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Paris, Milan, Dimapur

In Fashion-forward Nagaland, being stylish is more than just about looking good.

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It's a sunny Sunday morning in Dimapur, Nagaland and a few minutes to ten. The churchgoers quickly walk towards Lotha Baptist Church where the service will soon begin. As the church fills up and ushers arrange extra plastic chairs on the parvis for those who can't find a seat inside, the stream of people resembles a catwalk more than a procession; it's a flow of high heels, well tailored suits, fancy hair accessories, silk ties.

Lea Ezung, a 23-year-old student, enters with a group of girls. She's wearing a slightly see-through black and white animal print shirt, a satin black pencil skirt and a big white belt. She's left her favourite accessory, a Chanel bag her sister picked up in Bombay, at home today.

Her friend Gloria Tsanglao, 28, wears a calf length brown skirt with a pink ruffled shirt and a big belt, which has to be this season's must – nearly every girl sports one. Her bright pink heels, she confesses wistfully, don't compare with the pair of Jimmy Choo "killer heels" that top her wish list. They'd be perfect with the precious Gucci gown her aunt bought her in Bangkok.

A couple of hours later, it's a similar scene on the other side of town. The service at Spirit of Faith Church has ended and people are rushing home. Once again, most seem to have come straight out of a fashion magazine.

Amongst them is Seyielezo Putsure, 30, who is studying an MBA in London. He steps out of the church in smart, tailored brown pants and a black shirt with the sleeves casually rolled up. On break from his studies, Putsure, like everyone else, complies with the rules of elegant dressing. "It's something that you grow up with, it's within the culture itself," he says. "And yes, it does play a big factor."

"You'll find that everyone is very trendy, and you find more sense of fashion here than anywhere in India," says Zubeno Mozhui, the director of a performing arts centre, who organised a fashion show at last year's Hornbill Festival, the biggest cultural event on the Naga calendar.

Even Delhi-based Atsu Sekhose, one of India's most promising fashion designers – his collection is less than four years old and he has already shown in Paris and Milan – believes that in his native Nagaland, the sense of fashion is stronger than in the rest of India. "In Delhi I've seen that the fashion crowd is well dressed, but the other groups are very badly dressed," he says. "But in Nagaland you don't necessarily have to be a stylist or a fashion designer to be well dressed."

This is something that he feels holds true of the region's youth: "Northeastern boys and girls are very fashion obsessed."

"Even if you ask people in Delhi or Bombay, they will tell you that in the Northeast, people are more stylish," says Lesly Lotha, a student in Delhi and blogger behind lazymanxcat.blogspot.com, a popular fashion blog. And fashion choices don't go unnoticed in Dimapur: when passing someone on the street, people here, she says, will take in a person's bag or shoes, before actually looking at and even recognising a person's face.

The trends aren't just mainstream Western: teenagers are more inspired by Korean pop culture and the styles of different Western subcultures – emo culture gets fair play here – while adults tend to follow a more formal style.

Atoni Vero, 21, history studentAtoni Vero, 21, history student

 

Vilina Achumi, 22, Bachelor of Commerce graduateVilina Achumi, 22, Bachelor of Commerce graduate

 

Ngaopuni Rado, 20, high school graduateNgaopuni Rado, 20, high school graduate

 

Manen Longkumar, fashion blogger, with Denisha ShoheManen Longkumar, fashion blogger, with Denisha Shohe

 

 

The penchant for Western fashion has its roots with the Baptist church. Around the mid-19th century, Baptist missionaries arrived in what is today known as Nagaland, and in a matter of a few decades, Christianity was widespread. Today, 90 percent of Nagaland's population is Christian.

"When they came here, they came with a zeal to Christianise us. It offended their senses that we were scantily clad and so the first thing they went about doing was introducing clothes to us," explains Sentila T Yanger, an entrepreneur from Dimapur who was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri in 2008 for her work towards empowering local women through handicrafts.

