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Sari, sari nights: the new Asian cool

Eastern style has mass appeal - but that doesn't mean it's up for grabs, says James Sherwood

James Sherwood
Saturday 10 May 1997 23:02 BST

Every Monday night, the painfully hip Blue Note club in Hoxton, east London, plays host to Anokha. Sweety, promoter of the Asian influence night, presides over a queue of more than 500 people - and that's just the guest list. She is the style guru of second-generation Asians: wearing a traditional sari as a wrap skirt with funky trainers and a black decolletage T-shirt. In the crowd are black, white, Asian, Oriental and Icelandic devotees of Anokha and its star DJ, Talvin Singh. The Icelandic contingent was made up of Bjork (in a sari) and her entourage. Simon Le Bon, in Gucci, queued up to pay homage to Sweety.

The emphasis is on multi- cultural rather than Asian. "Anokha style borrows from many cultures," says Sweety. "It is international rather than just a combination of Asian and British. I don't believe in this fusion thing. I dress the way I do because I like it - not to make a cultural or political statement".

This year is said to be the year of the self-styled second-generation" Asian youth. Since the early Nineties, Asian music, fashion and club culture has thrived in what began as an insular, underground scene. The Asian Underground always attracted a cross-section of multi-racial British youth. But, like vultures, the mainstream style-press, music industry and club promoters have finally caught on to the Eastern appeal. The second generation encouraged the cultural exchange but didn't expect it to be at their expense. Instead of promoting existing Asian artists who started the vibe, many Asians feel that the mainstream is intent on repackaging their culture.

Asian music has moved from club beat Bhangra to what has been dubbed "Soundz of the Asian Underground". A new CD of the same name is masterminded by Ahokha DJ Talvin Singh (who coined the phrase Asian Underground). Singh is wary of recent media attention. "Don't categorise us and don't categorise my music," he says. "I don't actually have such a big Asian following. People come to hear good music - not Asian music. I think people who talk about the `second generation' have a different agenda. And to confuse politics with music is dangerous."

Designer Bashir Ahmed takes traditional Asian silhouettes and makes "techno haute couture" street fashion interpretations for the Anokha crowd. "You have to ask yourself why there are no high-profile Asian designers," says Ahmed, a St Martin's graduate. "Why no Asian pop icons, why no Asian Kula Shaker? We don't begrudge Kula Shaker's success, but why do they get all the credit for sampling Asian music when Talvin Singh has been doing it - and doing it better - for the past five years?"

Ahmed credits a new attitude among Asian youth. "It is a confidence thing. The second generation aren't confused by their culture. We take the strongest and most beautiful from our heritage while still going forward."

The look at Anokha is London street fashion incorporating the sari, shalwar- kameez (think Jemima Khan), Atchkan (men's neru collared tunic) and choli (blouse worn under the sari). The sari, in particular, is worn with the same ease as the Nineties club uniform: puffa jackets, trainers, combat pants and Adidas striped tops. Sweety says, "This is definitely a fashion thing rather than a political statement. These clothes happen to be functional for the way I live my life. Saris give me maximum glamour with minimum effort and I have to wear trainers because I'm standing with the guest list for three hours every Monday night."

"There is a fine line between tacky and cool", says Imran Khan, editor of the monthly style bible 2nd Generation, now publishing its third issue. "Wearing a sari with trainers, you have to be careful not to tip over into hippydom. There's a big difference between the people who go to Anokha and crusty hippies who go to India and come back with a sari. As with all fashion, the glamour of the Asian influence is in the detail."

There is an underlying exasperation among Asian Youth that the style press have finally caught up. On the night I visited Anokha, a fashion team from The Face was looking incredibly sour because Sweety wouldn't allow all 10 of them to shoot an Asian fashion story - with a white model - in the club. "I find it faintly ridiculous that these people are using pounds 3,000 designer interpretations of the sari when you can get better quality fabrics for pounds 200 and wear them your own way," says Sweety.

The Anokha crowd wouldn't dream of shelling out for Dries Van Noten or Red or Dead. Wembley, Southall and Brick Lane are the key sari-buying centres. Among the biggest, with more than 10,000 saris in stock, is the Modern Saree Centre (the spelling of Saree is variable) in Brick Lane. Owner Bodrul "Tito" Mazid says, "In these three square miles there are over 48 sari shops. I don't want to boast, but we have everything from a pounds 4.99 polyester chiffon sari to a pounds 400 pure gold embroidered, satin wedding sari here." Mazid is blase about media attention after recently talking to Arena, Time Out, The Guardian and German Elle. "We have always welcomed Western customers," he says, "though of course, Jemima Khan had something to do with the popularity of the shalwar-kameez."

On inspecting the five-yard bolts of sari fabric, you realise an entire new and exotic wardrobe of wrap skirts and sarongs could be had for the price of a coffee in the DKNY cafe. The delicate thong sandals, in gold and jewel hues, could outshine a pair of Manolo Blahniks and they cost less than pounds 50. "I do wear the traditional sandals," says Sweety, "but not for Anokha. They are too flimsy for a cold night in Hoxton Square. Besides, my look is urban street wear, not fancy dress. That's why I don't understand when The Face, ID and Italian Vogue are suddenly going mad for a look I have worn for years."

"You have to be wary of the mainstream press," says Khan, who formerly worked for the style title Dazed And Confused. "The second generation are not just a flash in the pan. We won't go out of fashion or disappear just because designers don't make Asian style visible. Anyway, saris won't go out of fashion. They will simply be integrated into everyday fashion, like combat pants and jeans."

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