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India's colorful catwalk catches the world's eye

Nearly half the buyers at India Fashion Week, held this month, came from abroad.

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Mary Symons nodded with delight as she sat watching models parade in the designs of Monica Jaising, whose designs sell well across the globe. Ms. Symons is a buyer for Indiva, a 12,000-square-foot, two-story boutique that opened in Toronto last year to introduce prosperous Canadian women to Indian designers.

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"I'm going to add to my order," she said, as she came out of the show, beaming.

Alan Bilzerian, who owns the eponymous store in Boston, has long stocked clothing by Rajesh Pratap Singh, whose minimalist style is a big hit overseas. But this was the first time he'd attended Fashion Week here.

"You get this sense that this is the time to come looking for new designers in India," he says. "The market's still in its in its diapers, but it's going to grow and grow."

Buyers like himself, Mr Bilzerian says, are looking for a marriage of India's glorious textiles and centuries-old artisanship with silhouettes and cuts that could compete with those of Western designers.

Many of the designers who achieve recognition globally have received training in the West. Bilzerian says he's keeping his eye on designer Gaurav Gupta, who studied fashion at the reputable Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.

"I don't think of myself as an Indian designer at all; anyone anywhere in the world could wear my designs," says Mr. Gupta.

International designers have long imported colorful textiles from India. Diana Vreeland, an editor of Vogue in the 1960s, once quipped that hot pink is the navy blue of India, an allusion to the fact that even India's most practical, workaday color is startling.

The textiles industry remains vibrant: Some 35 million Indians are employed in the production of cotton, silk, jute, and wool textiles, which constitute one-third of India's exports.

Beyond the Indian market

But however beautiful the raw materials, getting the cut right for the foreign market can be tough.

"The colors are beautiful and the fabrics are good, but the design sense needs to be improved," says Katsuhiro In, a buyer from the trendy Beams store in Tokyo, who attended India Fashion Week for the first time this year. Many foreign buyers agreed.

Part of the problem is that, while young designers would like to become stars on the international scene, their sales are still dominated by the Indian market.

Some 85 percent of sales at an event like Fashion Week are made by Indian buyers, who like more traditional subcontinental styles, according to Mr. Nair. He is lobbying the government to support its plans for a seven-acre fashion hub with a convention center, retail space, and a smart hotel on the outskirts of New Delhi to accelerate the growth of this market.

Tina Tahiliani, an expert on India's fashion industry, says Indian designers will become more focused as the industry matures.

"It takes a while for designers to get the experience they need," she says. "But we've got some young designers who are really going places."