Forget Allen Ginsberg dancing to his finger cymbals in search of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and The Fab Four looking dazed and confused in flowing robes, leather sandals and love beads. And forget, too, the crowded stalls at Camden Market where for the past 20-odd years, stallholders have been selling mirror-embroidered waistcoats, paisley shawls, and cheap Indian trinkets to anyone who would have them. Indian dress has moved on from its brown rice, grungey, backpacking image to something altogether more upmarket.
Saris, draped dhoti trousers, Nehru collars, exotic embroideries, rich batiks and vivid colours of Indian dress have long been a source of inspiration to western fashion designers. Hubert de Givenchy made long, floaty evening dresses deceptively cut to look as simply draped as the sari; Yves Saint Laurent has used the salwar-kameez and the sari; John Galliano's first collection for Givenchy featured a whole section of exotic Indian sari fabrics and he continued his trawl through the subcontinent with Edwardian Maharanis jingling in silver jewellery and Burmese giraffe necklaces that add 20 centimetres to the wearer's neck for the haute couture he showed in July for Dior. Dries Van Noten has heirloom ohrnas (embroidered stoles worn draped over the shoulder) made in Calcutta by a traditional craftsman whom Van Noten discovered on a trip there in 1992. They have been collaborating ever since.
The sari itself is one of the simplest, yet most exotic and evocative of garments, a single length of fabric that is wrapped, draped and tied to the individual needs and body shape of the wearer. It is the perfect solution to dressing. One size fits all.
Apart from Jemima Khan, the woman most responsible for making the salwar- kameez the latest Sloane Ranger must-have is Ritu Kenar. Her 12 shops across Calcutta, New Delhi, Amritsar, Jaipur, Bombay and Madras, along with the latest to open in central London, make full use of the age-old techniques and craftsmanship that have been used in Indian clothing for thousands of years. There are delicate block prints, intricate paisley patterns, rich gold embroideries, vibrant coloured silks and simple wraps of hand-woven fabric. Kenar is the Bruce Oldfield of India, remaking the old stalwarts of the Indian wardrobe in luxurious fabrics and expensive finishes. Her evening salwar-kameez sell for between pounds 155 and pounds 1,200.
"Lady Diana and Jemima have definitely helped increase awareness and visibility of Indian clothing," says Kiki Siddiqui, owner of the Ritu shop in London. "People are becoming much more aware of hand-crafted fabrics. The quality of Ritu's designs is of a very high standard. They are hand-crafted rather than machine-made, and that's what people love." A heavily embroidered gold dress will cost around pounds 600, but Kenar also sees a market beyond her wealthy, celebrity customers. She has developed a cheaper range that is machine embroidered and sells at around pounds 70 for a tunic and pants.
Eighty per cent of Mrs Siddiqui's London customers are European. "They don't want anything modern, always just the traditional look," she says. It's the customers in India who want something with a modern "western" edge; Kenar obliges with simple skirts and tops in traditional prints and fabrics, more tailored and less draped.
Ritu Kenar is part of the change that has happened in Indian clothing. Designers like her are exploiting the heritage of thousands of years of craftsmanship - fabric weaving, printing and embroidery techniques - that might otherwise have died out. The heavy gold embroideries are done in Calcutta, while much of Ritu's fine silk and woven fabrics come from Banaras in northern India, famous for its age-old techniques. The Uttar Pradesh region is also famous for producing its white embroidered sari cloth and wedding outfits worn with scarves so heavy with embroidery it could take four people to hold it. Ritu's clothes are for practical everyday wear, one step between national costume and fashion. "These clothes are much more classic and precious," says Mrs Siddiqui. "It's like owning an Armani suit - you have it all your life."
And it is not just women who are being treated to veils, embroideries, silks and the tinkling of Indian gold and silver. Menswear designers are coming over all exotic, too. The die is already cast for men's wardrobes for next summer: Kenzo has the most literal interpretations of the achkan jacket - long, in white or beige, with a stand-up collar, the kurta, a long-sleeved tunic, as well as exotic scarves, Indian summer colours and, if you're feeling really adventurous, a touch of face painting, too. The designer even hired a sitar player to entertain press and buyers before the show in Paris last July. These are clothes made for sitting on tasselled cushions in a shady room under a slowly creaking ceiling fan, drinking bhang lassi. Likewise, those made Spanish designer Antonio Miro who has designed Nehru jackets in soft linens and, for the evening, in gold to be worn with matching long sarongs.
Thirty years ago, flower-powered, guru-crazed hippies wore their simple Indian garb as a signifier of their spiritual enlightenment. The long hair, the cheesecloth tunics, the loin cloth trousers and love beads were a sure sign that this person had seriously tuned in and dropped out. There was no doubt about it. He or she could meditate at the drop of a turban and could chant along to the sitar without feeling remotely foolish. These days, it is the post-modernist, oh-so-ironic thing to pick and choose from dress codes around the world and blend it all up in a giant fashion Magimix. Nothing spiritual, you understand. The very fact that you are wearing the latest in Nike trainers with your Brick Lane sari shows that you are far from adopting eastern dress in search of some kind of inner peace and world karma. It's not Shiva you're following, but fashion.
At Koh Sa Mui, the new generation designer store in Covent Garden, owner/buyer, Paul Sexton agrees. "It's much more of a fashion thing now," he says. "The people who are buying Indian-inspired clothing have got more money. It's not a hippie thing. The fabrics, like the ones Dries Van Noten uses, are much better quality. You won't catch me in a sari, though." Among the clothes on sale are wrap skirts printed with images of Buddha, reduced to pounds 65 in the sale. It's about as close to Nirvanha as most of the 18-40-year-old arty, media types who shop at Koh Sa Mui will ever get.
Over at the cult shopping experience, Voyage, in London's Fulham Road, there is not much of the caring sharing spirit either, despite any hippie spirit the clothes exude. These are one-off versions of clothes more at home at Camden Lock, or the beach in Goa, except that the fabrics are finer, and the edges trimmed with velvet ribbon. Oh, and the prices are sky-high, justified only by the calibre of the locals who like to shop in the rarefied atmosphere of a precious Fulham boutique. Jemima Khan shops there, along with music, arts, fashion and theatre types like Bjork, Norman Foster, Kate, Naomi and Stella, and Emma Thompson. This is hippie chic for the rich elite, an exclusive club that requires you to ring the doorbell and be vetted before even entering the shop, whether you have the pounds 1,000 necessary to buy a single dress or not. It's about as far removed from the innocence of the simple muslin salwar-kameez worn by Sixties flower children as a Gucci power suit with killer spiked heels.
The flirtation between Indian traditional clothing and western fashion continues then, albeit with more emphasis on superficial decoration than inner purity. Just because you wear a tiny stud of gold in your nose doesn't make you a more spiritual person. One of the latest crazes to hit Hollywood is the art of mehndi - henna body painting that leaves lacy doilie patterns on your hands and feet. Indian women are given the full mehndi treatment before they are married. The Artist and his wife, Mayte, both indulge in henna tattoos, as do Demi Moore, Mira Sorvino and Liv Tyler. It's a trend that promises to take off. Unlike the decade's earlier craze for permanent tattoos, mehndi eventually washes off. Just as well then, because this time, India's influence is purely decorative. It's not even skin deepReuse content