When one considers everyday dress in India, the salwar — a pair of loose-fitting, drawstring trousers, and the kameez — a tunic worn with a dupatta — a scarf also used as a head covering — probably come to mind. The roots of this dress style can be attributed to Persia, home of the Mughals, the Muslim dynasty that ruled India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century. The Arabian Gulf played an important role, too. The two regions not only have a geographic proximity to each other, but have been trading partners for centuries. The fact that the word kameez comes from Arabic is one such proof. India has always been known for its textile traditions, and its goods would reach central Europe via the ports of the Gulf. Scientists from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, while examining remnants from UNESCO world heritage site Mleiha, found that the earliest cotton in the Arab world came from Northwestern India, and the oldest surviving pieces of chintz, a calico cloth decorated with woodblock prints that became popular in Europe in the 1600s, was found in Egypt. Textiles, crafts, and silhouettes from India became a source of inspiration, with many of the mirror and metal embroidery forms in Arab dressing traditions influenced by savior fair coming from its South Asian trading partner. In turn, the motifs and decorative forms of this region began to influence embroidery patterns in India. The cultural exchange between the two is ancient and can still be seen today.
Contemporary Indian designers have been borrowing and showing their appreciation of the Middle East for years. Rohit Bal, known as the enfant terrible of Indian fashion, made the jalabiya part of his design repertoire since his early days in the 1990s. Manish Malhotra, Bollywood’s go-to costumer, designed his 2018 couture collection ‘Zween’ in celebration of Middle Eastern culture. Meanwhile, Indian Gen Z’s favored silhouette is the kaftan. In return, the Middle Eastern region has welcomed Indian designers with open arms; fashion shows and pop-up events are regularly hosted in the region.
When Indian celebrities are looking to make a statement on the red carpet at international events, time and again they turn to designers based in the Middle East. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is known for her love of Michael Cinco and Elie Saab, and Priyanka Chopra has been photographed in Zuhair Murad on multiple occasions. Deepika Padukone, who wore a custom-made Zuhair Murad gown to her wedding reception in 2018, stepped out onto this year’s Cannes Film Festival red carpet wearing an orange, one-shoulder gown by Ashi Studio. It was her most well-received look of the festival. The Paris-based Saudi label has been worn by many well-known Indians including Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and heiress Isha Ambani. “There is a similar aesthetic in terms of taste and culture, and both regions love their glamor,” comments the couturier. Celebrity stylist Shaleena Nathani who styles Padukone, adds, “The region has a strong love of Bollywood, so they have a good understanding of our celebrities and occasions, and this does help. As a stylist, the reason I turn to Middle Eastern designers is because of their cut, it flatters an Indian body.” She chose the Ashi dress as it had drama, something she considers essential when walking the red carpet, and was both sensual and modest. This is a balance Middle Eastern designers have always understood.
One such designer is Reema Ameer, who is of Sri Lankan and Lebanese descent. She moved to Dubai 16 years ago, working from her studio at home in Dubai. Ameer notes that both regions have a heritage of craftsmanship and bespoke detailing, an important binding factor between the dressing styles. She also recently received much attention in India as actress Neetu Kapoor, the mother of actor Ranbir Kapoor, has been wearing her designs on repeat. “If European clients are more understated and individual in their approach to style, the Middle Eastern and Indian markets prefer a more groomed image. In that vein, there is a shared appreciation for hand-crafted textiles from beadwork to embroidery, which automatically ups the luxe factor, too. My Arab and Indian clients share a love for color and sparkle. I would say that they are both daring in their sense of style, and always open to trying new things.”
On the other side of the Arabian Sea are the Indian designers for whom the Gulf is almost an extension of their own market, with many Indian designers looking to open stores in Dubai, and seeking to make in-roads into Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi. Designers Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Manish Malhotra, and Suneet Varma all come to the region to host pop-ups, with Mukherjee’s jewelry instore at Dubai-based concept, Bayt Damas. Mumbai-based Anita Dongre, one of India’s most successful designers, who retails on the Ounass platform and has participated in pop-ups in the Gulf, comments, “This is a region where old-world traditions and charms meet cutting-age technology and lived experiences. Like India, there is a value for culture and tradition, but people are also happy to celebrate 21st-century progress and modernity. There is an overlap in both regions’ dressing styles.” Delhi-based Rajdeep Ranawat, who retails in a multi-brand boutique in Dubai’s Jumeriah and who is also part of the Ounass edit, adds, “There is a vast South Asian community living here today, they are bound to visit boutiques and exhibitions for their social wardrobe essentials.” This explains why pop-ups in cities like Dubai, Doha, and Riyadh are now a part of an Indian fashion designer’s calendar. Ranawat says the UAE alone accounts for 15% of his turnover, and that today, many of his clients are Arab. Since Indian designers are open to making customized changes and have a tendency to be more modest in their approach to designs, their fashion is appreciated. “The Middle East is an important fashion hub for Indian designers,” he asserts. Given the historical relationship between the two regions and similarities in approach to dressing, it is a very natural relationship. As both India and the Middle East continue to affirm themselves as leaders in the fashion space, their long-term affection for each other will only help them thrive.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia