‘My designs create joy and I’m grateful for that’: Ashish Gupta | Fashion

YoIs the sequin perhaps the most glamorous product of evolutionary biology? Psychologists say that humans are attracted to things that shine because our ancestors once searched for light reflecting off rivers in their search for water. Now we look elsewhere for brilliance—a diamond ring, a disco ball—and find a new meaning for it beyond survival. Like glamour, courage or, in the case of Ashish Gupta, a fashion designer renowned for his sequin art, freedom.

This month sees Ashish’s first-ever retrospective showcasing 20 years of his brand’s hand-sequined, sequin-embroidered clothing, including the zardozi robe, a South Asian embroidery method that uses gold thread, and the T-shirt. pink with the slogan “Fall in love and be cuter”, and sparkly pieces worn by stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Debbie Harry. Walking into her London home of hers feels like going backstage: she replaced the front door panels with red glass, so we bathed for a quiet minute in dark light. She designed the kitchen countertops to accommodate huge planters, and lush trees grow toward the glass ceiling. There are stone busts, Indian glass paintings, and stacks of books, but not a single sequin. They are all, presumably, in the work that currently hangs at the William Morris Gallery in East London. “The curator said,” Gupta smiles, “’This is really interesting to me, because it’s the first time I’ve worked with a living artist.’ And I said, ‘Well, we still have three months, you never know what can happen!’” Going through his archive at the age of 47 has been a strange experience, “a bit surreal, actually. You kind of travel back in time. In a way, it feels like a lifetime has gone by pretty quickly.”

He never planned to start a label. Growing up in Delhi, Gupta papered her walls with pages from fashion magazines and moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins. When he graduated in 2000, he was invited to Paris for interviews at design studios, but while at the Gare du Nord his wallet was stolen, containing all of his work (along with his cash). and papers). He had nothing to show for it after all his years of study and no chance of getting a job.

“It was devastating! One of the most terribly heartbreaking experiences of my life. The police thought it was funny. They told me to check the bins around the station.” However, shortly after, he received a call. A friend had worn one of his embroidered tops when he was out shopping, and a shopper at Browns asked where he got it. They wanted to place an order. He returned to India, produced a small, glamorous collection and (to cut a long story short) Ashish, the brand, was born.

‘The immigration dialogue unhinges me’: Ashish Gupta in 2016 at the end of his London show. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

But, “In the early 2000s, the world was a very different place, in terms of being a brown person in fashion. I don’t think people expected that I would be here for a long time.” He fought for years to gain UK citizenship, which added particularly marked pressure to his work, and when he started doing shows, he found himself stereotyped. “They called me things like ‘Bollywood designer,’ or ‘Indian designer,’ which he didn’t quite understand the relevance of. He wanted to be judged for what he was doing, not for my identity.”

Recently, however, he has begun to lean on his heritage. “I am Indian, I have my own look, which comes from my feeling of having grown up in a particular country, so there are references to which I react differently. The way I use color, for example, things that are so ingrained. Everything you do is through your gaze, your lived experience, the fact that you are an immigrant or a queer person.” He feels more comfortable exploring that today, through “the idea of ​​dual culture clothing. I remember Indira Gandhi, when she would travel abroad, she would make the silk sari, but then she would have a fur coat over her. This interesting clash of east and west. And in the queues at Heathrow you will see Indian women dressed in a sari with a large cardigan and sneakers. So I’ve been exploring a lot of that in my work, which gets a little bit political. Because it’s about dress codes and how people react, what messages you’re sending.”

Ashish, Fall Winter 2022 © Will Sanders Sequin ikat shirt and skirt, Fair Isle sequin vest and shorts
Brighter later: Ashish, fall/winter 2022. Cinematography: Will Sanders

Last year, Gupta photographed a collection in India for the first time, clothing inspired by things like Indian film magazines and the velvet bedspreads her family bought in the 1970s. There were geeky knit tank tops alongside prom dresses. in the style of the 50s, all elevated to new levels of glamor with their dense embroidered sequins.

In 2016, mystified and upset by Brexit, Gupta bowed at the end of his London show wearing a T-shirt that read “Immigrant.” It was an attempt to claim the word, show pride and seek compassion. He was instantly exhausted. “The older I get, the more I think about the political situation and its structures. This constant dialogue, for example, about immigration really bothers me. It is completely insensitive. It’s almost as if people don’t understand the traumas immigrants go through. And even if you look at the vocabulary around it, when people from the west move to countries in the so-called “developing world”, they call themselves expatriates. The word immigrant is reserved for people of color who move to predominantly white countries, which I find really interesting, because I have yet to find the difference between the two.”

