AN ODE TO UGLINESS

Shape­less cloth­ing, bulky sneak­ers and bold state­ments... In­dian de­sign­ers are us­ing ‘ugly fash­ion’ to rebel against re­ceived notions of beauty

India Today - - INSIDE - By Chinki Sinha Pho­to­graph by BANDEEP SINGH

The ‘ugly fash­ion’ move­ment is at­tack­ing the very no­tion of beauty

“Beauty is noth­ing, beauty won’t stay. You don’t know how lucky you are to be ugly, be­cause if peo­ple like you, you know it’s for some­thing else.”

—Charles Bukowski, Tales of Or­di­nary Madness A re­cur­ring dream about a clas­si­cal pian­ist once be­came the in­spi­ra­tion for Kolkata-based fash­ion de­signer Kal­lol Datta’s collection, Un­ti­tled. In this dream, the pian­ist, at the peak of his ca­reer, de­vel­ops a hump one night and finds his right arm swelling up grotesquel­y. Un­able to per­form any more, he ends up at a cir­cus freak show where peo­ple come to gawk at him and revel in his mis­ery. The ab­sur­dist mu­ti­la­tions of the pian­ist’s body even­tu­ally made it into Datta’s cre­ations. It took a while for the ‘fash­ion­able’ crowd to un­der­stand Datta’s re­bel­lion. “What space­ship is this guy on?” That was their ini­tial re­ac­tion to his fan­tasies. How­ever, Datta’s fash­ion was clearly re­flect­ing a trend, gath­er­ing steam glob­ally. A trend

that cel­e­brates the “ugly”.

An­other fash­ion la­bel with shock value is HUEMN. At the Lo­tus Make-up In­dia Fash­ion Week Au­tumn/ Winter 2019 in Delhi, when Pranav Mishra, co-cre­ator of HUEMN, took a bow, the logo on his T-shirt read “Don’t F**k with Me”. HUEMN, launched in 2012, has worked with trans mod­els, such as Taksh Sharma, and cel­e­brates gen­der flu­id­ity, of­ten putting provoca­tive slo­gans on its clothes. HUEMN and Datta are among a group of la­bels and de­sign­ers lead­ing the charge against In­dian fash­ion’s dec­o­ra­tive en­sem­bles as part of a trend that has loosely come to be known the world over as “ugly fash­ion”.

What is ugly fash­ion?

Ugly fash­ion, es­pe­cially as it has come to be in­ter­preted in In­dia, is hard to de­fine. It is, at its core, a cel­e­bra­tion of what is nor­mally per­ceived as ugly, an­guished, mis­shapen and gen­der ag­nos­tic. It at­tacks the root of the per­va­sive idea of beauty cre­ated by fash­ion ed­i­tors whose re­duc­tive ap­proach to fash­ion has left it bereft of ev­ery­thing ex­cept glam­our. It re­jects the no­tion of the body as an em­blem of hu­man ac­com­plish­ment. In­stead, it pushes the bound­aries of the phys­i­cal and the moral. Es­pe­cially in the age of In­sta­gram and YouTube, ugly seems to be the only way to stand out among per­fec­tion.

Like most trends in In­dian fash­ion, the ugly trend too has trick­led down from the West. The “ugly” as an in­spi­ra­tion to cre­ate was, per­haps, best ex­plained by Bel­gian fash­ion de­signer Dries Van Noten in a rare ap­pear­ance at the French in­sti­tute Al­liance Française’s Fash­ion Talks series in 2012, New York. “I’m more in­spired by things I don’t like .... Noth­ing is as bor­ing as some­thing beau­ti­ful. I pre­fer ugly things, things which are sur­pris­ing,” he said. It was in that year that ugly fash­ion took on a de­fin­i­tive shape on the in­ter­na­tional run­ways with the de­but of pool slides by Christo­pher Kane. It be­gan to gain mo­men­tum with Cé­line’s fur-lined Birken­stock which fol­lowed later in the year. Croc cou­ture has since be­come com­mon, with even Ba­len­ci­aga of­fer­ing a take on the clog in 2017.

