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Reinvention of the sari brings a comeback on catwalks, at cocktail parties

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 11:29 AM

NEW DELHI - It was just past noon when dozens of mothers and daughters at India's most luxurious mall sauntered right past the glittering showrooms of Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton and into a brunch celebrating the sari.

India's supercharged economy has brought a parade of posh international designers to the capital along with more affordable chains like Zara and Forever 21 that offer mini-skirts and skinny jeans to one of the world's largest markets.

But the emblem of Indian glamour is in the throes of a comeback, and these women had come to the DLF Emporio mall to attend "sari school." They hoped to learn some of the 108 ways to drape a sari from the grand aunty of the garment: Rta Kapur Chishti, a textile historian and sari stalwart.

Some of the teenagers had never worn one, and Chishti's apprentice Pallavi Verma, 27, had to push them to try on youthful styles.

"Once you know the basics, you can play," Verma told the group at the brunch, which was hosted by designer Kavita Bhartia, who owns Ogaan, one of India's top fashion houses.

The rules were simple: Come wearing a sari, bring a tank top if you wish to experiment with other styles.

"Sooo beautiful!" cooed Geetanjali Jain, 16, who removed her earbuds blasting Lady Gaga to examine a rack of rare, hand-spun saris.

She had come reluctantly, and had broken the rules and worn jeans.

But watching other young women try them on seemed to make her happy, and Jain's 47-year-old aunt and 74-year-old grandmother looked on with pride.

In between fittings, relatives shouted out opinions and snapped photographs. The young women sipped fresh lime soda for fortitude.

Noting the demise of the kimono in Japan and the Chinese obsession with global brands, many Indian designers consider saving the sari a point of cultural pride, said Chishti, who was draping a sensual ivory sari with gold embroidery along its edges.

The weekend classes have been packed with brides, fashion models and a new breed of Indian fashionistas who have enjoyed the fruits of India's economic growth. They are curious about the free-flowing seven yards of fabric that for many young urban middle- and upper-class Indians is worn only at weddings, parties and religious festivals.

Many rural Indian women still wear saris, and each region drapes them differently. They often wear saris made of light cottons or imitation crepe, and they do everything from carry bricks in them to sleep amid their folds of cloth.

"The new generation has to feel the history and elegance of the sari," said Chishti, who rushed with a measuring tape to fit a line of girls. "If I can convince one person in their 20s to wear a sari, I have won!"

She's even suggested that Michelle Obama should wear a sari when the first lady and President Obama visit India next month. The India media have speculated that the fashionable Michelle Obama will don a sari, but the White House has yet to comment.

Chishti spent years pouring her passion into the recently published "Saris of India - Tradition and Beyond," a majestic encyclopedia of the sari, with meticulously researched styles from the off-shoulder tribal style worn in fishing villages of Kerala to the between-the-legs sari worn during traditional Odissi dance performances.

"We will not allow a sari to become just a framed panel on the wall of the museum," she said. "In India, globalization doesn't mean we are all in bluejeans, which don't even fit our hot climate or our Indian sensibilities."

A movement is underway to bring the sari back to the runway and the office place. There already is the denim sari, the little black sari, the swimsuit sari made from Italian Lycra.

Hyderabad designer Vinita Pittie has made the skirt sari, which can be tied around the waist with the goal of attracting young Indians who might feel that the traditional sari is difficult to drape.

"It can even be worn with a T-shirt and chunky jewelry," Pittie said. "The sari must be saved."

Another popular version is the cocktail sari, easy to slip on and made of lighter, slinkier fabric and worn with a sexy spaghetti strap blouse.

"The young Indian woman today is infatuated with the international global brands. Shows like "Gossip Girl" and global magazines are a huge influence," said Priya Tanna, editor of Vogue India. "But an Indian woman knows what looks sexy. She will wear a fabulous Chanel handbag with an exquisite antique silk brocade sari."

At the sari brunch, Chishti put on her glasses and squinted at the perfect curve of the young woman's waist that peeped through the elegant drape of a sari. "Is it comfortable to walk in?" she asked.

"Oh yes," the young woman answered. "I love it."

"If you really want to look wonderful," Chishti added with a smile and a touch of sternness, "do it in the Indian way, my darling."

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