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PANORAMA: 1998

Asian Fashion Crosses Cultural Divide
by Randeep Ramesh

BRITISH Asians were once considered to be like Victorian children: often seen, but rarely heard. But the progeny of those immigrants who travelled to Britain's shores in the 1960s and 70s suddenly seem to have the casting vote in the nation's style council.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) certainly thinks so. The corporation is hosting a three-day celebration this year of the "Asian Age''. The publicity surrounding the event claims that "Asian British Culture has never been so popular or revered as it is today''.

There are signs that the marketers may be right. Last year, an unknown 17-year-old female singer - Amar - was snapped up by Warner Brothers for a three million pounds sterling, five-album deal. But it is just not unknown people making headway. British Asian fronted bands such as Babylon Zoo and White Town had number one hits recently.

Two of London's hippest nightclubs, Anokha and Outcaste, have seen Asian culture draw pop superstars Jarvis Cocker and David Bowie to their dance floors. The new influence has already produced its cultural commentators. Imran Khan, a 26-year-old former marketing manager, started 2nd Generation, a magazine devoted to chronicling the burgeoning British Asian scene - last year.

''It was always happening. The question was when would all this talent break through?'' says Khan. "I think things like 50 years of Indian independence helped to raise awareness." Others say that it was a question of waiting for the popular culture to catch up with the cutting edge. Bashir Ahmed, a St Martin's graduate and design director for Apartment clothes, says it is the "white mainstream that has discovered Asian fashion''.

''The kids in the clubs are predominantly English. Once it was known Pulp came down to Anokha, you saw them turn up in sari tops and jeans." Thanks partly to fashion's lingering obsession with exotica, Asian clothing has found itself thrust into the limelight.

Designers such as John Richmond, Red or Dead and Dries Van Noten have all mixed elements of Asian dress with Western clothes. This Bombay-via-Bradford look is easily distinguishable. Particularly popular is an atchkan (men's collared tunic) or a choli (a blouse worn under a sari) with jeans or the baggy bottoms of a shalwar khameez.

This fusion is hardly surprising. The British could hardly be accused of being closed to outside influences, given that the curry has virtually replaced fish and chips as the nation's favourite meal.

The media has been one place where Afro-Caribbean and Asian voices and faces have made remarkable progress. The 1997 winner of the Sony Gold Award for Comedy, radio's equivalent of an Oscar was Radio 4's Goodness Gracious Me - a comedy sketch show written and performed by Asian actors and now a big hit on television.

The appeal is likely to increase with the burgeoning British Asian population. At present, there are 1.85 million people who originate from South Asia who, the BBC estimates, have a annual expenditure of five billion pounds sterling. The London Research Centre estimates the capital's ethnic minorities will grow by 40 per cent in 15 years.

But while the swish of the shalwar may be heard on the catwalk or in nightclubs, it is still unlikely to be seen on the high streets. Deepak Mohindra sells Asian fashion to predominantly Asian customers in London and in Leicester, English Midlands.

Despite developing his family business from a single grocery store to a fashion empire with sales of 1.6 million pounds sterling, Mr Mohindra's ambitions may force him to expand elsewhere. "After my new store opens in Southall, west London, next year, I can't see how I can expand further in the UK. My next shop will be in New Jersey, United States - where there is a large Indian community."

Mr Mohindra's shops are a mix of Western hard sell and hip Eastern styles. The two-floor flagship store - Damini's - in East Ham, east of London, is full of lenghas - long, flowing skirts; shalwar kameezs - the stylish pyjamas popularised by Jemima Khan and Diana, Princess of Wales; and, of course, saris.

The problem, Mr Mohindra says, is he has yet to find a high street store to take his brand as a line of clothing. Curiously, it appears white shopkeepers can sell Asian designs to white audiences. Paul Garrod sells 'Europeanised' designs from his four Chandni Chowk stores in western England. "Our customers are mainly white, but they have seen the world and like wearing Indian-style clothes. In fact we sell across the board, everyone from barristers and doctors to housewives and teenagers," he says.

Added to this is the mixing of cultures by marriage. At present, a fifth of Asian males have white partners. "I have been to quite a few weddings recently where either the bride or the groom has been white and their partner Asian," says Sarwar Ahmed, editor of Eastern Eye, a national weekly Asian newspaper. "What you see is a lot of English families wanting to dress up and be part of an Asian wedding."

Experts believe that Eastern designs will eventually come to British retailers. "It is about latent demand. Look at the parallel with food. Ten years ago, you would need to go to Leicester or Wembley to buy spices for a decent curry,'' says author Ram Gidoomal, author of the UK Maharajahs. "Now you can go to Sainsbury's."