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Interview with Author Shefalee Vasudev, about her debut book on the Indian Fashion Industry – Powder Room.
Shefalee Vasudev was the first editor of Marie Claire in India and is currently an Associate Editor with The Indian Express. In her debut book Powder Room, she offers an insider’s perspective on the Indian fashion industry – complete with stories, accounts and interviews of well-known fashion icons.
Why did you feel there was a need for a book such as Powder Room?
Most studies on fashion in India (anyway there being a very few) have looked at the obvious – deconstructing fashion through trends or products. There seemed to be no book that used fashion as a tool, to look at popular culture, the re-appropriation of the new Indian, the class clash inside fashion, the changes we see (a Dior bag in a Hindi film, a lehnga gown) alongside the persistence of orthodoxy.
The last decade being India’s dress up decade, made me wonder about a book written in long form journalism style on aspects of modern India through fashion. That’s the book I wanted to do – with simply written stories that unravelled the complexities, the untold accounts behind ambition, morality, modernity, sexuality, power and class.
Since this is a non-fiction book which explores the darker side of the Indian fashion industry, how difficult was it to write about people you know personally?
As a fashion journalist, I know a lot of people in the industry alright, but not all are close friends of mine. Most of my personal friends are not in the book in fact – barring an odd one (that too only because he/she was germane to the story). In any case – friend, acquaintance or a completely new source/subject/interview, I tried to remain true to the stories, to the facts. It wasn’t difficult.
How different are the challenges faced by men and women hoping to make it big in the fashion industry?
It is easy to be a designer these days – successful or not is a matter of career evolution. Unlike in the days of Suneet Varma, Ravi Bajaj, Rina Dhaka, JJ Valaya, Tarun Tahiliani and others who worked their way up from the ground – with a lot of perseverance in a country that was only exploring fashion, sometimes even reluctantly. Ritu Kumar rightly thinks of herself as a barefoot doctor in the Seventies when she was working on revival of crafts and textiles. Those were not easy days for designers.
Today the field is buzzing with training and work opportunities for men and women alike. The challenges for men and women in fashion are similar for designers, stylists, merchandising experts, store managers, shop assistants and other peripheral and ancillary industries. But they do differ when it comes to modelling. The industry has far more opportunities for girls than it has for boys.
It is quite difficult to be a male supermodel today: there isn’t even one after Arjun Rampal. Girls not only find more and varied work including international opportunities but they are paid more. I haven’t heard of an Indian male model recently or even in a long time offered an international magazine cover or an assignment to model for top global brands. But female Indian models have found such work.
Then there is the highly stereotyped “casting couch”. It does exist here and there – an exception not the norm and where it does, it wreaks injustice against both men and women. But undoubtedly, such realities are far more defeating and disempowering for women.
Who was the first to read your book? What was their first reaction?
Powder Room‘s editor Milee Ashwarya of course read the manuscript when it was ready and even before. But besides her, it was Vir Sanghvi, adviser, HT Media who was the first to read the full manuscript. He himself offered to read and critique it when we were discussing the book once over a casual lunch. I remain grateful to him for that thought. In fact, I was almost apologetic; “You will read the full book?” I asked him. He smiled and said yes as long as I didn’t want him to praise it. Vir’s first comment after he went through it was, “I can see it is a good book but I also think it is going to be a very important book.”
If you were a man, would there be anything different about your book?
It’s a bit of an imaginary answer but I think I would have explored the idea of machismo in the book more if I were a man; perhaps written more vigorously on men’s fashion. I have numerous accounts of men strewn all across my book – in many cases men are protagonists in my stories but I do notice a yin view of it all. It would have had a different tone, even a different approach, if I were a man.
What is the hardest thing about writing a book?
Discipline and persistence. It does take away from family time – it’s about long hours of isolation, of reading and research before any work takes shape. It takes a toll on those you live with. In the most intense phase of my work, my husband and son would tell me I was becoming a distracted brooder.
*Photo credit:Shefalee Vasudev
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