In In­dia, “ugly fash­ion” also, per­haps, rose as a re­ac­tion to the over-or­na­men­tal bridal clothes that dom­i­nate In­dian de­signer la­bels. In 2019, we are still ped­dling em­broi­dered flow­ers and kitsch at in­ter­na­tional fash­ion events.

Shape­less cloth­ing, chunky heels and puffers are the sign­posts of fash­ion’s next fron­tier. Trend­ing, along with dad sneak­ers, are ugly flo­ral dresses, ugly work vests, ugly sweaters, ugly

In In­dia, the ugly fash­ion trend is even more sig­nif­i­cant be­cause of ITS EN­GAGE­MENT WITH SO­CIAL AND PO­LIT­I­CAL IS­SUES that go be­yond beauty and high fash­ion

jack­ets and high-waisted mom jeans. It is a trend de­signed to ag­i­tate or even ir­ri­tate the world, as Datta puts it. In In­dia, the ugly fash­ion trend evolved from an­other de­sign aes­thetic that gained trac­tion around 2013—the “norm-core”. A port­man­teau of “nor­mal” and “hard­core”, it was ini­tially meant to de­fine fash­ion that en­abled one to blend in, but be­came more about stand­ing out in the de­signer-dic­tated fash­ion crowd.

The norm-core trend In In­dia can be seen in the col­lec­tions of Rina Singh, Anav­ila and Buna Stu­dio, among oth­ers. It’s about get­ting no­ticed while not be­ing no­tice­able. It also en­cour­ages sus­tain­abil­ity in fash­ion.

Apart from norm-core, an­drog­y­nous cloth­ing too has in­flu­enced what In­dian de­sign­ers call ugly, with some of them, such as Su­mi­ran Kabir Sharma’s Anaam, pro­duc­ing un­flat­ter­ing, form-de­fy­ing sil­hou­ettes and ac­tively re­ject­ing beauty norms set by Bol­ly­wood.

Ugly fash­ion in In­dia

In In­dia, the ugly fash­ion trend is even more sig­nif­i­cant be­cause of its en­gage­ment with so­cial and po­lit­i­cal is­sues that go be­yond beauty and high fash­ion.

Two years af­ter Kane’s pool slides, Uj­jawal Dubey of An­tar-Agni de­buted in 2014 with his collection ti­tled ‘No Longer the Hunted’, fea­tur­ing sil­hou­ettes for men in­spired by the bar­ren land­scape of Afghanista­n. For his Spring/ Sum­mer 2019 collection, ‘Into the Light’, in con­trast, he used bright colours, gen­der fluid sil­hou­ettes and had his male mod­els in bright reds and yel­lows, pair­ing mul­ti­lay­ered kur­tas with long skirts. “This ‘ugly’ of­fers a lot of cre­ativ­ity,” he says. “The clothes are de­signed to ag­i­tate. Beauty and ugliness are rel­a­tive terms. There must be free­dom from the im­po­si­tion of per­ceived beauty.”

In Oc­to­ber 2018, So­haya Misra of Chola the La­bel had drag queens walk the ramp for her collection, ‘Bye Feli­cia’. Along with be­ing a great mar­ket­ing gim­mick, it also bid farewell to the re­stric­tive and the ir­rel­e­vant.

For de­signer Sud­heer Ra­jb­har of Chamar Stu­dio, fash­ion is a way to re­store the dig­nity of a word that took on pe­jo­ra­tive con­no­ta­tions be­cause of In­dia’s caste pol­i­tics. His la­bel of­fers util­i­tar­ian, sus­tain­able bags, belts with criss-cross stitches, the trade­mark of In­dian cob­blers who typ­i­cally be­long to lower castes, and sil­ver steel but­tons made in the small ten­e­ments of Dhar­avi. For a forth­com­ing pro­ject, Ra­jb­har, 32, has col­lab­o­rated with 75 in­ter­na­tional and In­dian de­sign­ers to give the marginalis­ed castes a lux­ury tag. The pro­ject is be­ing sup­ported by En­sem­ble, a high-end fash­ion re­tail chain. The bags from this collection, cu­rated by Farah Sid­dique, will be sold at En­sem­ble, pop-ups and most high-end stores. In his first collection, too, ti­tled, ‘Bom­bay Black’,

