For applauded Delhi-born designer Ashish Gupta, each individual stitch, letter and sequin, whether it be fastidiously gracing the ‘Immigrant’ t-shirt he defiantly donned in the aftermath of Brexit or utilised to spell out ‘More glitter less Twitter’ in a satirical commentary of Donald Trump’s usage of the platform, holds it’s own idiosyncratic but no less influential message.
This is a worldliness, has moved with him throughout his tenure at Central Saint Martins, 20 years oeuvre and even before during the days he spent papering the walls of his bedroom with pages from fashion magazines during his boyhood.
The story behind your foray into the design landscape is simultaneously inspirational as it is exhilarating- I read that you grew up in Delhi before moving to London to study at Central Saint Martins and then embarked on a career path which led you to Paris, where your portfolio containing all of your work was stolen at the Gare Du Nord. Looking back on that time, where did you find the fortitude to continue to pursue a career in this industry, and is there anything you would have said to your younger self?
That experience at the time was awful , but looking back of course maybe it was for the best. I remember at the time my mother said - you've lost your work, but you still have your brain and your hands. Where there is a will, there is a way. But of course sometimes things are just not meant to be . And you have to believe that at some point you will look back and realise that it was really a blessing in disguise. I think I would probably have told my younger self the same thing I tell myself almost every night before I go to bed - “everything is going to be okay.”
In spite of this, the interest in your brand ignited after a friend of yours dressed themselves in one of your pieces for the Mayfair boutique Browns Focus in 2001, a moment which caught the attention of its buyer Yeda Yun, who put in an order. Success within this landscape is of course determined by perseverance, but from a philosophical standpoint, to what extent do you believe it is also balanced on chance?
There is something to be said about being in the right place at the right time. But I think that if something is meant to happen, it happens (so be careful what you wish for, because the stars align sometimes!) . I have learnt that the only thing you can really control is your own work, and how you feel about it, the rest is never really up to you, so I try not to think about it too much.
Today, you are a respected designer who has been in this space for two decades. Tell me about the ways in which you believe your creative practice has shape-shifted over the years, along with the ambitions you hold for your eponymous label.
I think over the years I gradually realised I built a platform for myself, and I could go beyond clothes and perhaps start conversations or make statements about things that I felt strongly about. I think I have become much more political in my practice over the last few years. I want to make beautiful clothes of course, but it's good to have a deeper meaning in things.
Speaking of, your up-to-the-minute Fall/Winter 2023 ready-to-wear presentation continued to see you navigate Western and South Asian influences, and then translate these realisations into the collection’s silhouettes and materials. From your viewpoint how far has the industry come in terms of cultural appreciation and to what lengths do you believe it still needs to go to address appropriation?
I think cultural appreciation versus appropriation - it often has to do a lot with context. And there is a lot to learn. This is why it is important to have conversations and representation in a room- it helps us understand if or why something might be offensive, inappropriate, or exploitative. But there also needs to be room for nuance. Culture collisions can sometimes create something new and wonderful.
To me, this collection for all intents and purposes was one that both reflected and commentated on the borders between various countries, along with the differences which separate us, whilst also seeking to point out the antiquity behind this way of thinking, for instance, upcycled saris were paired with bomber jackets, and sequins had been utilised to embellish a pair of basketball shorts in a re-imagined Madras cloth pattern. How would you illustrate it and its message?
I think this collection plays with ideas around global exchange and especially the cultural relationships between India and Britain. In both the clothes themselves and how they are presented , these complex dynamics are reflected in the mixes of clothing and patterns. Originally this collection was inspired by my memories of waiting in long immigration queues at Heathrow Airport - and I was fascinated by how people dressed when they travelled. I would see newly married couples , on their honeymoon, and the women would be wearing an ornate traditional outfit with perhaps quite a western style jacket or coat. A mixture of traditional and modern jewellery, trainers for comfort , henna on their hands. It was such an inspiring juxtaposition , so many layers - of culture, of time, of taste. It was so interesting to try and decode and reconstruct a little part of it this season.
You’ve also been making an impact off the runway, especially through the William Morris Gallery’s Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender retrospective which showcases over sixty of your creations whilst offering an overview of your practice. This exhibition is inarguably one which captures the indomitable persona of Ashish the designer from a personal standpoint, do you believe it succeeds in doing the same?
I hope so. When we were planning the exhibition we wanted to make sure that it wasn't just a representation of design and craft, but also that it spoke about the social and political themes that often run through my practice. So the exhibition talks about preconceptions of materials and techniques, interrogating the construction of cultural identities and the ways in which clothes send signals about their wearer. It explores the complexity of identity in relation to gender, sexuality, race, nationality and class. It reflects my belief in the ability of clothing to bring joy to its wearers and create a space in which different identities become unashamedly visible.
The ‘Immigrant’ t-shirt is singularly powerful, particularly because you wore it at the end of your London Fashion Week show back in 2016 in an attempt to reclaim the word for yourself and show pride in it. In the years since the United Kingdom has resettled 47, 802 people and yet the label immigrant remains very much, a stigmatised one. As someone who chose to move from India to the UK, how have you come to understand yourself through this label and insulate yourself against those who would solely see you as it?
It remains a stigmatised word because all the political conversations about immigration are still essentially xenophobic and racist. It's a convenient distraction from the real problems that people have now - cost of living, the environment, wage cuts, staff shortages. Brexit was essentially a demonstration of xenophobia. There is a failure to acknowledge basic facts. For example, over 38% of NHS staff in London are immigrants. Even most positive conversations about immigrants focus on the good immigrant narrative. Essentially the language remains toxic. A good example is that when people from the West travel to other countries , they are referred to as expats, not immigrants. Why this difference in terms? Personally the only way I can deal with this is to own the word , to reclaim it. This is why I wore the t-shirt. And of course I can talk about it, try and create some awareness. A part of the exhibition , very importantly, focuses on this. There isn't really a way to insulate against it, it is a reality of life.
Whilst this exhibition is one which looked to the past, and your numerous accomplishments within and contributions to the sphere of design, can you tell us about how you intend to continue to look to the future?
I usually try not to plan too much for the future. Because I've learnt that nothing ever really happens as you plan it. I always design each collection as if it was my last one. If I want to make sequin rainbow pyjamas, I will make them. We have very little time, and it goes by so quickly. If you have something to say you should say it because tomorrow might be too late. The same goes with pleasure (this is why joy is so important to me, to my work) . I don't want to look back and have regrets. That’s more important to me. And today I feel like I am really lucky that I can still do what I enjoy and make a living out of it.
Portrait & Photography
FashionBeautyLiteratureMagsTravelHotspotsEventsArtPhotographyDesignFilmMusicEditorialMETAL 37Filmin by MetalActivismACEROPODCAST