Thanks to the digital space, there exist detailed chronicles of an age still being lived. Seemingly cosmetic, Priyanka Prasad and Payal Parija’s insightful and fiery commentary on High Heel Confidential infiltrated Bollywood’s fashion sensibilities deeply, with the blog becoming not just a default documenter of a rapidly changing culture, but also a lawmaker of new social behaviour. Megha Shah takes a 12-year journey back to the epicentre of change within India’s most glamorous industries
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY: HIGH HEEL CONFIDENTIAL
The transformation of celebrity fashion culture in India didn’t happen overnight — but the first salvo may have been fired on August 6, 2007, with the inaugural post of High Heel Confidential (HHC). The year when, according to Gartner, the blogging phenomenon saw a peak with roughly 100 million active blogs worldwide. But in India the digital landscape was still being shaped. And so were the patterns of fashion news dissemination and the rules for the celebrity emerging as a brand. “There were hardly any bloggers to speak of,” says Malini Agarwal, whose blog, MissMalini, launched soon after. “HHC exposed the digital world to Indian fashion in a creative and consumable way.”
As ideas go, this one was pretty simple. The Dallas-based founders, Payal Parija and Priyanka Prasad, chose a photo of a celebrity, added a decisive but succinct critique of their look and launched it into the blogosphere every day. The reverberations of this seemingly insignificant act were manifold and multifaceted. “It kick-started a commentary on the fashion choices our cinematic icons were making,” remarks fashion consultant Nisha Jhangiani. “HHC became a visual archive of sorts while ushering in some intense competition in the style stakes.”
Apart from becoming one of the most important commercially viable ideas for a blog in a pre-Instagram era, it made fashion more democratic; news about events was dispersed faster and wider, opinions were offered and heard. And soon the consumption of fashion had changed, we were no longer only following fashion, we were following what Bipasha Basu or Malaika Arora and her BFFs were wearing.
While other blogs like Pinkvilla and new international magazines launched in India that same year, Prasad and Parija — who have never preferred the limelight for themselves — had the unique advantage of being both insiders and outsiders in the industry. They stayed away from gossip, which a lot of the other sites concentrated on. “Payal and Priyanka were the Diet Sabya of today, and nobody knew who they were for a while, which was interesting — that’s what kept the authenticity going,” says Kalyani Saha Chawla, entrepreneur and former country head of Christian Dior.
“We started off wanting to do a lifestyle blog targeted at South Asian women but happened to post about Kareena (Kapoor Khan) one day, and it got so many hits that we pivoted towards just fashion,” recalls Parija.“We also realised that, at the time, stars just bought clothes off the rack and wore them with what they already owned. Some, who had close relationships with designers, would sport custom designs, once in a while, but it all felt disorganised and not on par with their contemporaries elsewhere.”
‘Unless you just crawled out of a rock, you will know that Patent is going to be big in Fall’
The luxury label seduction
In 1999-2000, the government relaxed export-import policies, and by 2003 Louis Vuitton had entered the Indian market with its first store in Delhi’s Oberoi hotel. Dior followed soon after in 2006, and thereafter a plethora of brands like Armani, Gucci and Burberry. Soon, as one of the brands’ primary marketing strategies, a highly publicised courting of Bollywood began. The leading ladies needed a place to show off their latest accoutrements of high fashion and the readers were hit by the mania of luxury and aspiration as the economy boomed and a new affluent class was being minted.
HHC’s first post was, in fact, about the latest bags in patent leather. “I know every time I wore a Dior outfit or bag and appeared on the blog, the boutique got calls for price requests,” reveals Saha Chawla. “Dior collaborated with Sonam Kapoor’s Aisha (2010). It was almost a Dior ad campaign, particularly for the Lady Dior bag she carried which, at that time, sold out in the boutiques thanks to HHC’s extensive posts on what the cast was wearing in the movie.”
Fashion week culture is born
The year 2006 saw the big split of Lakmé India Fashion Week, an annual week-long celebration of Indian fashion, into Mumbai’s Lakmé Fashion Week and Fashion Design Council of India’s (FDCI) India Fashion Week in Delhi. There were now four events (two seasons in two cities) that the fashion crowd could look forward to. And HHC’s coverage put the spotlight onto the people attending the shows alongside the fashion on the runways. Who wore what to the after-parties and who snagged the front-row seats was suddenly information available to thousands of readers. Fashion Week culture in India was becoming a real, throbbing, self-feeding entity, just like its Western counterparts. The social events off the runway required showmanship too, and many a celebrity was clamouring to create the kinds of brazen looks that could stand out online.
