Writing pieces on fashion make me nervous because I feel like I don’t understand it the way popular culture says I should. A soft voice in my mind— whether it’s Miranda Priestly’s in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ or Carrie Bradshaw’s in ‘Sex And The City’— always reminds me that unless I consistently dress with a degree of palatable eccentricity, I am not “fashionable.”
The world of fashion had become an alien concept. So, although it is heralded as a creative space, I have always been uninterested in it. Maybe I was conditioned into thinking fashion and beauty are frivolous industries and that being interested in them made my personality shallow or my intellect less credible. Maybe I felt like fashion was out of reach, catering to the one percent, the fortunate few able to afford quirky pieces off the runway and the only few invited to see those pieces in the first place. With this in mind, I was not excited to be covering the #GenderBender showcase at Mumbai’s Lakmé Fashion Week.
“In the last few years, we’ve seen a massive shift in new designers challenging and questioning gender through their clothing,” said Shruti Sitara Singh, Fashion Curator at IMG Reliance, who went on to detail how she believed that fashion designers were pushing society’s boundaries with their general disregard for labels and categorisation. I took her words with a bucket of salt.
The inaccessibility of the fashion industry felt by individuals across society, whether curvy, physically disabled or dark-skinned, is often overwhelming; so much so that au naturel, makeup-free, no-Photoshop bodies— the way humans exist by default— is considered rebellious and political. And, because of this systemic ridiculousness of beauty standards, those who claim that fashion is disruptive and inclusive at heart, sound like they’re performing lip service.
I felt that it was safe to assume that the high-end clothing at the #GenderBender show would be modelled by men and women who were tall, thin, and light-skinned and that the clothes themselves would be too outlandish for the average consumer. But, I was pleasantly surprised.
My first introduction to #GenderBender was through Sumiran Kabir Sharma, a soft soul who patiently answered every question I threw at him. His show, ‘The Last Supper’ was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same name and set up almost identically. Divya Dureja, a spoken word poet, played a female God clad in deep red robes, held up a copy of the Bible, and delivered a sermon to a mesmerised audience. “Identity is a fluid process, not a static identity,” she said as the rest of Sumiran’s models sauntered around the performance area dressed in flowy, neutral and mostly-white coloured silhouettes, like the 12 apostles.
When I asked Sumiran about the ideation of his project, he said, “The models I’ve cast have struggled with their own identities as trans, androgynous, and gender fluid people. They’re misfits. So, when I thought of how to put them together as a performance art piece, I wanted them to be like a painting that was in a restoration process.” Sumiran confided in me about his own insecurities after being bullied for the effeminate behaviour he picked up from observing his mother. He told me about how much his mother’s courage inspired him, about their life in a small town named Mangoti in Himachal Pradesh, and about how much he adored his surroundings. “I love the breeze, the rocks… Nature never judged me. So why should anyone else?” he said.
This was the first time I witnessed a vulnerability attached to fashion. Sumiran’s story and his collection, ‘Behrupiya’ meaning many forms, made me realise that maybe fashion was not superficial, but a reclamation of identity through art. Moving on the Bobo Calcutta’s installation cemented that belief further.
Titled ‘Ludicrous Legacy,’ Ayushman Mitra or Bobo’s showcase was bewitching. “My clothes are inspired from my paintings. I want my clothes to feel like you’re wearing a canvas on your skin… Art has no gender so, I make my clothes with that same thought,” he said. If his collection did not convince you of that, Bobo’s confident and unwavering voice would make a believer out of any heretic who was unaware that his brand stood for liberation, individual choice, love, and sexuality.
Two of the most striking aspects of Bobo’s piece was the patterns on the garments and the body language of the models. Durga Gawde, a gender fluid sculptor and artist, and Sneha Ghosh, Asia’s Next Top Model ‘14, were draped in clothes embroidered with androgynous faces that could shape shift as appropriate on any individual because they had no markings of gender. Bobo’s technicolour, sequin garments glittered under the yellow gallery lights as his models languidly serpentined around each other, enthralling everyone who watched. Sneha wrote on Instagram that the show was “where man, woman, sexuality all merged in so fluidly that we, for a moment, forgot the [bodies] assigned to us.”
