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