The Transcendence of Indo-Western Fashion: In Conversation with Designer Payal Singhal

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Besides being the final year before the new millennium, 1999 was filled with some of the most anticipated and revolutionary moments in human history. From the international Melissa computer virus to the release of Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, this year was nothing short of exciting. The Indian fashion industry also went through a transformative phase in 1999 due to the great aspirations of a young fashion designer, Payal Singhal. With a dream to make South Asian clothing global, she embarked on a journey of trials and tribulations, which resulted in the creation of a new genre in the fashion industry- Indo-Western fusion. Twenty-three years later, Payal Singhal has dressed renowned celebrities, from Aishwarya Rai to Deepika Padukone, as she continues to revolutionize the Indian fashion industry through her creative work.

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Swetha Sutharsan: What initially inspired you to create a fashion brand that interlaces and expresses your Indian heritage with a relevant, contemporary spin?

Payal Singhal: I come from a background of garment creation, as my parents had a contemporary Indian wear label. So, I was interested in the fashion industry from a young age. When I began studying at Parsons School of Design in New York, I realized that I was really interested in Indian textures, embroidery, fabrics, and colours, but I couldn’t find myself completely relating to the ethnic silhouettes. I wanted to find a modern, contemporary way to bring Indian garment practices into my day-to-day life. This occurred around 25 years ago, so at that time there was either Indian ethnic wear or there was Western wear. There wasn’t anything that bridged the gap. That’s the initial inspiration of the brand, and we still stay true to that. 

SS: You founded the Payal Singhal fashion house in 1999. How drastically has the fashion industry changed between then and now, and what are some noticeable differences you can point out?

PS: When I started out as a fashion designer in 1999, the Indian fashion industry was only about 10 years old [in terms of designer wear]. Ritu Kumar is one of our first Indian fashion designers, and their label is only about 10 years older than mine. So, it’s really interesting to note that the Indian fashion industry is only about 35 to 40 years old. In my career span, I have seen it go from a completely brand new concept of having Indian designers to having one or two multi-designer stores all over India to now having social media, shoppable links, and international press… the world has essentially become one tiny dot.  

SS: Having witnessed the fashion industry for 23 years through its ever-changing ways, have you ever found it difficult to keep up with the influx of fast-paced changes that were brought upon the industry over the past two decades?

PS: I would say we have done the entire 360 degrees in terms of fashion evolution in my 23 years of work. I did struggle because I did not grow up with the computer, but I made an effort to understand and stay updated with technology. I have a lot of young people who work in the company who help us bridge that gap and take the business forward for innovation. We’ve done everything from being one of the first few fashion designers in India to having our own shoppable website to creating a digital garment for NEXA digital couture in Lakmé Fashion Week 2021. I think for me, I’ve focused on trying to just pivot and adapt really quickly, and to keep up with what is going on in the world. I am proud to say that even though I am of an older generation and the label has been around for a while, we are quite updated with the younger generations of designers. 

SS: I noticed a lot of renowned Bollywood stars have worn Payal Singhal. Does Bollywood play a large role in the way you perceive fashion, and in which ways has it inspired you in the past?

PS: Up until a few years back, Bollywood was not something you would look to as something that was fashion forward. But now of course, you have top stylists and even celebrities themselves, often having a keen eye for fashion and understanding contemporary fashion. Having said that, for me I never looked at Bollywood for inspiration but Bollywood is a large part of our industry, especially since I am a Bombay-based designer. Especially in terms of PR, promotion for the brand and visibility for the label, Bollywood really helps with all of that. 

SS: On the back of that question, Bollywood has played, and continues to play, a large part in Indian culture. In your opinion, how has Bollywood affected the fashion industry as a whole?

PS: There have been some defining moments that have set trends through Bollywood. For example, the orange, wrap-around saree worn by actress Mumtaz Madhvani in the 70’s [now known as the Mumtaz saree]. Coming to more contemporary times, you have the red outfit worn by Kareen Kapoor in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham which became really iconic. The classic white saree was also made incredibly famous by Yash Chopra. I would say there are iconic fashion moments associated with Bollywood which have set trends, but I wouldn’t consider Bollywood a trendsetter for fashion. Movies often use fashion to develop characters, and that’s not always necessarily fashion forward. However, fashion and Bollywood definitely go hand-in-hand; it is very important for designers to use Bollywood as a platform to show their work.  

SS: How would you describe your new Spring/Summer 2022 collection Folklore, and what initially inspired you to begin this collection? 

PS: After having a lot of time to sit with my creative ideas over the past two years, I really wanted to push the boundaries of art and craft, and I was really inspired by traditional folktales. I spent a lot of time reading and looking at folktales from all over the world and that is how the spring/summer 2022 collection, Folklore, was born. It’s a very colourful collection- quite a big departure from my usual monochromatic collections. I surprised myself as well, but I wanted Folklore to make people feel happy and excited. I looked towards folktales from all over the world to capture that emotion. We also blended a lot of cultural references, in terms of art, print and embroidery. I wanted to mix it all up, add a lot of colour and push the boundaries for these garments. If you look at folktale illustrations in books, you can observe the same texture and design that I was trying to capture in my collection and through the promotional photoshoots. 

SS: You are currently on your Payal Singhal Travelling Trunk Show. How has the process been so far travelling from the United Kingdom to America, and being able to see the appreciation for your clothing in person after spending a long time in a virtual setting?

PS: It’s been amazing so far! It’s definitely been a hectic road show, but I’ve loved meeting people in all the different parts of the world. Across the globe the feeling has been unanimous amongst everyone who I have met, whether they were South Asians, or non-Desi people, everybody was resonating with the feeling of wanting to be happier and adding more colour into their lives. We often wear a lot of monochromatic clothing as we are scared to stand out or make a statement, especially over the past two years as there was nothing to dress up for! But, now I notice there has been a shift and the industry has gone into a maximalism space where people are going all out with their clothing. The reaction has been amazing and truly heartwarming. I love interacting with customers on the road show, as I don’t get the opportunity to do it often. It’s been really heartbreaking to hear stories of people struggling through all sorts of hardships through the pandemic. Now that we’re on the other side, we should be grateful and celebrate getting through those hardships, which I think is what this collection represents.

SS: Ideally, where would you like to see the future of the fashion industry going in the next ten to twenty years? 

PS: My dream has always been to make Indian fashion global, and that’s the reason I wanted to start this label. The South Asian community has blown up within the past few years. From having a Pakistani Miss Marvel to having Indian representation in Bridgerton. I feel like we’re finally getting our moment in the sun. We already have some South Asian designers doing amazing work internationally, like Rahul Mishra in Paris Fashion Week 2022 and Dhruv Kapoor Menswear Milan Fashion Week 2022. I see the future consisting of Indian designers, like me, producing Indian wear, but also branching out into mainstream, Western clothing as well. Along with being known for being Desi, I would like to see South Asian fashion designers being globally appreciated for their art, as well.

Swetha Sutharsan

Swetha currently attends Toronto Metropolitan University where she majors in Fashion Studies. She loves all things dark chocolate and black coffee, and can't go wrong with an early 2000's Bollywood movie.

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