Journalist Shefalee Vasudev came to her first book via stints with Cosmopolitan,The Asian Age, anchoring and scripting a Hindi news feature show for DD News, then as founding editor of Marie Claire. It wasn’t long before she realised that where fashion reporting was concerned, all the focus was on trends, products, parties and fashion weeks. No one was writing about fashion as a sociological subject to make sense of our times. Powder Room is an earnest attempt to fill that vacuum. Excerpts from an interview
How did this book come about? Was it something you wanted to do or were you approached by a publishing house with the idea?
Powder Room was an evolving idea. I had made numerous and frequent observations about the polarities and the inside workings of the fashion industry, as also about the spending behaviour of those who could barely afford fashion but wanted, above everything, to be fashionable. During one such chat, Chiki Sarkar, who formerly headed Random House, said there was a book in there. A book contract was signed with Random House and then, of course, the narrative went down other alleys.
This is a brutally honest look at the world of fashion without being a salacious tell-all book. Did you have to make editorial compromises while writing?
Not really. I wrote the book as I had wanted to, trying hard to retain the vein of journalistic objectivity and enquiry. I am keen on long-form journalism and this was my opportunity to explore that form of writing.
You have chapters devoted to people grappling with personal problems, even as they attempt to create a niche in their professional world. This is a tricky tightrope… did you find people happy to open up or did you have to spend time with them, observe, sift through guarded statements and craft the story from there?
All the people in the book who were dealing with deep personal issues opened up to me. Nothing was speculative exercise or guesswork. Even where my initial interviews instinctively indicated that there could be deeper issues involved, I got the details only when my subjects revealed the facts to me and agreed that their stories could be published. Larger stories that depict dark and intense personal phases like that of child sexual abuse, a bipolar disorder alongside bubbling creativity, or the one about a ladies tailor where the protagonist talks about her two divorces were read through by these people in entirety. Only after they cleared it were these stories published.
Tell us a bit about your writing style and discipline. Do you work well against deadlines, given your journalistic background?
I had a long period of confusion after reporting and researching for a year. I had no clear idea about a structure that could connect all the stories and yet make sense as a seamless text. I went into a funk for many months; I had over-reported and that, too, without first chalking out a structure; I had too many interviews and stories, too scattered to suggest a form. But once I chose my primary 10 stories from my notes, it fell into place. I made an Excel sheet planning out the whole book. Then, I wrote for 10 hours a day, without a break and completed the first draft of the book in less than three months.
Did you not factor in the possible backlash from your ‘own crowd’… designers, fashion journalists, socialites, people with fragile egos? Was there ever the sense of burning a bridge or two?
Yes, it did cross my mind a few times that some people would be offended. But the purpose was never passing judgment or a personal agenda. I was genuinely curious about fashion’s influence in an India still in transition and wanted to document it.
So I repeatedly checked my writing to make sure I was being clear and objective, non-salacious and that my stories were about fact and observation, not speculation or presumption. I then sent out the stories to a select group of friends and fellow writers so they could advise me about the tone.
As for ‘my own crowd’, I am an insider-outsider in the industry and would like to remain that; a chronicler, not a groupie. Besides, as they say, you can document wildlife without being friends or enemies with the tigers. Or the lamb!
The big names in any list of Indian designers invariably have an aura of hype they have carefully wrapped themselves in. How did you manage to go beyond that?
You know, this hype could well be part of a lazy fashion journalist’s lexicon. I asked questions persistently and found, to my surprise and delight, that most designers are keen on being candid and want the real story to be reported. Hype doesn’t hold their interest for long.
If there was something you would have added/removed/changed…
I tried very hard to get a layered interview, a full story of designer Manish Arora. But in my research year, he was working as Creative Director, women’s wear, with Paco Rabanne and was seldom in India for long. These profiles needed time and repeated interviewing, besides visits to the factory, studio, multiple shows, to get the full picture. That wasn’t possible with Manish. Manish Arora’s design leadership and creative impulses needed a more in-depth study. It’s my loss that Powder Room doesn’t have it.
What is your personal view of Indian fashion, haute couture and street fashion?
I love Indian prêt by Rajesh Pratap, Abraham & Thakore, Aneeth Arora of Pero, the beautiful Raw Mango weaves by Sanjay Garg. To me, these creators, among some others, do very meaningful design and textile work that makes Indian fashion relevant and interpretative in the contemporary world. Haute couture, now, is largely seen through wedding wear; so my aesthetic response is limited and I am not a fan of excessive bling. Even so, I have raved about extraordinary couture pieces by Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal and Sabyasachi. Street fashion in India is a hot and mixed soup. It certainly doesn’t send me into raptures but I do realise that some of the best styling options are created by mixing high street or street. Head-to-toe Indian street wear is a bit confusing for me.
I am writing a non-fiction book that explores marital conflict.