The clothes that the church introduced were at first the traditional garments worn in the neighbouring states, but soon dhotis and kurtas gave way to Western dress that the converts started donning to imitate the style of the missionaries. "It was like saying 'we have dissociated ourselves from that past, the pagan past of animism, and here we are, the Christians, the new Nagas.' That was definitely expressed through dress," says Yanger.

The statement made through clothing was charged with further meaning as tensions between Nagaland and the Indian government grew in the 1950s and 1960s: a Western mode of wear became, for Naga people, a way to express a separate identity.

"Because of our anti-Indian sentiment their clothes could not be accepted," says Yanger who recalls wearing bell-bottoms in the 1970s.

"When I was young, a Naga girl from my community to be seen wearing a churidar kamees was totally unacceptable. So you'd never find anybody wearing Indian clothes, perhaps only the ones who were married to Indians would wear a sari, but even then, there would be a lot of comments by people around her saying, 'she's totally become Indianised,' "she remembers.

 

In the 1980s, a few entrepreneurial men and women sensing the business potential in fashion, started travelling to Southeast Asia, bringing back clothes to be sold in Nagaland; at first one suitcase at a time, then in larger quantities. Around that time, a few shacks opened for trade in what is now the biggest clothing market in Dimapur: Hong Kong Market.

Today, a mix of garments from India, and more appealingly for "fashionistas," the clothing imported from Southeast Asia and China are sold here.

Many of the shops here get their imported clothes through specialised dealers who work in Siliguri Junction in West Bengal.

This is the case of shopkeeper Tenzin Gyathar, a 25-year-old Tibetan from Sikkim. He says, since many shops have the same stockists, competition is high: in Hong Kong Market there are about 150 to 200 shops run by Tibetans and even more run by West Bengalis. Gyathar also sells in bulk to shopkeepers in neighbouring towns. "These people have to attend the church," he says. "They have to wear something very neat, so that's the reason why business is very good here."


Gyathar's parents have been doing business in Nagaland for the past 20 years. "Places like Sikkim or West Bengal are very seasonal," Gyathar says. "[But] here it's 12 months that these people are spending on clothes, consistently."

A slightly more upscale kind of shopping goes on in the city centre, in and around Central Plaza, a landmark complex. Boutique owners here tend to select their merchandise personally, which is imported from Southeast Asia and major Indian cities. Often, they'll buy a single piece of each item regardless of the size, allowing their customers the chance to secure a much-valued one-off look. "I don't want a clone on me," says Linoka Linimi, an aspiring stylist whose fashion heroes are Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington and the much-bandied style icon of most Naga women, Victoria Beckham. "I can't imagine myself wearing a dress and someone else is wearing it right in front of me. That's a disaster."

 Chomei Semdok, 15, high school studentChomei Semdok, 15, high school student

Lesly Lotha, 22, history student and fashion bloggerLesly Lotha, 22, history student and fashion blogger

 

Though the mark-up on clothes and accessories sold at Central Plaza can be high, this doesn't appear to dissuade Naga shoppers, who seem willing to part with a consistent chunk of their salaries on fashion. Putsure, the MBA student, estimates that people will spend about a fifth of their annual salaries on fashion.

"Nagas don't have problems shelling out money for clothes. Their budget seems unlimited," observes Atsu, saying that he gets numerous requests from Naga girls for his custom-made wedding dresses which command high couture prices.

 

While Hong Kong Market and Central Plaza sell the latest looks from Southeast Asia, a third pole of the Dimapur fashion shopping scene is at Super Market – locally referred to as "number two" or second hand shops.

A row of shops in Hong Kong Market, Dimapur.A row of shops in Hong Kong Market, Dimapur.

 

Here, the stores fog anything from bras to baby clothing, but Dimapur's girls come here to find vintage dresses and bags. Fashion's urban legends tell of trophies like Louis Vuitton bags snapped up for Rs 200 or sightings of a Fendi limited edition signature bag priced at Rs 350. Thus, it's somewhat fitting that Naga girls flash a "V" for victory sign which denotes that an item they're wearing comes from a "number two" shop.

