even Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, 2011, exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, helped assuage this mad, fiery debate. It is impossible to make utilitarian arguments in favour of the arts, but a more philanthropic description of fashion could include shelter. This then could be the thing that rankles the keepers of the fire of the arts. There is no way easy out of the impasse engendered by debates on fashion. So it appears that in the mind of retrogressive socialists, fashion per se, is a bad word. Nothing else can explain the zealousness with which they guard their right to dumb down any debates that swirl around these matters. Coming back to Lagerfeld's comments, yes, 'chic' is a poor choice of adjective, especially when you're making a point about the fashion sense of the poor. Chic is a close relation of 'fabulous' and must be employed with some circumspection in worlds other than that of Sex and the City. In the meantime, let's not forget that much may be lost in translation. Indeed, it's doubtful if the German-born Lagerfeld is rushing to claim that English is not his first language. Following the incident, quick analogies were drawn between Lagerfeld's comments and a notorious photo spread from 2008, where luxury brands like Hermes, Burberry and Fendi were interjected into the frugal lives of India's poor. While that suite of images was a thoughtless mockery, the Chanel show is not. For one, Lagerfeld did not thrust his designs onto our impecunious lot;he has merely stated that even the poor can have a sense of, and an eye for, fashion. In a country where poverty is endemic this is no doubt a tricky trajectory to take, but it is by no means offensive.
In the days following the event, there were suggestions that Lagerfeld should have staged his show in Dharavi and that the comments seem particularly outrageous because, after all, they come from a man who deals in luxury goods. Now then, no one appears to take exception to the scores of contemporary Indian artists who make pot loads of cash on their artworks where poverty is a 'key concern'. Indeed, most artworks produced today are luxury goods coveted by the moneyed. Furthermore, many 'same-money-could-beused-better-elsewhere' arguments are actually self-defeating, because the same argument can be imposed on any subsidiary of the arts, which as we have already established may have little or no utilitarian value.
Others have better negotiated this rather fraught terrain of fashion among the 'have-nots', as it were. Prominent Indian fashion blogs and a suite of images exhibited in Mumbai titled The Great Unwashed, 2010, for instance, deftly deal with street fashion in India by showcasing images that are not restricted to the urbane and hip. They look at trends in smaller towns and also among those who can't afford the big stuff or, indeed, nothing at all. In these examples we perhaps witness a vital and required densification of the debate that is essential to engaging with this subject. Many in our media could take a pointer or two.
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