Fashion Trunk Shows, Mumbai-Style

"I'll show you the white ones," says designer Shobha Mohatta, guiding a customer to the clothing rack behind her.

"Oh, I looooove it," the woman says, delighted with the salwar kurtas that Mohatta has presented to her.

It's 1 p.m. on a Thursday, and about 10 other women quietly admired the rows of traditional Indian clothing that lined a sun-filled living room.

For one day only, the apartment belonging to Mohatta's business partner, Priya Kothari -- their label is Priya & Shobha -- has been converted into a fashion showroom. A pink sari hangs in front of the window, blocking a view of the Arabian Sea and swaying palm trees. An extra bedroom off the foyer serves as a fitting room. Waiters in black jackets circulate, offering "mocktails" and espressos.

This is a trunk show, Mumbai-style, where Mumbai's society women shop, socialize and support their friends' design careers.

For two months leading up to the Hindu holiday Diwali (this year on Nov. 9 and 10), these fashion shows (where no one actually models the clothing) occur almost daily to allow women enough time to purchase outfits for the holiday season. There are about 100 shows similar to this one, which are held after the monsoons end in September.

"Very rarely am I going to walk out without buying something," said Meeta Jain, 47, a friend of the designers who attended a private showing the previous day to ensure she had first choice of the clothing. "You can buy very unique and creative stuff that is not available at a shop. Over the years I have built a collection from events like these."

Shelling Out for Handmade Clothes

When the apartment opened for business at 11 a.m., about 35 women arrived to buy the brightly colored silk and cotton saris, salwar kurtas (matching sets of long shirts and pants) and tunics. Within an hour, most of the shopping was completed. Women may spend four times more at these shows than they would in a mid-range priced store, but they also have the chance to buy something unique and handmade. Prices for salwar kurtas range from $50 to $400, saris from $250 to $750, while tunics are about $100.

"People who definitely want to buy come early because they want the first choice," said Rekha Tanna, a successful real estate agent and part of the designers' core group of friends who helped them prepare for the big day.

Tanna spent part of her weekend pricing and costing the clothing. She was not paid for her work; it was simply a way for her to help her friends and spend time with them.

In the past five years, the fashion show trend has taken off, and there are now about 150 designers in Mumbai. Priya & Shobha began about the same time that Mohatta joined Kothari in a fashion adventure.

"I had a lot of free time," Mohatta said. "And I'm fond of clothes."

Unlike Kothari, she had no formal fashion training but she feels a responsibility to make sure the clothing they design is current, even though they work with traditional Indian styles.

"Are we old-fashioned? Are we keeping up with the times?" she asks herself when helping to design the collections.

In the past 10 years, for example, the salwar kurtas have become more popular than the saris. And the long tunics -- which can be worn with jeans -- are even more trendy, selling out almost immediately at last week's show.

Months of Preparation

The two designers make a small profit from their shows, but as Mohatta explained, it is more of a hobby and creative outlet for friends. But medium-size designers can make $15,000 to $20,000 per year, said Tanna.

Still, Kathari said she spent six months preparing for the day. The shows are invitation-only, so the designers are usually friends with their customers. As she circles the room, Kothari answers questions about the clothing. She is wearing one of her favorite outfits from the new collection: a green and peach salwar kurta ornamented with the delicate Kashmiri work (chain-stitched embroidery with gold thread).

Just a few steps away, her sister-in-law, Anjali Jhunjhunwala, helps to rehang some items. The 36-year-old is also a designer, and Kothari will return the favor by helping to organize her upcoming show in March.

"It's a source of pride to be doing something constructive with your life," said Jhunjhunwala, explaining why she designs the casual clothing line she started 12 years ago. "I think it's a more creative way of spending your time. And it's a good source of pocket money at the end of the day."

"I had time, I needed a hobby. But now it's transformed into something greater," she said. "Today, people ask me when my next show is."

Along with the upcoming holidays of Diwali and the Muslim New Year, the women also need to purchase new outfits for the Indian wedding season, which runs from December to February.

Kanupriya Garg, 25, attended the show with her mother. She is getting married this year, and her future mother-in-law arrived early and had some outfits set aside for her, including a beautiful white salwar kurtas with pale pink accents and silver beading.

"If I like it, she'll buy it for me [as a wedding gift]," she said.

Across the room, Jyotsna Nvatia, 49, a lawyer, teacher and tarot card reader, admired a bright pink floral print.

"One day I opened my cupboard, and everything inside was white and beige," she said, realizing she needed a change. "Now I love bright colors, bright patterns, though I'm sure some say I'm menopausal."

She hates shopping because it takes her so long to make a decision, but still, she attends the shows.

"Priya is my good buddy, but I'd rather go to an art exhibition or a lecture of spirituality.

"In America," she said, "you have a very standardized clothing, the same patterns, the same colors -- grays and lilacs -- and every store will have the same color combination. They have the same cuts, there's no originality. Here you have people using their own skills, and I find it to be more original."

As the shopping slowed, the close group of friends gathered at the dining table overlooking the show where they calculated the sales, completed their purchases, then ate a lunch of vegetable pulao, cholar, butter naan, raita and kulfi (a homemade ice cream flavored with saffron and pistachio).