Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: Powder Room by Shefalee Vasudev

Title: Powder Room
Author: Shefalee Vasudev
 Random House India
Pages: 335
Price: Rs 399
Format: Hardbound
Genre: Non Fiction / Fashion
Rating: 10/10

Madhur Bhandarkar’s movie ‘Fashion’ was the first to explore what is little known to the general people, like me, of the world of fashion. But like all his other films, the characters were too unidimensional and the story was largely put together by mix-and-match of some controversial scoops from the Fashion world. There were no insights. It looked what it was – an outsider’s view of the workings of the Indian Fashion. It was high time an insider threw some light.

I first read about this book here, and I was hooked. Fashion is such a fascinating subject. Moreover, I had a ‘Fashion Designer’ phase while growing up, so I am pretty well-versed with a lot of fashion designers and models. I think Sushmita Sen winning the coveted Miss Universe title was a defining moment for Indian Fashion industry. Atleast my generation, which was still in school, took notice of this field. I even had a ‘Fashion Journalist’ phase. But today in retrospect, I am glad I did not become either.  I am not cut out for the Fashion world. I hardly care about clothes now (I mean the latest trend and not wearing!).

‘Powder Room’ by Shefalee Vasudev, an ex-Marie Claire editor and a journalist for 15 years writing on popular culture, social trends and fashion, attempts to offer a 360 degree view of the Indian Fashion industry. She interviewed 300 people within the scope of her book to understand what ‘fashion’ means to them. What came out eventually in the form of a book is an expansive view of Indian fashion industry –it takes into account how everyone perceives fashion and how fashion touches everyone and its impact, which is surprisingly far reaching and wide-spread. This book is as much about the elite class who can afford the latest luxury brands as much it is about the middle class shopper who gets a replica made for considerably low cost.

With a fetching cover page, the book is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a distinct aspect of fashion. ‘Powder Room’ packs a lot in its 330-odd pages. Here are a few glimpses:

The famous fashion designer Raakesh Agarvwal talks about fighting his personal demons, getting overwhelmed by the downside of fashion world to getting back on track and finally getting acclaim. Jennifer, the Sales girl with a luxury brand, admits to the conflict between her middle class personal life and the professional one surrounded with luxury brands and elite customers. Ludhiana ladies make dream customers for the luxury brands in their eagerness to lap up every latest offering. The super rich splurge on designer wear but India has a huge middle class which cannot afford those expensive clothes, and thus the emergence of darzi culture.

It was also refreshing to read about all kinds of models - where there are desperate ones like Nagma, eager to do whatever it takes to make it big; there are also the practical ones like Laxmi Rana and a lot of other senior models who have learnt to draw the line and keep their sanity. There are observations about Naga culture and fashion, and surprising lack of organized retail stores in a fashion conscious state.

While Rohit Bal stands out for the luxurious clothes he creates and the dramatic way in which he presents; Sabyasachi Mukherjee also has a huge following for his clothes which are distinctive and original. He is obsessed with Indian weaves, textiles and embroideries, and goes all out to revive, sustain, contemporarize the traditional crafts. The story of Patan Patola sarees and Salvi family actually mimic the fate of a lot of original Indian weaves and crafts. Without their openness to experimentation and any unique marketing strategy to make those traditional weaves aspirational for the young generation, the art is sure to get lost in the near future. 

The fashion media consists of stylists and editors from fashion magazines on one hand, and journalists who cover fashion as a segment for the mainstream newspapers on the other hand. The former focuses on insights and latest trends while the latter thrives on controversies and scoops. And finally the much talked about fashion world politics – feuding fashion designers, multitude of fashion weeks sprouted even in B-class cities now, no clear criteria for selection of young designers for them, and many such industry specifics. Bridal wear is certainly a big business avenue for the Indian fashion world and top designers agree that no matter what they show on the ramp, they are making a lot of Indian wear for their customers.

Eventually, ‘Powder Room’ is insightful, informative, gripping and eye-opening. It gives you an all-round view, multiple perspectives of fashion world and what fashion means to different people. The author explores the “aspects of modern India through fashion”, while also offering a study on evolving fashion consciousness. Though she steers clear of the controversial topics, she does discuss the pitfalls and downside of the fashion world but gives enough examples of people who have made it and yet not lost their heads to the excesses.

I am not in a position to comment if she has done justice to the Indian fashion world, may be her contemporaries can comment better. But as far as it is about me, I had a great time reading this book. It opened surprising as well as interesting aspects of a world, which has not been too talked about in books. May be there are many more things to say but it is certainly a good beginning.

A must read for anybody interested in fashion world, fashion students as well as people who are interested in anthropology, culture and social change. It strengthens my belief that non fiction is an extremely interesting category to read.

P.S. I googled every reference that she throws in – whether people, books or articles. I also googled all those cover pages she talks about.

Image courtesy: Random House India website


  1. Interesting synopsis of the book. Need to read it one of these days.

  2. @liju philip: Yes indeed, very interesting book. Thank you for dropping by :-)

  3. I am not a great fan of non-fiction but this one seems to be very informative and interesting! Will check it out sometime!

    1. I used to think Non Fiction would be boring, but then I chanced upon ' Maximum City' about 5-6 years back, and then ther has been no looking back. The thing with non fiction is that it is thrilling to read about reality. Try genres like true crime, travelogues, and soon you will be a convert.