The popularity of second hand stores came about because, while people traditionally didn't have much money, they nevertheless wanted to buy and wear Western clothing. Over time, the status of second hand clothing has progressed from "cheap" to "trendy" which is the case in much of the Western world, but not in most parts of India.

"I stick to my second hand shopping," says Lotha, who fossicks here about three times a week. She regularly publishes her looks on her blog, which has international and Indian followers. Many readers' comments on her blog, she says, express surprise that her more interesting wardrobe items come from a local second hand market.

Looks, a boutique in Central Plaza, Dimapur.Looks, a boutique in Central Plaza, Dimapur.

 

The merchandise sold at Super Market normally comes from Delhi via New Market, Dimapur's wholesale market, where shopkeepers buy bales of clothes, paying for them by weight: Rs 15 000 or 18 000 for 100 kg of jeans or cotton clothes and up to Rs 50 000 a bale for the most sought-after items – Korean tops and dresses.


Vitoli Sema, who deals in bags (occasionally branded), says she can make a profit of about ten percent only if the batch is good. She has no way to know what the bale is like before opening it, and sometimes ends up in a loss.

K-Chuba Sangtam, one of Super Market's most popular salesmen, has had his shop for seven years. He sells three or four bales every week. Sangtam has a regular clientele, mostly young girls and women who come to him for his Korean tops which are sold for Rs 150 – the same price as Balenciaga and Givenchy shirts hanging on his racks. The Korean dresses command at least five times that amount.

 

That "label-less" Korean dresses are valued over high-end French shirts is indicative of a craze for Korean pop culture that reached critical mass a few years ago.

"Everything coming from Korea has been absorbed," says Vingumeno Bambi Kevichüsa, a fashion designer from Nagaland.

Naga youth were first introduced to Korean pop culture by the advent of Arirang TV, the Korean television channel that is less than a decade old in the state. The Korean stars of Arirang's serials looked like young Nagas, and wore clothes that were readily available in the state; it was easy then for the youth to identify with them.

"It started off with the hair styling, then slowly the clothes," says Yanger. But a fixation with Korean culture has, she believes, reached an alarming level, to the point that Nagaland's youth risk losing their identity. "They'll say 'I am a Naga,' but they don't know their language, they don't know any history about the Nagas, but they have a lot of knowledge about Korean culture, they want to talk Korean," she explains, pointing out that many urban Naga youth speaks Nagamese, a patois born from the recent integration of different Naga tribal languages, and not their original language. Weekly Korean language classes have been in operation in Kohima for the past couple of years, and Delhi Public School in Dimapur offers Korean as a foreign language option (along with Urdu) for students.

 

Be it symptomatic of an identity crisis, or more simply the desire to adopt fashion made by and for people whose looks the Naga youth could identify with, Korean trends are followed attentively. And so are all the others, in a place where being à la page matters.

"It's like our state is becoming more like a runway. If you see it in the magazines then someone is already wearing it out here," says Linimi.

For years, people in Nagaland would rely mainly on imported back-issues of foreign fashion magazines – Vogue US and UK, Seventeen, Harper's Bazaar and even the Australian Woman's Day – to stay abreast of trends.

More recently, Fashion TV started broadcasting in the region, and websites and blogs (such as Chictopia and Lookbook) are becoming the go-to resource for the more tech-savvy like Lotha, who six months ago relinquished magazines and television, and now solely uses the Internet to stay in the loop.

Surely, the efforts to keep pace with fashion have paid off in Nagaland if even a well informed fashion blogger like Lotha notices that "before you see it [a trend] in a magazine, people here are already dressing up that way." And while she says in Delhi, where she lives, adopted trends are late to catch on and stay long after their expiry date, nothing like that ever happens in Nagaland.

"People here are one step ahead all the time," she says, not without a hint of pride.

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Author: Annalisa Merelli

Published: July 2011

Photographs: Tenzing Dakpa