Is sari the new red carpet staple? How global celebrities like Zendaya and Gigi Hadid rocked the traditional outfit at the NMACC launch event

At a recent gala celebrating Indian fashion, trailblazing icons donned saris in all its innovative forms. Can it become the new staple for international events?

By Sujata Assomull

Published: Thu 6 Apr 2023, 3:04 PM

Last updated: Thu 6 Apr 2023, 11:22 PM

International celebrities wearing a sari is not a new phenomenon. Lady Gaga, Naomi Campbell and Oprah Winfrey have all been spotted in this enduring drape. Last weekend, however, was probably the sari’s most significant global moment. Just two days after Dior held its Pre-Fall 2023 show at Mumbai’s iconic Gateway of India, where sari-inspired long straight skirts played an important role in a collection that can be described as an ode to India, the India in Fashion exhibition was unveiled. A gala night was part of the grand opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC). The dress code for the evening was ‘India Inspired’, and it was being touted as India’s version of the Met Gala, which is considered fashion’s biggest night out. It was truly an extravaganza that India has never witnessed before and, expectedly, made global headlines.

The very next day, our social media feeds were filled with snapshots from the NMACC pink carpet. Bollywood came out in full force — from Rekha, Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor Khan to Alia Bhatt and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, every A-lister in town was present. Flown down for the opening were a bucket load of celebrities, with the three headliners being actress Zendaya, supermodel Gigi Hadid and India’s very global desi girl, Priyanka Chopra Jonas. And what did they all wear? Saris, created by India’s best contemporary designers. What’s more? They all looked spectacular. In the end, their saris turned out to be the real stars of the night.

Spotlight on Indian Fashion

No fashion symbol is more iconic than the sari in India. Consisting of a strip of unstitched cloth, the sari has been worn for at least a thousand years and there are over a hundred ways of draping this garment. While it may be losing its place as a daily wear garment in urban India, the sari retains its allure as special occasion wear for Indians all over the world. The modern sari is no longer just a drape, veteran designer Tarun Tahiliani is credited with coming up with the term “concept sari”, a silhouette that takes the traditional unstitched drape and then adds a sartorial element. It catapulted the sari into a focus point for high fashion in India. Today, the concept sari is a significant silhouette in many contemporary Indian designs. The garment has also mesmerised international designers, such as France’s Jean Paul Gaultier and Lebanon’s Elie Saab, who have referred to the sari in several collections.

Looking at the bigger picture, there can be no doubt that Indian fashion is having its moment in the sun — whether it is Sabyasachi opening a store in New York, Anita Dongre’s arrival in Dubai, Rahul Mishra becoming India’s first designer to be invited to show at Paris Haute Couture or Gaurav Gupta becoming the red carpet designer of choice for international celebrities, such as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.

It is against this backdrop that, at the star-studded NMACC launch, Zendaya stepped out in a Rahul Mishra blue hand-embroidered sari gown and a gold bralette adapted from his recent couture collection, Gigi Hadid opted for an Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla ivory white chikankari sari that took 12 months to make and teamed it with a gold bejewelled blouse and Priyanka Chopra Jonas wore a custom-made Amit Aggarwal structured sari made with upcycled Banarasi brocade. Each piece was a modern and innovative interpretation of the sari. In many ways, the sari is fashion’s greatest chameleon and is a drape that really expands with time.

A new chapter in the sari story

The morning after, the NMACC’s social media feed was all about the sari, thanks to these three luminaries. Hadid (who has a following of over 77 million on Instagram) gave a shoutout to the women artisans of Lucknow on her social media. “Truly remarkable workmanship… I’ll never forget it,” read her post. She teamed the sari with a stack of gold bangles and super-sized stud earrings. The hand embroidered sari had Swarovski crystals, sequin highlights and a heavy gold border. The ornate metallic blouse had tassels hanging from the sleeves. This was about arriving in maximum style and Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla are the Indian designers to turn to when you want to make a grand statement. The 27-year-old supermodel moved effortlessly in the drape, even when Bollywood actor Varun Dhawan picked her up on stage and spun her around.

Zendaya’s tulle sari gown had a more delicate feel with star motifs, botanical thread embroidery around the hem and train; it was teamed with a bralette with gold surface ornamentation. While she did not take to her social media immediately to share her look, this concept sari went viral within minutes of her stepping on the red carpet. The Golden Globe winner’s choice of Rahul Mishra also has a special story behind it — she was the first international celebrity to wear a couture piece from the designer just a few weeks after he made his Paris Haute Couture debut back in 2020.

Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s multi-hued engineered sari dress was created with 65-year-old vintage Banarasi patola fabrics, using silver threads and a gold electroplating on khadi silk. The new-age drape included a thigh slit and was teamed with hand-embroidered paillettes that created a structured bodice. On her Instagram, the actress called Amit Aggarwal, the designer behind the outfit, “a genius”. This was a lesson in upcycling, and blurred the lines between art and fashion. Steeped in tradition, the outfit was a disruptive take on the sari.

While within South Asia the sari has emerged as an important object of innovation, it is often the outfit of choice for Indian celebrities when they step out on a red carpet at home and abroad. However, the spotlight this ancient drape has received recently may lead it to become a major international fashion statement.

Of course, the sari does not need an international celebrity to endorse it. The fact that it has stood the test of time and often opens itself to stylish interventions is proof of the beauty of this enduring drape. However, how thrilling would it be for the sari to become a silhouette that every woman in the world wants to wear! Perhaps, last weekend's NMACC pink carpet was a step in that direction.

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