“The blog was a real insider’s view on a chaotic industry,” says columnist Shobhaa De. I must clarify that I was never a diehard devotee, but HHC was way ahead of the curve, it was cheeky and well-written.”
‘We have seen Nandita Mahtani repeat her skirt and that Fendi B Belt, again, and again, and again! So of course it came as no surprise when we spotted her again during the Lakme Fashion Week in the famed skirt and belt!!’
It was unlike any fashion week coverage we had witnessed in the past, which mostly consisted of pictures of celebrity showstoppers, a day later, in tabloids. “Theirs wasn’t frivolous or uninformed commentary, they had a point of view that was succinctly articulated,” says stylist Nitasha Gaurav. “Every morning, without fail, we saw posts on what the celebs wore in the last 24 hours, presented in a simple, easy-to-navigate format, with a short crisp note — sometimes offering an opinion and sometimes demanding one from their readers.”
All hail the stylist
There was a time when celebrities simply wore what they had in their closets when attending events or performing shows,” says Tina Tahiliani Parikh, executive director of multi-designer store Ensemble. “With the advent of blogs, stylists became part of a movement that has pushed celebrities to take their fashion looks and statements more seriously.”
With the paparazzi turning every street into a red carpet every time celebrities stepped out, they needed their hair and make-up to be just right and their outfits arranged just so. Even a casual trip to lunch with friends required someone putting together a nonchalant outfit of street style — something that could look like the stars threw it together on their own. Any moment could become a #moment. And so, the era of the personal celebrity stylist came to be. They were not like the ‘costume dadas’ of yesteryears who provided outfits for film songs, they emerged as entities, working tirelessly to create not just one look at a time but a wardrobe — and a style reputation — for the star.
“I started styling almost eight to nine years ago, and when I launched my company, Wardrobist, and started studying celebrities, High Heel Confidential had just entered India in a big way. I used to be in touch with the girls, especially Payal. They wanted to create this new model, which was quite interesting. Over the years, we’ve built a relationship directly with the blog. When you dress a celebrity, you instantly go on High Heel Confidential and look at what the reviews are. They’ve always been black and white about looks,” states Aastha Sharma, stylist to celebrities like Sonakshi Sinha and Esha Gupta.
‘What did HHC say?’ is a question one frequently hears after a public appearance or event, says Gaurav. “HHC has consistently exhibited specific tastes and notions about style over the last 12 years, which has led to them being taken seriously by both the readers and the celebs that feature on it. This has helped shape the tastes and opinions of their consumers as well. For instance, HHC doesn’t like distressed jeans but loves strong jewel tones, so now a whole bulk of their readers feel that way too. They are also vocal about issues like sustainability, repetition, plagiarism and ageism and have helped to firm up awareness about them.”
Along with the breed of stylists, HHC’s followers and their engagement with the platform grew and evolved over the years. “Now, the reader abides by the dos and don’ts learnt from HHC but often concludes differently. This transition also parallels a sense of ownership of HHC for the reader. Today, Priyanka and Payal may be perceived more as ‘one of us’, especially as they frequently engage with the readers in the comment section too. The blog now belongs to the readers, and you see them disagreeing, demanding, suggesting, requesting and grouping to be a forceful voice unto themselves,” she elaborates.
‘Ms. Padukone wore a yellow version of the Armaan by Sunaina Puri dress seen in a red version on Kareena in Vogue and at the HDIL Couture Week.’
‘‘While promoting her upcoming movie, Anushka paired her distressed denims and tank with a Rohit Gandhi And Rahul Khanna fringe vest.
Gaurav and other stylists have trained themselves to take the opinions of the blog with a pinch of salt. “I mostly style men and feel they are under-represented on the site. HHC did bring in someone to comment on menswear, but the posts didn’t exhibit the same level of confidence as those on womenswear. Having said that, my work has been featured on their pages a few times, and sometimes I agree with them and sometimes I don’t. My looks for Ranveer Singh are often too extreme for their tastes in menswear, but that’s alright.”
“I remember doing an appearance with Kareena, for which she’d worn a gown,” says Tanya Ghavri, who has also styled Jaqueline Fernandez and Freida Pinto among others. “Kareena is very particular about the length of her gowns — she doesn’t like very long ones, so we always fold stuff up. And HHC takes note of these small things, they had pointed out that they could see the hemline and that it was tacked. That’s exactly what this sort of blog should be doing. So, I’ve been on both sides — I’ve been really appreciated as well as criticised.”
