Designing Elites: Fashion and Prestige in Urban North India
The thesis, grounded in a yearlong fieldwork in New Delhi and Lucknow, investigates the intersection of the aesthetic, material and ideological production of the North Indian business elites and their prestige, often directly connected to accumulation of wealth and its theatrical display. Focusing on the emerging Indian fashion industry, the thesis zooms on the dominant opulent aesthetics of excessive royal chic and the material and immaterial production of this segment of the heritage luxury business.
The analytical focus turns towards the identity politics of this segment and the ways in which this class attempts to set itself apart by effectively merging narratives about India’s past greatness with ideas about its current economic power and confidence by reviving diverse craft traditions, invoking and staging re-imagined narratives of royal splendor of the bygone eras, and blending them with romantic notions of artistic creativity, as much as appeals to research, design expertise and connoisseurship, while utilizing museum-like practices of curatorship, marketing and global sponsorships.
The multi-sited research methodology revealed the concrete networks of mutual dependency between the Lucknow based producers of luxury embroidery (chikankari), the Delhi based fashion designers and their elite customers, while uncovering the dynamics of their mutual constitution (the production of the elites by those labeled as ‘poor’ and the reproduction of the ‘poor’ by the elites), thus pointing to the interconnectedness and profound dependency of the formal and informal economies and the so-called parallel worlds, which are far too often, and I argue wrongly so, imagined as separate.
The thesis diagnoses the current predicament of the capitalist aesthetic economy, the rise of the confidence of India’s business elites and their taste for aristocratic opulence, heavily influenced by their transnational business ties with the UAE, Singapore, Russia, Hong Kong, Shanghai and so on and by their increasing orientation away from the West and towards these new emerging markets, while shaping a distinctly Indian version of market capitalism. Within this realm, I argue, heritage luxury business should be understood as both a material manifestation of this ideological shift and as a key strategic player in defining and refining this trend, while supplying the content of contemporary elite Indianness.