When the Indian economy became liberalized in 1991, the impact was seismic for the Bollywood film industry. With the market adopting a more forward-facing, international approach, the method of film financing changed, as did Bollywood's audience. The pictures, now pitching to consumers outside of India, got bigger, as did the stars who fronted them.
"Before 1991, we didn't really have too much foreign investment," says Mumbai-based fashion and costume designer Manish Malhotra, who has outfitted the brightest actresses in Bollywood in his nearly three-decade career. "Our media was quite insular and the only international brands we consumed were if and when we traveled abroad. Bollywood films were pretty much the only source of entertainment across generations of Indians."
The Indian film tradition is just as influential as it was prior to 1991, but it's since transformed and come closer to holding its own against its Los Angeles counterpart. Though Hollywood churns out much higher revenues at the box office — 2016 marked a record year with a $11.17 billion return — the International Business Times reported that Bollywood's earnings were expected to reach $4.5 billion by 2016, and that's with a considerably lower single-ticket price.
And what is Bollywood cinema without the fashion that accompanies it, both on- and off-camera? The industry is often credited as being largely responsible for, or at least instrumental in, driving the stylistic tastes of much of India's population. While all of India's designers do not, of course, create film costumes alongside ready-to-wear and couture (as Malhotra does), the country's buzziest fashion labels do play a part in the trade as it extends to Bollywood's "It" girls.
Bollywood's fashion darlings have labels they often return to, stylists they work with and trends they set, just as any number of well-dressed actresses do in the U.S. Of those brands that most appeal to the industry's "It" girls, three (in addition to Malhotra's designs) — Urvashi Joneja, Frou Frou by Archana Rao and Payal Khandwala — cater to the so-called cool kids.
"In India especially, Bollywood and fashion run parallel," says Joneja, who cut her teeth at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in New Delhi before earning a Master's from Parsons in New York. It was after working at several fashion and textiles companies in the U.S. in merchandising and branding roles that she opted to return to India to launch her own label, which she did in 2014. "I think they lend themselves to each other perfectly. Actors now experiment a lot with young labels and different looks."
Joneja's designs, which she describes as being "very bold," certainly fit the bill. "The garments make a statement through prints, colors, embroideries, texturing and draping," she says. "But we ensure each garment is extremely wearable, and that women of all sizes can feel comfortable and look beautiful."
This sense of individualism is a key tenet of the greater Indian film and fashion industries, and Bollywood's most fashion-adjacent actresses reflect this. Archana Rao, who heads up Frou Frou by Archana Rao alongside her namesake brand Archana Rao Label, discusses her brands' sensibilities in the same vein. Similarly to Joneja, she designs for women, including many of India's "It" girls, who "[don't] take fashion too seriously" and "like to enjoy styling clothes."
"Celebrities are style inspirations, and as a designer, it's amazing when pieces are styled for a celebrity and it goes on to become a fashion trend," says Rao, who too studied at both NIFT and Parsons before getting her own business off the ground. "I love it when people take these trends, make them their own and experiment around them. It shows how important it is for them to display a sense of individualism in their clothing."
Influencer culture is as prevalent among A-list actresses in India as it is stateside, if not more so. "The public follows closely what celebrities wear and endorse," says Payal Khandwala, whose namesake high-fashion label is "minimal, but also dramatic" with "an inherently Indian" soul. "With social media now playing such a big part of popular culture, Bollywood celebrities become the cornerstone of movements within the fashion landscape." As Malhotra so tidily sums up: "Our biggest style icons are invariably also our biggest movie stars."
India's off-duty cool-girl aesthetic may not exactly align with the Monica Rose methodology we see here in the U.S., but the basis behind both are quite comparable. Just as Rao and Joneja have built their labels on experimentation, the so-called "coolest" brands are those that encourage shoppers to carve out their own individuality. "Each actress has a distinct sense of style and it stands out in their off-duty outfits," says Malhotra. "They are a dream to work with — they know what looks good on them and work with me to improvise looks on-screen."
Rao name-checks Sonam Kapoor, a 31-year-old mega-star and one of the highest-paid actresses in the industry. With 19-plus million followers across Twitter and Instagram and her own Kardashian-Jenner-style mobile app, Kapoor's category of fame surpasses some of the biggest American actresses. "She really enjoys fashion and it shows," says Rao. "She also experiments with new and interesting labels from all over the world."
Alia Bhatt, a former child actress who re-rose to fame in 2014 while leading several commercially successful films, is another favorite among Bollywood's fashion crowd. At just 24, Bhatt is one of the youngest Bollywood actresses working at her level of celebrity. "It's easy and effortless, but there's always a little element of quirk," says Rao of Bhatt's style. Deepika Padukone, "the perfect muse for a designer," is another favorite of Rao's, because "she's unafraid to venture out of her comfort zone." Meanwhile, Malhotra mentions Kangana Ranaut, who "loves to experiment and is known for her penchant for high-fashion," as well as Anushka Sharma, whom Khandwala and Joneja also reference.
Bollywood and its stars work in tandem with India's fashion industry, and the two feed off of each other in way that's not fully seen stateside. Just as the "coolest" brands design for confident women, the actresses who wear them embody that same demeanor, thereby inspiring those brands.
To that end, Malhotra describes his muse as being a "global citizen," someone aware of her roots, but who views them from a contemporary lens. "Fashion for her is a way of self-expression, and she dresses in a manner that highlights her personality," he says. "This [develops] with every collection we create based on the evolved preferences of the progressive woman." This focus on empowerment is all Bollywood's own, and for the actress whose career is built upon the bridge between film and fashion, what's "cooler" than that?
Homepage photo: Looks from designer Manish Malhotra during the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images