The great Indian paparazzo
Photographers such as Viral Bhayani have made a career out of tracking stars and what they are wearing because of HHC. “I have been their sole photographer since their launch. Because celebrities wanted to feature in the website and also get a good review, they suddenly wanted their pictures to be clicked properly,” says Bhayani. “They would get upset if it was a ‘back shot’ or the angle wasn’t right, so when they spotted me, they posed and expected me to click the most flattering picture of them. At the time that HHC launched, there were only newspapers, which only said good things about everyone. HHC actually critiques — they notice hair and accessories and styling — and for celebrities it was like waiting for a report card. Celebrities used to be so poorly dressed, you didn’t feel like taking their pictures. Gradually they started hiring stylists and becoming particular every time they stepped out of their houses. At the time, I had a team of two, now it’s 18.”
“There was a shift. Celebrities became more conscious of what they were wearing because they could be photographed at any given point of time and then there were people who were actually evaluating those appearances,” reveals actor Vidya Balan. “Paparazzi culture came into being with HHC, in my opinion, because suddenly you wanted to see celebrities in different situations, and the more unguarded, the better it was. I remember this instance when a whole lot of us actors were travelling back from Macau after a certain film award function six to seven years ago. We were all waiting in the VIP lounge, and everyone had the same immediate realisation that we were going to be stepping out and the HHC photographers would be there, so we’d better tidy up. That remains etched in my memory.”
“My job is like that of a cop now,” expounds Bhayani. “We spend our days roaming the streets of Bandra, investigating. I know the amount of facials Alia Bhatt gets done in a day — I’ve created an empire out of knowing everything.”
The commonisation of the airport look
“It was Priyanka Chopra who started the trend of airport looks in India,” says Bhayani. “She always had a more global vision, so she got her styling in order and her team would tip us on her arrivals and departures. Soon, every celebrity wanted the same effortlessly groomed and stylish photos of them entering and exiting the airport. Of course, she no longer sends tips, she’s too big for that. A lot of other people do send tips but, honestly, I’m not interested in covering them.”
The HHC blog is a chronicle of sorts, of airport looks right from their birth in India, with a marked difference between the earliest ones and the newer, more refined travel chic. “In 2009, movie stars did not really care about what they wore at the airport or how they looked,” says Sharma.
“There was a phase where everyone was wearing Juicy Couture tracksuits, including Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan), but not anymore. It’s interesting to see fads captured like that. I’m sure today if she looks at it, she’s going to be like, ‘Oh god, what was I wearing!’” exclaims Ghavri.
‘On her way to Dubai, Priyanka was spotted at the airport doing black and white with a pop of color via a Kate Spade Gladys bag.’
‘First, it was the pink sari and now the pink sweatsuit. What is with the new pink obsession, Ash?’
“The pap culture and the fashion blogs, have been around all over the world, especially in Hollywood, for a while. So, it was only a matter of time before they came to India. Of course, there are always positives and negatives to everything that happens and the flipside is the demise of the carefree attitude. It’s become difficult to determine someone’s authentic style. Because every celebrity who gets papped is so particular about every single thing they’re wearing.”
The other celebrity
A concomitant of habitually following the film industry’s fashion choices and having an eye for the future was the birth of a new breed of celebrity which HHC helped popularise. These were not leading actors but society hostesses, fashion entrepreneurs and other behind-the-scenes powerhouses whose fashion choices were also of interest.
“The effects of the blog were visible on the Page 3 crowd, who are now obsessed about fashion,” says De. “Those whose public image is key to their sense of who they are, need the legitimacy that such coverage offers. It’s all a big part of positioning and lifestyle choices. HHC has spawned a generation of fashionistas and created a community of fashion-forward socialites.”
“For the longest time, we’d be the only folks on the blogosphere covering people like Natasha Poonawalla. Now, she gets covered by everyone,” says Parija. Bhayani, who also freelances for several other publications and media outlets, agrees, “No one else wanted pictures of someone like Tisca Chopra or Ashwini Iyer Tiwari a few years ago, but HHC always thought ahead and hence come across as authentic. It’s why they are successful.”
The Indian designer rises
“HHC has shone the spotlight on some relatively unknown designers, providing them with instant exposure and fame, many of whom could have remained nameless and faceless had they not been acknowledged for the varied looks that they’ve popularised through movie stars,” notes Jhangiani.
The duo, Prasad and Parija, provided a platform for mutually beneficial collaborations between designer and star, which moved out of the realm of movies and into talk shows, award functions and other events. “Way back when Prabal Gurung was famous in NYC but not quite in India, and none of the Indian celebs were wearing him, we did a tweet tagging both Sonam Kapoor and Prabal. Lo and behold, we saw Sonam wearing a Prabal soon after,” says Parija.
