Independent fashion labels have invented a whole new way of dressing well in India

“This brand does not define you. But damn you look good in it.”

“This brand does not define you. But damn you look good in it.”

Preeti Verma’s postscript-like message, imprinted on the tag of every one of her fashion label Runaway Bicycle’s floaty, sorbet products, echoes the sort of sweet and sassy exchange that forms the heart of female friendships: “N’aww! Really? It’s not too tight?”

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The December newsletter of Nicobar—the young offshoot of Indian luxury giant Good Earth—exhorts subscribers to “Give us a cuddle” with a softly de-saturated grid of their cocoon-like winter silhouettes, alongside Maasai-inspired kulhars that evoke endless winter-sun-soaked chai sessions. It’s all you can do to not daintily sigh at your inbox.

A growing number of independent fashion labels, such as Runaway Bicycle and Nicobar, have created a new niche of Indian designer-wear, offering, for instance, an ethically-sourced, lovingly-crafted, whimsy-rich box purple prom dresses for little more than a Zara price tag, minus the snaking billing queue. Forming a kind of premium, homegrown high street, these brands may just be the nicest iteration of “India Modern”, the Amazon.in-coined catchphrase for India-rooted fashion that holds up to global standards.

A sweeping glance at the line-up does throw up a design template: artisanal basics in roomy shapes, made from natural or traditional fabrics and dyes. “There’s a new pared-back, palate-cleansing aesthetic that has steadily emerged, almost as a reaction against the embellished, colour-soaked mainstay of Indian fashion,” said Aishwarya Subramanyam, editor of ELLE magazine.

Stylist and consulting fashion director of Grazia magazine, Ekta Rajani, disagrees. According to her, the sameness is only proof of a design movement finding its feet. “One sees homogeneity in design movements all over the world. We are at the very beginning of this one,” she said. “As designers explore this new code, some things may appear similar. Customers are adopting [the aesthetic] and commercial success is as important as design innovation. But that does not take away from their appeal if designed and presented well.”

When you are all using a similar design idiom, your narrative becomes important. So unlike their luxury counterparts, you won’t hear these labels emphasising sustainability, provenance, craft or national pride. Those are a given. Instead, they prefer to trade in—and differentiate themselves by—the stories of modern India they tell.

Raul Rai, CEO and co-founder of Nicobar, says their story is that good design isn’t just a novelty experience for special occasions—it should permeate the everyday. To that end, they want to “shrink your wardrobe, not expand it” with their simple, well-cut, largely neutral-coloured pieces that pair well with different styles and stay relevant for a long time. So you buy well, instead of buying more.

“Our main principles are individuality and universality, however self-contradictory that sounds,” said Anand Ahuja, CEO and director of bhane., a brand of functional basics that would travel well in any world city. He believes if globalisation has taught us anything it is that we all want the same thing: to both fit in and stand out. When bhane. launched its US website late last year, it transplanted its signature streetstyle-inspired look books. The campaigns “New Delhi to New York” and “Bay to Bay” featured young, creative professionals from New Delhi, New York, Mumbai and San Francisco. “We wanted to showcase how even in different parts of the world, we are so similar in so many ways,” said Ahuja.Verma’s motivation for Runaway Bicycle is more micro. The collections, rife with natural cottons and khadis, are geared towards comfort and personal autonomy over everything else. “I want you to move freely in my clothes—sit un-selfconsciously, in any way you like, or climb a tree if that’s what you want,” she said. “We develop our textiles based on how comfortable they can be, not just how beautiful.”

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