Bloni’s Akshat Bansal and Sanya Suri and Resham Karmchandani from The Pot Plant had similar design philosophies. They looked at gender fluidity through the lens of sustainability. Both, Bloni and The Pot Plant believe that when garments are made with the goal of being able to be worn by any individual, regardless of their gender, clothes can be shared and repeated into different looks, making them sustainable and wasteless.
“Clothes are supposed to be easy to transform and have a spirit of fluidity. That’s why my clothes are in black and white so they can be neutral in any setting,” Akshat said as he gestured to his models wearing an array of jackets and pants that could shift from formal to informal with a change in accessories and other accompaniments. Resham and Sanya also picked patterns neutral enough not to be slotted into a gender category, from plaid to circle prints. “We put a ‘100% human’ tag on our clothes to show that our clothes can be worn by any gender,” said Resham proudly.
These were interesting takes on gender fluidity and sustainability that I had not heard of before. Through their collections, both, Bloni and The Pot Plant, have also tried to move away from a westernisation of fashion to make Indian aesthetics mainstream. Sanya told me that her brand incorporates a form of South Asian craft like clamp dye into every collection because, in history, South Asian clothing has had a fair degree of gender fluidity. “Mughals and older kings used to wear tunics like women do today. So, we are trying to go back to Indian identities that have been always been gender fluid,” Sanya said.
Akshat also detailed similar principles of equality. “I don’t try to cater to any gender. My clothes are just about covering the body and making it look its best,” he said.
While the #GenderBender showcase designers were sharing incredibly progressive and inclusive views, I’m not sure if the marketing of their clothes is at their wavelength. Bloni by Akshat Bansal on the Aashni & Co website, for instance, shows longer dress shirts and pants worn mostly by men while the women wear sarees of a similar pattern. The Pot Plant’s website has mostly female models or no models at all, which could be an exemplification of their gender fluid philosophy, in that they don’t want to colour the perception of a garment with the gendered models. But, that’s not nearly as direct a statement as the ones the designers were openly giving me after the #GenderBender show. Bobo Calcutta’s Instagram page has a more frank celebration of queerness and a desire to break away from convention. But, Anaam’s website and marketing takes the cake— male and female models wearing the same dresses draped and coloured differently, truly blurring the lines of gender.
With the exception of Anaam and Bobo Calcutta, had I not spoken to the designers, I may not have guessed their beliefs in gender fluidity and desire to explore identity. But, I don’t think the designers are at fault. For any artist to have a degree of influence, their work needs to cater to the tastes of a large enough section of the population that will help make their brands profitable so these designers can afford to tackle societal issues of gender and sexuality with a degree of credibility.
My critique of the authenticity of the #GenderBender show reminds me of an article I read on Rupi Kaur. Chiarra Giovani astutely wrote, “It is the paradox of the minority writer: the requirement to write in a way that is colored by one’s background, but is, at the same time, recognizable enough to a Western audience that it does not intimidate with its foreignness.” Although discussing racism, Giovani’s words apply to the expression of gender as well: for designers attempting to break into a difficult industry, their work must partly be traditional enough to capture the interests of industry patrons that will make their designs profitabl. Only then will they be influential enough to drive real change in the future.
I’m not claiming to guess what a designer’s intentions are- maybe they’re selfishly capitalising on a differentiating (gender-neutral) factor for success, maybe their allowed authenticity has reached saturation in the industry and their imagination is a victim of the balancing act of profits and creativity. Who knows?
The point is that disruptive artists, designers, and creatives are constantly balancing this double-edged sword— be critiqued for blandness while expressing your agreement on gender fluidity that already alienates a huge market that buys into the traditional gender binary or be labelled boring and outdated for straying from such progressiveness for industry acceptance.
Before we are able to offer up solutions or truly take issue with any or all of these designers and Lakmé Fashion Week’s efforts to be inclusive in general, we must first be aware of how our conditioning and inability to confront it is keeping our society rigidly labelled. In regard to designers who claim to believe in gender fluidity and body positivity: Before we can critique their campaigns saying they’re not gender fluid enough, we must be aware of how tightly we regulate our own fashion choices and question whether we choose to dress the way we truly want or the way we think we should.
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