It became as important for designers to be featured on the platform as the actors. “When I started my fashion e-commerce business, HHC was the first place I advertised with a banner,” says Pernia Qureshi, whose multi-designer website Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop launched in 2012. “I had the coveted spot right on top! I remember that, for a while, we received very good traffic and many eyeballs because of it.”
The next biggest shift in the consumption of fashion news arrived with Instagram, which was launched in 2010. By 2017, five per cent of all users were Indian. There was a greater importance on perfection, and images were being disseminated faster than ever before, with newer avenues for information opening up. “All the beauty apps we now have enhance the visuals and make the entire voyeuristic experience most addictive,” says De.
But Prasad and Parija remained unfazed. “It helps that stylists or designers now give out the information beforehand about what the stars are wearing so it saves us time. That’s the upside. The downside is that we see these highly stylised pictures release before the celebrity reaches an event and, in most cases, what they look like on Instagram isn’t what they look like at the event. We wait to see the event pictures before making a call. Instagram is nice but we prefer the blog. Instagram is more of a ‘saw it, now onto the next’. The blog allows you to track the star’s every appearance and see the transformation.”
‘Now we are excited and at the same time sad to report that we caught Natasha Poonawalla strutting the chocolate croc Hermes Birkin from the Spring ’08 collection at the Indian Oaks 2008 event. Why are we sad? Cuz she has one and we don’t! Sigh.’
‘We asked for this collaboration and it finally happened. Woot woot! Here’s your first look at Sonam Kapoor wearing a Spring 2010 Prabal Gurung dress at L’Oreal’s Aisha collection launch in Delhi.’
The age of opinion
While many of their peers were seduced by their new-found influence and wanted to nurture their relationships through laudatory coverage, the ladies at HHC were immune to this trend. But the prolonged, indiscriminate critiquing of style can be a thankless and alienating job.
“We got a cease-and-desist notice from a Mumbai socialite’s lawyers,” says Parija. “Funnily enough, we are US-based, and the rules against libel and defamation and the case for free speech are so clearly drawn that she had no case. We did, however, never feature her again. Plot twist: not too long ago we got requests from her PR team to feature her appearances again. We decided to pass.”
Stylist Divyak D’souza, who worked for a men’s magazine from 2008-2010, remembers, “We used to gather around every time one of our covers would be published or hit the newsstands and very casually see what HHC had to say. Of course, we were very happy when they said flattering things and pretended not to care when they said unflattering things. But we definitely paid attention.”
One of HHC’s most polarising posts was about Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s lavender lip at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. “I knew it was shocking and daring, I chose to do this because this moment was perfect for it,” says make-up artist Charlotte Willer. “Even if there were people who didn’t like it, I think it was fifty-fifty. This moment was a part of making it more acceptable to be wearing a different shade today. Aishwarya is the ideal person to work with because her extraordinary beauty lends to any look. It’s good to rock the unexpected. As long as the person feels good wearing any colour or look, who are we to judge them?
‘Drama is what you all yearned from Aishwarya after her day one and day two appearances on the red carpet and Ms. Rai delivered just that on day three wearing a Rami Kadi off-shoulder gown with a lavender lip.’
But the judgement was plenty, ‘Looks like she kissed a whitewalker and hated it,’ read one of the comments. It was the dawn of the age where everyone has an opinion and wants it to be known. And with the anonymity offered by the web, several voices could raise their tenors to be heard. “It can unnecessarily get very negative, especially where Bollywood is concerned,” says Saha Chawla. “There is, apart from obvious interest, the war of the ‘camps’ and stylists. It was interesting and rather amusing, as I always recognised those comments and knew where they were coming from.”
But to Prasad and Parija, this was the very democratisation they had set out to instate. “Opinions are heard across the board, and everybody feels like what they offer matters.”
PRIYANKA AND PAYAL’S ALL-TIME FAVOURITE LOOK
In Sabyasachi March 5, 2012
‘A recent award show had Vidya Balan looking pretty in a simple Sabyasachi sari. Love the bindi!’
“I remember this look very clearly, and I remember getting lots of compliments that day. Strangely, maybe seeing the picture has brought back memories. It’s not like I wanted the look to convey anything special, I wore saris most of the time. I had just rediscovered the sari with Sabyasachi and I would get the first pick of the lot that season. It was easy. And I didn’t have to give it much thought, honestly. If I had to make an appearance, it was just like, ‘Oh, which sari do I wear?’ Sometimes the colour would be chosen depending on what time of day it was. I do think I am more conscious when I make appearances nowadays, but at that time I just didn’t give it much thought.”
– Vidya Balan