he had used re­cy­cled rub­ber tyres to make the batwa (wal­let), basta (back­pack) and bora (large tote), re­tail­ing be­tween Rs 600 and Rs 6,000. Plus, ear­lier this year, he launched Pro­ject Blue Col­lar, an ode to Bhim Rao Ambed­kar who had as­signed the colour blue to the cause of Dalit em­pow­er­ment. The pro­ject was launched, fit­tingly, on May 1, cel­e­brated in­ter­na­tion­ally as In­ter­na­tional Work­ers Day.

While Ra­jb­har takes on caste, Datta took on re­li­gion in his 2019 collection, called ‘Vol­ume 2 Is­sue 1’, chal­leng­ing the pre­con­ceived notions that ac­com­pany the don­ning of re­li­gious gar­ments and the re­sult­ing ex­clu­sion from “ac­cess to eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties”.

“Per­haps around the time the ugly fash­ion trend rolled around, con­tem­po­rary de­sign­ers in In­dia were still re-imag­in­ing mod­ern In­dian fash­ion,” says Gursi Singh of Delhi-Based Love­birds De­sign. “The ugly trend helped shape cer­tain el­e­ments of the an­drog­y­nous, norm­core or min­i­mal­ist con­tem­po­rary brands we see to­day. In that sense, In­dian con­tem­po­rary fash­ion is an anti-fash­ion move­ment in it­self.”

Anaam’s Sharma, a quin­tes­sen­tial small­town boy now based in Delhi, de­buted in 2017 with a collection in­spired by the “women war­riors of Son­a­gachi”, which opened at the Lakmé Fash­ion Week winter/ fes­tive 2017’s Gen Next show. For this, he clothed his mod­els in aus­tere drapes in suit­ing fab­ric with tall hats and shoes with words like big­otry, hunger, poverty, ho­mo­pho­bia painted on them. The collection was a trib­ute to the bat­tle-hard­ened sex work­ers—of all shapes, sizes, eth­nic­i­ties, age and gen­der—he saw when a taxi he was in took a de­tour through Son­a­gachi, a red light district in Kolkata. To him, it al­most looked like a war zone.

HUEMN, on its part, en­gages with so­ci­ety too. A sweat­shirt, from their ‘Trib­ute to Kash­mir’ collection, fea­tures the back of a woman in a hi­jab walk­ing down an al­ley in what seems like down­town Sri­na­gar. The city is on fire around her, the se­quins and stones mak­ing up the flames. With this piece of ugly fash­ion, Mishra took an ugly truth and made it vis­i­ble.

But is it a re­bel­lion?

“Cur­rently de­sign­ers are mak­ing su­per­fi­cial ad­just­ments to their aes­thetic and still pan­der­ing to the western gaze,” says Datta.

There’s a rise in the rene­gade spirit of women who are cham­pi­oning the cause of ugly clothes as a protest against OBJECTIFIC­ATION AND BEAU­TI­FI­CA­TION OF WOMEN

“It isn’t sub­ver­sive cloth­ing be­cause it fails to go be­yond a graphic on a T-shirt.” He feels con­sumers have be­come vo­cal about the clothes avail­able to them and the fash­ion in­dus­try is fi­nally be­ing held ac­count­able to the cur­rent so­cial stan­dards. “As with ev­ery sec­tor, fash­ion is rife with misog­yny, racism and ho­mo­pho­bia,” he adds. In­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions are tak­ing place on so­cial me­dia about one’s right to choose ver­sus one’s right to choose un­der op­pres­sive con­di­tions. “Cloth­ing is im­mersed deep in these very con­ver­sa­tions since it makes us immediate mark­ers of our com­mu­ni­ties. To see min­i­mal in­volve­ment by fash­ion de­sign­ers in these con­ver­sa­tions is ap­palling,” says Datta.

