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Embroidery, India

Designing elites: fashion and value in urban north India

Tereza Kuldova


I have been attached to the CIM project during my current work on a PhD thesis, under the working title Designing Elites: Fashion and Value in Urban North India, which is based on a long-term fieldwork in New Delhi and Lucknow. My work investigates the movement of particular traditional embroidery, from its production to its showcase and consumption, looking at the transformation of its value and meaning as it moves from the villages where it is produced to luxury stores of high-end fashion designers and finally homes of upper class urbanites. Based on the long-term fieldwork in North India and the research that stimulated the production of the thesis I had to deal with some of the central issues of the CIM project, such as questions of creativity, movement, transformation, aesthetics, artification and innovation, all crucial for understanding of the Indian fashion industry. The involvement in the project has stimulated my thinking around some of the crucial topics in my work. What follows are some of the key points which came up, all of them appear in the publications listed at the end of the report.

The concept of artification (Shapiro 2004) emerged as central for grasping the processes of value transformation in the Indian fashion industry. Artification refers to turning non-art into art and is a strategy clearly used by a number of popular Indian fashion designers in order to increase the value of their products by turning them into masterpieces. By linking their products to the magical aura of high art and its status, the designers reinstate their creative genius, which turns them into artists of luxury along the lines of the famous European couturiers of the bygone era. Collaborations between artists and designers are also becoming increasingly popular and seem only to serve the purpose of endowing the garment with new meaning, and to elevate it to an art form. All these strategies combined effectively differentiate designer garments from often not very dissimilar garments found in the market, produced by the very same craftsmen, and thus intensifying the divide and providing sources of distinction.

Collaboration between fashion and art thus emerged as another central theme. The Indian fashion fraternity is increasingly cooperating with renowned artists, be it painters, performance artists, or alternative filmmakers. The Indian designers in this way try to transpose the aura of the high art onto their products, thus increasing further their value and creating a more apparent distinction from what is available in the market. It seems that in order for fashion to be interesting it has to have an artistic touch. This has direct consequences for the art world as well - art events need to be fashionable in order to be covered in the media. The industries increase their value through each other – be it exploiting the aura of high art or the celebrity factor of fashion. No less are these trends supported by other industries, such as the alcohol industry, which sponsors great number of fashion events both in India and globally. A case in point in this respect is Chivas Studio, a platform where different artists meet with fashion designers and put up a three day show – all sponsored by the Chivas Regal brand (or rather the multinational corporation behind it). This trend seems to be global. These events create what I call total environments of value, in which the products involved are associated with each other and their value is mutually enhanced and shaped.

Relating to the processes of artification and the sources of distinction within the fashion industry, another central concept emerged as significant for understanding the value transformations in the movement of the commodity across the social landscape, and that is the concept of charismatic creative genius. Bourdieu has pointed out in the Rules of Art that the charismatic ideology of ‘creation’ presents an obstacle to a rigorous science of the production of the value of cultural goods. This charismatic ideology directs the gaze towards the individual creator such as the designer and prevents us from investigating who created this creator. This ideology not only increases the value of the designers creation, but also effectively hides both the numbers of people who stands behind the production of these creations and the teams of assistants, media and PR experts who create the creator as much as the discourses which enable his creation.

The concept of creativity thus emerges as significant for the designers in order to claim the value of their products. What is revealing is however the ways in which they operate with this concept. They create a clear distinction between two notions of creativity, one that could be viewed as ‘modern’, which is the notion of individual creative genius, and another, which is related to the more traditional views on Indian art, in which there is not clear distinction between art and craft. These two notions of creativity are often employed in the discourses of the Delhi based fashion designers. Since most of the fashion they produce is still to a large degree ‘traditional’, focused on heavily embroidered and embellished saris, bridal wear, salwar suits, anarkalis and so on, they are have to differentiate their creativity from the creativity of the craftsmen and thus legitimize the value and price tag of their products. The fashion designers thus often associate themselves purposefuly with the western notion of creativity and position themselves as designers-cum-artists. At the same time, they ascribe traditional creativity to the craftsmen, as a collectivity, effectively denying their individual creativity and freezing them in the static idealized imagined past. The designers thus in the end claim to possess individual creativity, while denying the craftsmen this same form of creativity, labeling them as incapable of innovation, change, and futuristic visions. The concept of creativity used as such legitimizes the hierarchies in the fashion industry as much as serving the purpose of creating effective distinctions.

This tendency is also related to other positioning strategies employed by the designers, namely their preference to be viewed as patrons of the crafts (i.e. the idealized and romanticized national heritage). They oftentimes also confuse the notions of patronage with what appears to be the functions of non-governmental organizations. By positioning themselves in this way they try to appeal to a segment of educated consumers easily seduced by the appeal of ethical consumption intended to elevate the craftsmen from their poverty, mesmerized by the potential of saving of the national heritage by their acts of consumption. Diverse ethical commitments on the part of the designer in relation to the craftsman appear to be a more and more popular branding strategy - buying good consciousness, as Slavoj Žižek would have it, seems to be on the rise even in India. The industry seems to be often covering up unethical practices with ethical concerns. That is not to deny some honest ethical initiatives on the part of the designers.



Shapiro, R. 2004. 'The Aesthetic of Institutionalization: breakdancing in France.' Journal of Arts, Managment, Law and Society, 33:4, 316-35.


Accepted Planned Publications

Kuldova, Tereza (2012), ‘Fashionable Erotic Masquerades: Of Brides, Gods and Vamps in India’, in Critical Studies of Fashion and Beauty.

Kuldova, Tereza (2013), ‘The Indian Cocktail of Value/s and Desire: on the Artification of Whisky and Fashion’, in Ø. Fuglerud and L. Wainwright (eds) Objects and Imagination, Berghahn Books.

Kuldova, Tereza (2013), ‘Hijacking Creativity, Denying Imagination: Unraveling the Mystery of Value Extraction in Indian Fashion’, in M. Svašek and B. Meyer (eds) Creativity in Transition: Politics and Aesthetics of Circulating Images, Berghahn Books.

Kuldova, Tereza and Jansen, Angela M. (2013), edited volume, Beyond Fashion, Beyond West: Negotiating Modernities through Dress, Berghahn Books.