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Fashion journalist for over 30 years, Asmita Aggarwal, recounts her journey from an era when there were no magazines or social media, only pure content and design innovations
When I began my career in 1992, the word fashion was relegated to the back of a newspaper. There weren’t any magazines or supplements dedicated to lifestyle journalism. Being a student of English honours from Delhi University, I was keen on reading and writing.
Books had been my most loyal companion from my school days, being a recluse, everything from Camus to Sartre made me grasp the mysteries and vagaries of life. I also deduced, the younger generation in the early 90s, was looking at reading international content. I used to buy old issues of Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar and L’Officiel and my favourite Italian Vogue edited by the amazing Franca Sozzani, to know how the global fashion scene was evolving.
In 1998, began the fashion revolution in India, the coffee culture picked up with the opening of Barista and Cafe Coffee Day. It was the genesis of conversations and this led to newspapers looking at a new trend, which was hanging out with friends over a cuppa.
Fashion was always considered “irrelevant” and it’s only today, people realise the value of Indian craftsmanship and the legacy that needs to be preserved and upheld, how bridal dressing is a money spinner with over $50 billion in market share!
In 2000, began the genesis of fashion weeks and the Taj Palace hotel became the coveted venue. We were just a small group of journalists, maybe 15, who covered the event which had 30 designers showcasing. Today, it is a megawatt event with over 100 designers, 600 guests, make-up artists and crores spent on advertising and marketing, featuring a flurry of social media influencers, show producers, event managers to musicians and lighting along with lensman et al.
The beauty of the fashion week conceptualised by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) was a delicate, self-sustaining ecosystem. A motley group of models like Bipasha Basu, Mehr Jesia, Madhu Sapru, Milind Soman, Jesse Randhawa, John Abraham, Nina Manuel and others who now can be seen on 70 MM like Arjun Rampal, made sure each ensemble was showcased with aplomb. And the ramp was a place where you could also achieve your movie dreams, as models looked at this as a launching pad to get noticed.
There was one united fashion week, which ensured an interesting exchange and it made its mark with legends like Ritu Kumar, Tarun Tahiliani, Suneet Varma, J J Valaya, Raghavendra Rathore, and Ritu Beri among others… and the only store that was most popular was in Hauz Khas Village called “Signature” run by Bindiya Judge. Going out became a norm and had a ripple effect as fashion was now the talking point along with food, golf, polo, cinema, books and technology.
With the advent of the smartphone, you could connect faster with people. This changed the dynamics and the phone became an inseparable part of our lives! No one could predict, if you are marooned on an island, all you need is your Smartphone to connect with humanity. Another big development in the eighties was designers flying away to foreign universities, to study and coming back to set up their studios, whether it was FIT or Central Saint Martins and even London College of Fashion.
The training helped them learn the nuances of pattern cutting, silhouettes, drape and styling. They could think beyond the ubiquitous salwar-kameez or the sari! Offer a structured jacket for a night out and intermingled Indian crafts with a universal silhouette. A new industry was born and it was about ingenious textile, embroidery techniques as well as embellishments that made us leaders in the global arena.
Many fashion houses like Elie Saab to Zuhair Murad get their embroideries executed in India, making it a sourcing hub in the late 80s. But all that has changed today, as now we have Rahul Mishra, Vaishali S and earlier Manish Arora, making a splash internationally breaking into the extremely exclusive haute couture space. This was a time when print media was king and the digital medium was just beginning to set foot in the country. We never predicted something like Metaverse would spring into our lives. And there was no surrogate advertising —- content was pure and journalists had the freedom to write and review shows without any managerial interference.
This is the freedom that is missing in content today, the freedom to criticise, to have a point of view, and to not be afraid of voicing it for the fear of a backlash. Being intrepid is now almost a rarity in fashion writing due to millennials abandoning books and moving on to social media for information. There is always this debate raging between social media influencers and traditional journalism, which one is better.
Only if you know what is happening internationally, will you be able to deal with a global client, as geographical boundaries have blurred and the customer now is well-travelled, knows her mind— she values innovation in design and thought. She is also willing to pay for ingenuous cuts and is experimental. She is no longer an engineer and doctor but a well-paid DJ, make-up artist, stylist, musician or CEO.
Reading is the key to writing, only then can you understand the turn of phrase, the importance of syntax and why incorrect grammar can change the entire meaning of a sentence. I urge all of you to get back to the original form of reading —- buy a book, read from credible sources like New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Independent, The Print and Business Standard. Only then can you be a master of vocabulary!
What does it take to be a good writer is the question that most students ask me. The truth is reading… as with this art you can write content effortlessly. Writing is the finest and oldest form of communication, and if it is marred by spelling errors, it takes away from the rhythm of the copy. There is, I believe, no distinction between digital, print, social media or magazines. Good writing can be anywhere, even if you are just writing two lines it must have chutzpah!
The unfortunate part of today’s life is most of the reading is done on the smartphone, kindle and not enough buying of printed books which has led to many forgetting what they have read. Books have the power to hold your memory, they have the hidden prowess to make you recall a phrase that touched you. For me it is and has always been from Albert Camus’ Nobel prize winning book, “The Stranger”, and I quote,
I remember reading this at 18, and it resonates with me even today. The simplicity of words, the poignant and fragile state of human existence and our will to survive against all odds. That’s what makes words so potent, and how to use them cohesively will only happen if you read literature, which is timeless and eternal. Don’t distinguish between books — read classics and contemporary literature — Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth.
Fashion and books have always had a symbiotic relationship, and if you look closely Adichie’s talk on “We should all be feminists”, became a torchbearer for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior Spring 2017 Collection. Writers too have inspired fashion, Phoebe Philo loved the articulate world of Joan Didion and paid homage to the author of “The Year of Magical Thinking” by making her a muse at the age of 80, cutting out ageism in fashion! Magazines have been changing and there is an evolution in content from just telling you how to look good, what to wear to covering books, art, and culture to reflect the changing codes of the modern world. There are engaging new-age magazines like Tank, Kinfolk, Dazed and Confused, Another, Gentlewomen, which recognise the tectonic changes in the reader and value their intellectual abilities.
Savour books, enjoy each page, syllable, enjoy the process of turning a page, keeping a little flower where your favourite quote is printed, so that when you revisit it many years later, you still experience the literal and metaphysical fragrance. Even today when I read Camus, I find it relevant, though the book was written almost 80 years ago! My advice to millennials is not to waste precious time surfing social media, but utilize this time which will never return, for meaningful activities that matter —- acquiring knowledge--- the body ages, but the mind can be kept ageless!
Asmita Aggarwal has been a journalist for the last 30 years having edited publications like– HT City, Cosmopolitan, L’Officiel, Patriot and Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle. She recently won an award from the FDCI for her contribution to fas ... hion journalism and also put together a book titled “Chrysalis” for Anand and Anand, a law firm released by designer Manish Malhotra at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
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