Beyond the sari – meet the British-Indian designers with a modern multicultural vision
Bright colours, bling and embroidery: India’s millennia-old culture of craftsmanship is often reduced to a few hackneyed clichés. Until recently, only a few UK-based designers had been celebrated for translating their Indian heritage into a new, hybrid language – such as the New Delhi-born, London-based designer Ashish Gupta, who uses sequins and wildly optimistic colours to make high-octane partywear. Now a larger cohort of designers is borrowing the signatures of their lineage to rewrite the sartorial narrative.
Multi-award-winning Priya Ahluwalia combines influences from her London roots with her dual Indian-Nigerian parentage. Repurposing deadstock, vintage and surplus clothing is at the core of her label Ahluwalia – a decision, she says, that was shaped during visits to Panipat and Lagos where she witnessed the damaging impact of fashion waste in both Asia and Africa. In June this year, Ahluwalia collaborated with Mulberry to design accessories including 12 new Portobello bags. “The brand is an institution,” says the designer, “but it was important for me to present a different experience of being British.” Ahluwalia’s moodboard included Indian movie posters, vintage salon images and ’90s music videos. For the accompanying campaign, she chose to celebrate rituals around hair in Punjab, Africa and the Caribbean. “My label is ultimately a way to explore cultural histories and start conversations around them,” she adds.
Supriya Lele’s work, too, examines her Indian heritage and British cultural identity. The LVMH Prize finalist subverts traditional tropes and juxtaposes them against western codes in a hybridised language. “I’ll inject a western garment with the darting of a sari blouse,” says Lele. “For my SS19 collection, we showed knitted bras made from vintage saris.”
Lele’s repertoire also plays with risquéness and a lot of sheer fabrics. “I have always been aware of the traditional skin exposure within Indian dressing. Women reveal the side of their waists when wearing a sari. These elements of concealing and revealing are important to me. It’s about balancing the sensuality of an Indian dress with western fashion references from the ’90s.” Her AW21 collection, for instance, features a pattern from Madhya Pradesh (where her father’s family hails from) used on transparent devoré fabrics.
Wigan-born student designer Namita Khade’s sexy take on knitwear has already made it to the wardrobes of Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner. She is currently studying for a BA in fashion design at Central Saint Martins and her references vary from traditional sari patterns and Indian truck art to old family photographs. Khade intends to be a voice for the experiences of women of south-Asian heritage like her.
First-generation British-Indian sisters Hardeep and Mandeep Kaur, co-founders of slow design house Per/Se, explore their love for outerwear and layering through a focus on texture. “It is intrinsic to how we experience the world. Quality in fabrics and a focus on fit are inherent to how we were raised,” explains Hardeep. Meanwhile, Deeya Khemlani, who co-founded Izaak Azanei with her sisters Karishma and Roshni, has chosen to focus on hand-embellished knitwear to complement the British wardrobe. The craftsmanship, though, is Indian. “Our sequinned, crystal and beaded pieces are made in India,” says Khemlani, whose collections retail at Harrods and Harvey Nichols.
In a world that is as interconnected as it is today, are etymologies and identities still relevant? Or should design alone be the hero? “I have been pondering over this a lot recently,” says Rosh Mahtani, founder of the jewellery brand Alighieri, who is of Indian descent and lived in Zambia before moving to the UK. “This past year has been a real catalyst to learn more about my family and India,” she admits. “Ultimately, we are a minority within the industry. So, it’s our job to celebrate our uniqueness without feeling like outsiders.”
The need to shatter stereotypes is probably subliminal. This is, first and foremost, an expression of the experience of straddling multiple cultures. Mahtani’s brand was born of a personal identity crisis: “You know when people ask where you’re from, and expect a one-word answer?” And then there’s her label, inspired by Italian literature. “This is my way of saying that it’s OK to feel connected to many cultures. We no longer need to classify someone as belonging to just one place. Alighieri is essentially an exploration of what it means to be a citizen of the world.” Designs equivalent to modern heirlooms and the heavy use of gold are borrowed from her Indian heritage. “I grew up with the idea that jewellery is meant to be passed on to the next generation.” Ghungroos – metallic bells strung on traditional anklets – also inspired a recent collection, as did her grandmother’s Indian jewellery.
Last year, Mahtani became the first jewellery designer to receive the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, and this month sees her expand into fine jewellery. Her pieces are handmade in the six streets surrounding her studio in Hatton Garden. “Our main suppliers – our casters – are just two doors down,” says Mahtani. “They are a Cypriot immigrant family who have been working here since 1964. It’s so illustrative of London being a melting pot of cultures.”
Working in London has honed menswear designer Kaushik Velendra’s international sensibility too, allowing him to redefine his “Indian perspective with an understanding of the larger picture”. While Velendra was born in Bengaluru, the London Fashion Week participant calls London home, with Alexander McQueen’s former Hoxton Square atelier serving as his current studio. He is the first Indian-born menswear graduate from Central Saint Martins’ MA in fashion programme, and Priyanka Chopra Jonas wore one of his creations to the 2020 BFC Fashion Awards last December. “I am an Indian-British designer, and not the other way around,” says Velendra. “Indian culture impacts everything, from my business model and studio experience to our tailoring, meticulous beading and craftsmanship.”
The need for representation drives Velendra – he is very mindful of working with diverse talent, be it for his campaigns or when hiring. “I don’t want to simply cast a few Indian and British models and call it a day. Ours is a universal product, and that needs to be adequately represented.” He also offers “culture shock programmes” to help students from India integrate into the industry. “I wanted to create a safe space for them, because when I moved to London in 2014, there wasn’t an Indian powerhouse to look up to. I had to be my own example.”
Representation is also essential for Ahluwalia: “There was no one from a similar background I could affiliate with as a teenager.” She recalls how some relatives shortened their surname to Walia to make it more palatable in the west. “I was the only one who didn’t. I am proud of my name!” In 2020, she released tongue-in-cheek logo T-shirts that defined Ahluwalia as “a surname native to the Punjab region of India”, and explained how to pronounce it. Now her Instagram DMs are filled with images of Indians posing in front of her billboards around London. “It’s nice to feel validated.”