Fashion Designer Is Dressing Women Who Don’t Wish To Marry
Three male designers conceive their festive collections inspired by a feminist worldview. And the ladies are sure to say, welcome! Against an orchestrated sweep of scarlet tapestry and a group of women with faces hooded in ghunghats, towers designer and illustrator Tanya Bedi. Inside a long-sleeved jacket sits a bralette with a neckline plunging practically to her navel; her robust torso draped in a flimsy silk-organza dupatta held in place around her waist. Bedi, who stabs her gaze right in the eye of the camera, is a killer combo of knockout sex appeal and audacious ownership. Karan Torani calls her Hastini. She is a “Goddess of carnal desires” featured among a tetrad cast of characters; Padmini (model Lakshmi Rana), Shankhini (brand consultant Angelique Rana) and Chitrini (artist Shivo Shiv Suleman) in the Delhi designer’s Instagram promotion of the festive line called Kaaya.
The visuals of four main leads shot against 30-odd women covered head to toe linger in the mind, and question the male gaze. “Both images are disturbing and make you squeamish. I hope the viewers understand what is problematic here—no matter how a woman dresses, how clothed or unclothed she is, it always leaves her open to speculation.”
Torani, 27, didn’t imagine the collection as a probe into the rarified hemline or cleavage mystery. But then if women’s fashion is based on consumerism, it is also about other important and pleasurable questions—the body, desire and identity. “We are all having sex, but nobody wants to talk about sex! In fact, there is a sense of power that comes to you with embodying your sexuality, instead of denying it. But when our prototype of a Goddess is narrowed down to a mother figure, how can she demand sex?” he says.
His collection reflects on the power of myths in shaping and reimagining the identities of Indian women—in essence telling us new universal stories. “In 2020, as a young two-year-old brand, if I don’t tell these stories, the purpose of creation is lost,” he thinks. He has found a solid ally in Pandit Kokkoka and his medieval sex manual, Rati Rahasya. Estimated to be written somewhere between the 11th or 12th century, its author is said to have interviewed 1,000-plus women of varying age, physiques, temperaments, and menstrual cycles to tailor a list of erogenous zones. “Why were stories like Rati Rahasya never told to us, I wonder?”
Arjun Saluja, 46, prefers to focus more on sensuality—that sweet tingle of self-pleasure derived from individuality that is prized more than a partner’s approval. His clothes are not about a shared experience. His women cocoon themselves in their own euphoric squeeze. “There’s a certain mystery, ambiguity even, in covering up. The play between fabric and body is like opposites attract—kiss it or turn it away from the skin; lend it form or leave it formless,” adds the creative director of genderless label Rishta, modelled on the concept of Ardhnareshwar, a composite form of the Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati. “As humans, we are not made up of one singular emotion. That’s why the contradiction between structure and drape in one hybrid garment is interesting. Who’s to say a woman can’t wear a structured bandh gala with pronounced shoulders to a wedding? [As designers of womenswear] we must shift the narrative away from outdated conventions,” suggests Saluja.
Rishta’s upcoming collection is called Sifar (Urdu for zero), and while it is scheduled to launch post-Diwali, the capsule range, Saluja says, is a sartorial release of the emotions he has experienced in the throes of the lockdown. “It is about feeling elated, experiencing uncertainty, of feeling hope and despair; Sifar is a starting point as well as an ending.” Symbolism is ingrained in Saluja’s creations. His use of onion peels and juice for natural dying are inspired by the vegetable’s character as a great leveller. “It can add flavour to an elite gourmet meal as well as the daal eaten by the common man. A rise in its prices has even toppled governments.” While Saluja enjoys taking the uptightness out of fashion, calling himself a darzi, he has a friend in Hemang Agrawal, 40, who reasons that the “kapda” in roti, kapda aur makaan, is no different from fashion. “Was fashion always meant to be indulgent? Somewhere along the way, we [designers] began taking ourselves too seriously, telling women what they should look like in order to be acceptable.” The textile and fashion designer grew up and works in Varanasi, surrounded by the sound of chopping looms and the sights of exquisite silks and brocades. Perhaps it is this heady atmosphere that informs his collections. But it is also this close proximity to the city’s historical narrative that provokes him to set aside textiles’ traditional norms for sobriety in order to insert sly sexiness and individuality via polished architectural shapes and prints. Tattva, his festive line designed from GRS (Global Recycle Standard) certified biodegradable and compostable Bemberg brocades is a wardrobe of jumpsuits, dresses and suits for women who have places to go and people to meet. “Design does not judge or discriminate against a man or a woman; people do. There’s no single reference in our history which hints that a woman has to be compelled to cover up.”