The only Fashionistas

If you are trying to spot the next hot trend, head to the Northeast. Forget the metros, street fashion is born in Shillong, Kohima and Imphal, says Aastha Atray Banan
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NAMRAPALI NARZARY is a 21-year-old Bodo student from Assam, studying sociology at JNU. Narzary is currently into the body-con look inspired by Serena Van der Woodson from Gossip Girl. Think super tight bandage style dresses — unwatered down fashion but at non-Hérve Léger prices. On the university’s tree-lined streets, among the studied slacker fashion of the student population, Narzary stands out with her effortless style.
Narzary is not an exception. A casual glance across college canteens anywhere in India will confirm where the real fashionistas of the country are. Not Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru. The girls and boys from the Northeast are the frontrunners. Fitted dresses, abstract-shaped pants, harem pants, bubblegum colour schemes, skinny jeans, ties, hip-hop sneakers and gelled, highly structured hair all hit Gangtok, Shillong, Imphal and Kohima before they hit ‘mainland’ India.

Narzary did not spend years trying to choose between the three prevailing influences on Indian street fashion: Bollywood bling, dated American trends and ‘alternative’ meaning ethnic with a heavy dose of handlooms. As a teenager, Narzary only wanted to look like the Korean girl band 21. With Bollywood unpopular and minimal local language programming, pop culture in the Northeast takes a lot of its cues from Korean television anyway. The Korean pop music aesthetic contains some startling artifacts: pink one-shoulder shrugs, leather bodysuits with silver studs, 1980s playsuits, hot pants in neon colours and dropped crotch pants for men. Mazami Sailo Rose, an executive working for the Italian fashion house Pal Zileri grew up in Mizoram. She explains the leaning toward Seoul simply, “Our bodies are different from people in the rest of India, so are our features. We resemble people from Korea and China. It’s better to dress like them than dress like Bollywood stars. That’s why Korean pop bands are a huge influence.”
The fashion establishment may be catching on. When the prospect of a Guwahati Fashion Week was announced recently, hopes were raised for a runway without embroidered lehengas, glistening sherwanis and sequinned saris. The event, which is tentatively slated for this month, will feature fashion designers and models from the Northeast. Debasish Shyam, business head, United Spirits Limited, one of the sponsors, explained simply, “We found that the youth in the Northeast spend most of their disposable income on fashion. And since there is no concerted effort to establish an official platform for fashion in that region, we stepped up.”
So why is the Northeast ahead of the curve? Nandini Baruah, 30, a well-known Guwahati designer who will also be showing at the Guwahati Fashion Week, believes that the region’s melting pot nature helps. “Take Assamese society, there are descendents of the Mongolians who came from China and descendents of the Aryans. There are many intercaste marriages as well. Due to this mix of cultures, people are more open-minded here, and thus, fashion is easily accepted. You are bound to find a unique Justin Timberlake or Rihanna at every corner.” Daniel Syiem, 30, a designer from Shillong also brings up the influence of pop music, “Right now, with the coming of VH1, hip-hop dominates the scene. It’s great that finally we may have a fashion week to call our own. For years, we have dressed well, now we can link that fashion awareness to a larger context of fashion in India.”
If you were missing a sartorialist-like blog tracking some of this fashion, look no further than A Bit of Our Life ( Lepcha and Longkumar are 20-something anthropology students in Shillong. You can’t see their faces but everyday they post pictures of themselves in delicious new clothes somewhere in their hometown. With wearable colours, clean lines and high-waisted everything, the girls are less hip-hop and more Aisha. Aisha with flair. L1 and L2, as the girls like to call themselves, trace their instinctive fashion antennae back to their parents and grandparents.
An antenna so sensitive that to be rebellious means to be anti-fashion. Mumbai-based copywriter Kima De Mizohican complains, “There is a lot of pressure to look good. When I go back from Mumbai to Mizoram, I have to hear jibes from people about being too casual. Fashion has become such an integral part of people’s lives that if you are not with it, you are totally uncool.”