It’s no secret that fashion always weighs heavy on the pocket. Good fashion, or its vertiginous equivalent “high fashion”, comes at a price. And the prices are mostly obscene. This is conventional wisdom that doesn’t take much to master, even from the standpoint of a fashion illiterate, like me. But there comes a point, on the continuum of haute couture, when obscenity of the costs involved is reflected by the ugliness of the clothes bought: the uglier an outfit, the pricier it gets. And this non sequitur seems to have become the founding principle of men’s’ fashion, itself a contradiction in terms.
I mean, look at us. The male of the species has been at the receiving end of many a fashion atrocity committed in the name of style. Remember the military camouflage cargo pants? It had over half-a-dozen pockets with…I can’t bring myself to say it…with zippers over each one of them. We’ve all, at some stage of life, confronted this monstrosity and one can only hope that future generations are spared the horror. Then those corduroy jackets with elbow patches? Yes, the word is yuck. The shirts with outsized collars meant to be placed over the lapels of a blazer: where is the law when you need it?
The list, of course, is endless. And this typically male propensity to ugliness, this reversal of the idea of beauty, manifests in the clothes we wear. It’s as if there is some inherent need for looking ridiculous that the fashion-conscious man wants addressed, no matter the cost. And the fashion industry is only too happy to oblige. The biggest names in men’s fashion, even today, seem to be getting their design cues from those least qualified for the job — namely, men. Aren’t we going to learn anything from Giorgio Armani, for instance? I’ve never seen him out of his plain black T-shirt, and, to me, the message seems loud and clear: if you don’t want to be laughed at, keep it simple.
In other words, Armani, the man, is telling the rest of his tribe — other men — to avoid fashion as best they can. I therefore expected some plain common sense when I visited the Giorgio Armani showroom at the DLF Emporio mall in Delhi. And what did I see? Zippers. I saw shirts with zippers, all the way from the hem to the collar, a replacement for that lasting symbol of simplicity in fashion design: buttons. Not being able to breathe properly next to the shirt stands, I moved on to jackets and all but howled in terror at seeing a velvet jacket that cost over a lakh-and-a-half. “Are you kidding me,” I said to the showroom attendant, but only in my head. Actually I said, “Is this for men?” “Yes,” the guy said. “You can see the size. It’s too big. Won’t fit the women.”
When you enter a store at the Emporio mall — the playground of the rich — you are sized up by the salespersons, first thing, top to bottom. They are checking the labels on clothes you’re already wearing, a trade trick to identify potential customers, to separate the wheat from the chaff. I was decidedly chaff-ish, and looking the part too. Most salespersons didn’t bother even looking at my clothes: they just saw my face and made their mind up. I, on the other hand, wanting to pre-empt the sales enquiries, started posing questions of my own. Questions like, “So what fabric is this?” Only so I had something to say. When I ran out of things, I would say stuff life, “So is this Versace?” pointing at the black suit a sales guy at the Versace showroom was wearing. He responded in the affirmative, and I couldn’t help but imagine how my own professional stint as a Versace salesperson would have turned out. I would have run away with my uniform, sold it and started my own business.
There was so much glitter around — the white lights reflected in gold at random points. “Loud. Versace has always been a bit loud,” the salesman told me, and his tone was far from apologetic. I asked him if he’s ever bought something from Versace, to which he said no, sounding apologetic. Not even the belts? He said, yes, belts maybe. I asked him more about the Versace logo, which I saw everywhere, and most emphatically on shoes and belt buckles. A huge amoebic figure, as big as a hand, done in gold (which, I was told, was actually brass). “This is Medusa’s head,” the salesman told me. I asked him to tell me more about the symbol, and he took me back not to Greek mythology but, appropriately, to Hollywood. “Haven’t you seen the movie, The Clash of the Titans?”
“Loud. Versace has always been a bit loud,” the salesman told me, and his tone was far from apologetic. I asked him if he’s ever bought something from Versace, to which he said no, sounding apologetic.Not even the belts? He said, yes, belts maybe.
It is the inevitable mix — fashion and film. At the Gucci showroom, the salesperson —an exceptional man who was nice to me without being patronising (a rare feat at an upmarket mall) — told me about his clientele. “Deepika keeps buying from us. As does Kangana,” he said. What about the men, I asked. And I had on my mind the Gucci jacket — price just under a couple of lakhs — embellished with colourful prints of horses. Gucci is big on horses and everything to do with the races. But why would anyone want to wear a jacket with horses on it — even if you’re an MF Husain fan — and pay someone for it? “Has anyone bought this horse jacket?” I asked, and the salesman said yes, naming a popular singer of devotional songs, whose garlanded figure, ruddy cheeks and artificially-black hair I remembered so distinctly. “Oh,” I said, “him buying this jacket makes perfect sense.”
Then I walked into the Tom Ford showroom, the only one in the country, thinking I’d run into a sheet of plate glass at any point of time. Everything here was so clean and transparent, so soothing. Except some of the clothes in the men’s section. A bright orange jacket, for example. “No one has bought this particular colour yet,” the salesman (why are they all men?) told me. “It won’t do that well in India, yes.” I didn’t bother asking its price. But at Roberto Cavalli, I did ask the price, and every imaginable detail, of one particular jacket. It was a grey-ish white, with the colour black looking like it was spray-painted on the foundation. It seemed weird even to touch, let alone look. The patterns, I was told, were woven into the fabric.
I was so struck by all this that I wanted to browse through the women’s line here, for some visual, aesthetic relief. I saw Cavalli gowns, tall and flowing, silk with floral prints. A saleswoman (finally!) came up to me and I, without touching the garments said to her, “They’re very nice”. “Yes indeed, sir. This is our VIC room,” she responded. VIC room? She replied, “Very Important Client room.” I instantly took a step back, and while she reassured me that my presence was perfectly okay, and what’s more acceptable in the VIC room, I went out looking for slightly less premium and luxurious options of clothing.
At the Diesel Black Gold outlet, the attendant told me, “This is Diesel’s premium and more luxurious brand of clothing, a tad above ordinary Diesel.” Denims here go for Rs 25,000 a pop or above, which, after what I had been through, seemed like a steal. I did the math: a pair of pants here were equal in value to roughly 25 pairs of the kind I was then wearing. “With Diesel, you look for a few things,” the attendant said. “The fifth pocket, the double loops, the strap and the optical illusion at the back.” Again, needless to say, I was flummoxed. Optical what? “The jeans. They make your bottoms look better,” he said. I went: “Better? You mean, bigger?” “Yes, if yours are small. Or else the other way around. But yours are small. Why don’t you try these on and see for yourself?”
Inside the trial room, wearing Diesel’s “Thavar” line — slim skinny — I looked like Peter Pan. These were not denims, these were tights. When I exited, the guy outside asked me, “So how’s that tush?” I told him I can’t see it, turned around, and he followed my gesture with some appreciative noises. “Just as it should be. See, it’s all a matter of the stitching, the placement of the pockets. Certainly makes yours look bigger.” Inside the trial room, changing back into my road-worn, road-cheap pants felt like nothing less than deliverance. I thought of an escape route, the only one I use when visiting clothing stores without intending to buy anything. “These are great,” I told the guy, “but let me just look around and I’ll come back and buy these. Okay?”