Su­nil Sethi, pres­i­dent of the Fash­ion De­sign Coun­cil of In­dia, has been chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo by pro­mot­ing de­sign­ers like HUEMN. He feels that In­dia catches the tail of trends that emerge in the West. “There are few who are brave enough to be so ex­per­i­men­tal,” he says, adding that many de­sign­ers tend to la­bel ugly fash­ion as ‘al­ter­na­tive fash­ion’ in In­dia. “The is­sue is our young gen­er­a­tion might be re­belling in their minds but when it comes to fash­ion, they are still re­luc­tant to ex­per­i­ment.” The one ex­am­ple, he feels, which sort of had a trick­le­down ef­fect was dis­tressed jeans.

The In­dian fash­ion scene has been bru­tal to de­sign­ers who at­tempted to go against the tide, like the Gothic and punk fash­ion her­alded by Nitin Bal Chauhan or Datta. “It is be­cause the com­mer­cial mar­ket is not ac­cept­ing this fash­ion at all. We are still a con­ser­va­tive mar­ket,” says Sethi.

“It may seem like the big guns and bright minds of fash­ion all want to be seen as lib­eral so­cial­ists, but at heart they’re all capitalist­s,” says Datta. But cap­i­tal­ist or not, to be ugly con­sciously is to be brave in times of fash­ion clones. While there have been plenty of col­lec­tions over the past few years with shock value, 2018 marked the de­fin­i­tive rise of ugly fash­ion in­ter­na­tion­ally, per­haps also as a broader re­ac­tion to the #MeToo move­ment, ac­cord­ing to fash­ion psy­chol­o­gists. Closer home, Datta feels that de­signer en­gage­ments with move­ments like ‘time’s up’ and #MeToo con­tinue to be my­opic be­cause they “do not go be­yond a pin or a wrist­band”. Anaam’s Sharma dis­agrees and says that new trends sig­nal a rise in the “rene­gade spirit of women who are cham­pi­oning the cause of ugly clothes as a protest to show they are no longer pris­on­ers of val­i­da­tion.” In fact, he would like to ob­jec­tify men as an act of re­bel­lion, he adds.

Sharma thinks of ugly fash­ion as a re­volt or a re­bel­lion. The de­signer de­fied In­dia’s cur­rent ob­ses­sion with hand­loom in his collection called ‘Janaza’ last year and blurred gen­der lines. He feels that the main mo­tive of the trend is to get the at­ten­tion and por­tray the shift in the per­cep­tion of dress­ing. “It is all about iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. I am in­spired by rag­pick­ers who would be con­sid­ered ugly. Ugly could be beau­ti­ful.”n

IN DE­FI­ANCE HUEMN founders Shyma Shetty (left), in a hand-em­broi­dered land­scape sweat­shirt, and Pranav Mishra, in a silk screen printed over­sized Sa­fari suit. These HUEMN pieces marry streetwear and lux­ury, ques­tion­ing both in the process

THE ANTI-DE­SIGNER A silk crab dress paired with a pa­per over­lay from the ‘Vol­ume 1, Is­sue 2’, 2018 collection by Kal­lol Datta (in­set). The over­lay al­most re­sem­bles a garbage bag, go­ing against the in­dus­try norms of a “pretty” dress

UGLY CHIC ‘Bom­bay Black’, the first collection by Sud­heer Ra­jb­har (in­set), was an ode to the city’s vast slums al­ways cov­ered in black and blue tar­pau­lin. It was his way of rep­re­sent­ing the marginalis­ed

SUBIR HALDER

BAR­REN SPLENDOUR Su­mi­ran Kabir Sharma in uni­sex mis­shapen, draped pants paired with a three zip­per wool jacket whose shape and wear­a­bil­ity can be changed sim­ply with the use of the var­i­ous zip­pers. The gar­ments are from his 2018 collection, aptly ti­tled, ‘Be­herupiyaa’

HARDIK CHHABRA

EV­ERY­DAY BEAUTY Uj­jawal Dubey of An­tar-Agni in a sil­hou­ette from his winter/ fes­tive 2018 collection ‘Be­gin’, in­spired by the hu­man emo­tions that tend to break us away and still keep us rooted

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