It is a subject that disturbs and distracts him. He hopes that art and fashion will continue to be a voice of dissent, but (he admits, shifting in his seat), he remains concerned. “I immigrated here to build a life and I don’t see myself as different from other people. But obviously some people see me differently. When Brexit happened it was very sad, because now there is a whole generation of young people who will be deprived of so many experiences, it’s a shame, isn’t it? When you think about food and fashion and falling in love…it’s too bad. Why wouldn’t you want that? This government, he adds, “instead of trying to solve the real problems: energy prices, the environment, trade with Europe, which from recent personal experience I can say is still a complete disaster, is trying to deflect blame to the refugees. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so cruel and tragic. The privileged who are so lacking in humanity and empathy should not be in these positions of power.”

When he wore the shirt, “I felt like I was coming off as an immigrant,” Gupta laughs. But the theme also seeps into his work in less obvious ways. Growing up in Delhi, homosexuality was illegal and he dreamed of moving to New York, Paris or London, “a world of escapism and fabulousness. The sequins remind me of that, big cities at night. Because cities have always been a refuge for people or communities that have not felt the norm. For gay men, who move from small towns, the nightlife of a city becomes a kind of refuge. Wearing sequins reminds me of that idea, of not being hidden.”

Glamor and glitz: Ashish, Spring/Summer 2016.
Glamor and glitz: Ashish, Spring/Summer 2016

The clothes that Gupta designs use sequins to disturb and deceive the eye, with trompe l’oeil effects and unexpected references. The glitter appeal feels primitive, that old-fashioned search for water, but in her 20s of working with sequins, making her own fabrics, embroidering them by hand (they’re the opposite of fast or disposable fashion – a typical dress costs around £2000 ), seeking the best way to help them catch the light, Gupta has had time to dig deeper. “Part of my attraction to sequins is that collision of high and low taste. When I first started designing, they really had this kind of dubious association with the cocktail dress. I love a little tacky, so that was part of it.” He strokes his beard while she thinks. “The other thing is this idea of ​​glamour. The word comes from the idea of ​​witches casting a spell. So it’s a very powerful association. And I think about the golden age of Hollywood and how sequins look in movies. There is a magical quality to them. Also, the danger and beauty that I associate with nightlife: you want to be seen, but there is a mystery there. They light you up,” he shakes his head, a kind of casual wonder. “It’s a very magical medium.” Today, he is wearing an orange shirt with a muted psychedelic pattern. Do you ever wear a sequin? “No. I like to have a bit of distance. They feel like… I don’t want to say ‘sacred’? But I guess I like being on the outside looking in. He looks a little embarrassed.

Pulling out old work for the retrospective, Gupta was pleasantly surprised to find…was it fabulous? Like the first piece, from 2003: “It’s like the most country rugby shirt in the world”, with gold and silver stripes, which arose from “the idea of ​​taking something hyper-masculine, fetishizing it and subverting it”. And the bags, where he reinvented plastic supermarket bags with sequins: instead of Tesco, the letters spelled out Disco. Instead of M&S, S&M. “They had a soft humor about them. But it was also this idea of ​​taking something disposable from everyday life and making it really special, elevating it.” He shrinks his shoulders. “It is a very nice thing to be able to create joy. I’m grateful for that.”

In the past, Gupta has booked vacations: flights, hotels, packed a suitcase, but couldn’t make it to the airport. “I don’t think she’s had more than four days off in a row in the last 20 years,” she says with a wince. “Running a small fashion business is hard, and it’s very hard to switch off. But there are so many more things I would like to do!” She would like to take more pictures, for example. She would like to garden, she would like to design more interiors and “I would like to write a book on sex.” Oh yeah? She has so many stories, she says. And it is a subject that is close to him because “many times we get ready to undress. So when I design a dress, I’ll think about how easy it is to take it off: I always put zippers. And I love the pockets. I once lent a trench coat to [redacted A-list celebrity] and when I got it back, there was a pair of panties in the pocket. I thought, well, he’s had a great time!” The ultimate compliment.

When you say trench coat, of course, it’s important to realize that what you mean is something more like a sculpture in the form of a trench coat, but painstakingly made by hand, out of records and cotton. When we talk about politics, about that catastrophic year of Brexit and Trump, he remembers being at a rally and seeing a shiny gold sign that read: ‘Fighting gloom with glitter!’ “That inspired me a lot,” he says. “And…the sequins are kind of a protest in and of themselves, aren’t they?” A protest against what? He thinks. “A protest against bloody blandness!”

Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender, is at William Morris Gallery, Forest Road, London E17 4PP (wmgallery.org.uk) from April 1 to September 10, 2023

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