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Unwrapped

Indian designers are stepping up to the world stage

Shelley Chhabra show at Underbar
India fashion draws global interest

Hot ethnic trends in the West -- kaftans, henna tattoos, tunics with skinny pants -- are old hat in India and, for decades, the country has been a mecca for Western fashion designers. Even home goods stores like Pier 1 Imports, Wal-Mart, and Bed, Bath & Beyond stock thousands of items that bear the "Made in India" imprimatur.

But while Indian kurtis and morjari shoes inspire "must-have" tunics and bejeweled espadrille sandals for Western audiences, the fashion community is following a different trend in New York, Paris, Mumbai, and even Boston : Designers of Indian origin are garnering attention for their own creations.

"The Indian product has been sold in small boutiques and large stores for a long time, without designer names," said Fern Mallis, vice president at IMG Fashion, a fashion production and management company that runs shows and fashion weeks internationally. "The difference now," she says, "is that designers are attaching their names to the products in the top tiers."

One of those designers is Mumbai-born, New York-based Naeem Khan, whose creations are carried in 190 stores, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. "My clothes could be from anywhere; they don't always portray South Asia, but there is a South Asian influence in them," he says.

Like many other designers in Europe and America, he uses textiles from India and has craftsmen there do the embroidery and other embellishments. But while his color, pattern, and design choices are often informed by his ethnicity, the cut is not, since he designs for a Western clientele, says Khan, whose company has grown an exponential 1,200 percent since it started two years ago.

Boston designer Shelley Chhabra creates Indian-inspired clothes for a very different audience. Her clients are primarily second-generation Indian-Americans who, like her, are tired of having only two options for Indian wear: a trip to India or "cookie cutter" prêt-à-porter available online, or at local grocery stores, such as Shalimar in Central Square or in big immigrant centers like Los Angeles or Edison, N.J.

Three years ago, Chhabra got married and took two weeks off from work to get wedding outfits she liked, from India. "In the interest of being connected to my community and to fill the void," Chhabra launched her first line of Indian bridal wear in February. While Chhabra doesn't consider herself an "Indian designer" per se, her heritage plays a big role in her creations. Saris and lehngas skirts with midriff skimming tops are designed in her Arlington studio, made to order in India, then shipped to her within eight weeks. "But, I have to take into account Western ideas of style, silhouette, fabric, and weight," says Chhabra, who was raised in Billerica and has an engineering degree from Tufts University .

"India is one of the few countries left on this planet with a distinct fashion identity," says IMG Fashion's Mallis, who was a celebrity judge last season on the Bravo network hit show "Project Runway." "The country is modernizing as fast as it can, and it's remarkable that women in saris and men in kurtas blend so well with evening gowns and suits. In the rest of the world, it seems like all the men are in blue jackets," says Mallis, who spent a week in Mumbai for Lakme Fashion Week earlier this month. It is at such events that executives at IMG Fashion "cherry pick" those designers that they, retailers, buyers, and journalists think will translate well for the West, she says. One such hand-picked designer this year was Kolkata, India, native Sabyasachi Mukherjee , who showed at New York's Olympus Fashion Week.

Last year Ashish N. Soni was the first Indian designer to debut his work at New York's fashion week. "I am very proud to be Indian and I think that subtle Indian references or flavors naturally creep into my work," he says. "However, they are never in your face and require a trained eye to spot them." Soni's creations are now sold in select boutiques across Europe and the United States.

Fashionistas are not the only ones keeping tabs on whether this explosion is a fad or whether Indian designs -- and designers -- are here to stay. Two weeks ago, the Asia Society in New York hosted a panel titled "Beyond Kurtis & Kaftans," featuring industry specialists and fashion designers as well as buyers and executives from the nation's largest department stores.

"India is a very important resource for designers for fabric, embroidery, and production accessories," says Roopal Patel, senior women's fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. "But there is a difference between being a great resource for fabric, production, and textile, and a great source of fashion designers. The challenge for many Indian designers is to be able to address a more global market and global customers."

Soni says the fashion world is a level playing field for those with the talent and the smarts. "Coming from a different place and culture, sometimes it takes longer for us to learn the ropes of the business or dynamics of the marketplace," he says. The future, he adds, is wide open. "Audiences are bored of seeing only home-grown designers and today are very open to seeing good work come in from any place in world."

Chhabra couldn't agree more. This fall, she launched a line of "crossover evening wear" and has enough clients -- Indian and others -- to consider moving to a boutique soon.

Finding fashions
Where to buy Indian fashions:

AaLOK Fashion Boutique, 404 Moody St., Waltham, 781-642-1200, aalokfashion.com

Neha's Boutique, 68 Russells Way, Westford, 978-692-5959, nehasonline.com

Shelley Chhabra, 13A Medford St., Arlington, 617-517-3716, shelleychhabra.com

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