Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pulled out all the fashion stops for his visit to the United States, which started yesterday, hiring a top Mumbai designer to create outfits that will sell his vision of a newly confident, aspirational India.
India’s politicians are often mocked by media for their crumpled traditional cotton shirt-and-pyjama attire, which serves as an austerity badge in a nation where simple living is prized as a political credo.
But fashion experts say Modi, 64, has taken Indian political dress to a new level with his fastidious style, favouring crisp, half-sleeved linen, khadi or silk kurtas – shirts – and churidar pyjamas he pairs with tailored Nehru jackets.
A former tea boy who rose to the top, Modi has embraced a look of prosperity and power, in line with his message of economic reform, and is credited with demonstrating that Indian men don’t have to forego traditional wear to look well-dressed.
“He’s selling aspirational India,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of one the few biographies on the secretive leader, adding that Modi’s affinity for traditional wear ties into his nationalist image.
Modi’s use of colour makes him a fashion standout – from canary yellow, to lime green to sky-blue and an in-your-face saffron, one of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s colours, aside from elegant cream.
The move to hire Troy Costa, who designs for Bollywood stars, has given rise to speculation Modi might adopt a more sober suit and tie for his US visit.
But Costa, who defines his label as “focusing on modern masculinity and flattering functionality”, is keeping the garment bag firmly in place over what he will design for Modi’s barrel-chested frame.
“I’d rather let my product speak than me personally,” the 39-year-old says.
In Costa, Modi has chosen a clone of himself – someone from a humble background who pulled himself up by the bootstraps.
“I have no vices – I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t love parties, I try to spend 14-to-15 hours a day working and I thank god I’m doing what I love,” Costa says.
Visa problems over
Modi’s White House welcome will be a remarkable transformation for a man once refused a US visa, after being accused of failing to stop 2002 riots by Hindu extremists against minority Muslims when he was chief minister of Gujarat state. Modi has always denied any wrongdoing.
But while India’s premier looks set to dress snappily during the visit, there will still be a clear nod to his strictly observant Hindu and teetotal vegetarian lifestyle.
The trip coincides with the Navratri festival during which Modi has always observed a nine-day fast. Despite the hectic schedule, he is expected to restrict himself to a liquid diet of lemonade and tea for much of the visit, eschewing the lavish meals that traditionally characterise such trips.
Commentators say Modi is acutely aware of the image he wants to portray – a self-made man who hasn’t forgotten his roots.
GQ India editor Che Kurrien says Modi, who won his sweeping mandate in May with backing from India’s young, upwardly mobile voters, had a “keen eye for what makes him look good”.
“It’s clear details matter to Mr Modi, from his designer eyewear, to his watch, to his waistcoat – every part of his image counts,” he says.
Once in a while Modi likes to mix Western attire with Indian – sporting a Texan cowboy hat for instance. But he’s best known for his signature half-sleeved shirt known as the Modi Kurta – men’s kurtas are normally long-sleeved.
The tailor who refined the design, Bipin Chauhan of clothing chain Jade Blue, has trademarked the style – with Modi’s permission.
His style sense has drawn pot-shots from opponents such as powerful socialist Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, an old-style politician who cares not a jot about his appearance.
During the election campaign, Yadav wondered aloud how much time Modi would have to run the country when he “changes 500 kurtas a day and wears a new kurta to every meeting”.
But most observers seem to be happy with a leader who looks good on the national and international stages.
“Seems like the era of unkempt, paan-chewing netas [leaders] with pot-bellies, crumpled dhotis and discoloured kurtas is a thing of the past,” commented news magazine India Today.