We have a much-needed discussion about diversity in the industry with visionary designer Ashish Gupta.
In the wake of Brexit, the recent Presidential election in America and the ongoing refugee crisis, it feels like we could use a serious dose of radical, inspiring artists like Ashish who are willing to challenge institutionalised racism and hate. When confronted by the real (and often very overwhelming) political atmosphere of divisive policies that play on racial ‘Otherness’ to provoke fear and bigotry, real change can feel like a pretty tall order.
In times like these we need leaders to look to, people who value creativity and the power of art. People who believe in equality. People like Ashish, who subvert exclusionary agendas through their work, celebrating and embracing diversity on the runway. Ashish’s SS17 show was a cultural burst of pride, not just pride in his homeland but pride in the fusion of different cultures, pride in the marriage of India and Britain.
The designer is launching his second T’aint collection with Brown’s where you can get yourself the much talked about ‘Immigrant’ tee Ashish strutted down the runway in following the show. Let’s start identifying as one.
Why now, more than ever, is it important for us to be engaging in dialogue about immigration and racial otherness in Britain and the wider world?
Because there is a wave of racism and xenophobia sweeping the world and we cannot let it win. I think the political system continues to be so disrespectful towards immigrants. Despite the fact that we contribute so much to the economy and culture, we pay taxes, create new jobs, set up businesses, bring different experiences and skills. So why is the word used in such a negative way? We are portrayed as a ‘burden’ that needs to be ‘controlled’ . We need to educate people and change the perception of ‘immigration’. How can laws uphold our equality and freedom when the people making those laws play on one groups fears about another group.
You’ve managed to centre your work around celebrating ethnic diversity while simultaneously defying those groups who seek to divide and spread hate. How did you go about achieving this critical balance?
I think diversity is the norm, it should not be the exception, I simply don’t understand how anyone can have such a narrow world view.
Where did the Old Bollywood / marriage theme originate for the collection and how did you build on it?
The collection was originally inspired by a scene in the classic 1966 Indian film ‘Amrapali”, based on the story of a courtesan by the same name. Amrapali, stands on a terrace, under a moonlit silver sky, she sings a melancholic song to her lover, who has gone away. She sings about her loneliness. It is a magical tale -The stories and endeavours of the couple told via fabric. But more than that, the collection is about a marriage of two cultures, the idea of immigrant experiences woven into the fabric of a society, an imagining of what it is like being far away from your homeland, a longing for a world without racism and fear.
You’ve come under attack for your political outspokenness but also for your use of Hindu religious symbols and deities. How do you deal with this type of criticism?
A lot of that criticism was uninformed, and really highlighted a need for more education. It is ridiculous to accuse someone of appropriating their own culture, how is that possible? A lot of the time people will just make assumptions, without doing any research. Its frustrating to be misunderstood, and where possible I try and engage in a dialogue to explain where I am coming from.
Gender, sexuality, and postcolonial identity are often intertwined. How does androgyny play an important role within your artistic vision?
Androgyny is interesting for me because if we talk about equality, then clothing defines one as a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. So clothing can be used to play with those traditional constructs of masculinity or femininity, and challenge peoples ideas about gender and sex.
Do you believe that we, as the fashion industry, or even the art world in general, have a socio-political responsibility?
What changes do you hope to see in the industry and how can we go about achieving them while still promoting peace?
I think on the simplest level there needs to be a change in the language. For example I am tired of hearing “we are tolerant of all cultures” – its an offensive term . I don’t want to be ‘tolerated” -as if I am something unpleasant that won’t go away, and so have to be put up with. I want to be embraced, welcomed, treated as equal. I want to see more diverse castings at shows, I want to see more diverse people actually working in the industry. A token black model in a show is really an insult. The industry needs to step up and lead by example.
Finally, how can we spread and explore radical messages of equality? Is this part of your goal in sharing your famous ‘Immigrant’ T-Shirt with the world?
Yes it is. I want to change the negative implications of the word. We need to teach young people about history, about colonialism, about oppression, about freedom struggles, about art, about celebrating our cultures, and most importantly that we are all the same race, the human race and we all live on the same planet. We need more bridges, not more walls.