Delhi, India. The setting of local artisans and the combined zeitgeist of east and west by the Indian designer distinguishes his creations by encompassing the additional element of social commitment
Ashish Gupta’s background and career
Ashish Gupta grew up in Delhi during the Eighties – an era of relative growth paired with state-controlled media and a closed economy. He recounts attending an Irish Catholic high school and the bullying that ensued. «I spent most of my time dreaming of escaping». Gupta stayed in India to study art and advertising. As time went on, his longing to pursue creativity only intensified to the point where he decided to move to London in 1996 to study fashion at university. Gupta has since found his way back to India; embracing traditional Indian artisan- ship and craftsmanship with his eponymous fashion label. As a principle, Gupta’s designs are handmade in Delhi, India. A three-floor factory building employs around fifty people, at any given time, who work year round. Unlike other workers in India who are paid by daily rate, Gupta’s team is paid by permanent salary, ensuring job security as well as the ability to provide for their families. Before Covid, Gupta was one with his employees, visiting for long durations around two to three times a year and working alongside them. No one was made redundant during the pandemic, «supporting people and community» is something that Gupta remains adamant about.
Ever since receiving his first order from Browns London boutique in 2001, Gupta has had an appreciation for the couture-like process of hand- crafting a garment. The creation of one of his garments is not a simple cut and sew process. The additional embellishment of sequins and embroidery requires a precision and patience that transforms them from garments in their rudimentary stages into garments of a detailed level of craftsmanship. Before the fabric is cut, all the embroidery is handmade by his team. After the pieces have gone through this stage, the garment is assembled. All the excess embroidery on the seam allowance is removed by hand and, once the garment is sewn together, the embroidery is re-stitched to fill in any gaps left by the seams. «This idea of spending weeks making a garment, makes it a long labor», something Gupta aims to achieve at a higher level through his social commitment. «Along with that came this idea that you could support artisan communities. Everything is machine made and mass manufactured and so we have to support those traditional ways of embroidery. It’s a way to ensure those skills remain alive».
Buying small quantities is best
It supports the local economy and the artisans who can ethically maintain a business. India’s history of materials and traditional techniques of producing and decorating textiles is one of the oldest in the world, one that is embedded into its identity. Block printing is a dyeing process associated with Northern and Western regions – Delhi – and is a technique for which Gupta seeks out local craftsmen. Indian craftsmen have acquired historical and incomparable amounts of knowledge on natural plant-based dyes, a custom still used today in block print- ing. Intricate designs are chiseled, punctured and drilled into blocks of wood which are then stamped onto the fabric.
The waves of tie-dyed pieces throughout Gupta’s collections give a sense of his interest in this particular pattern. It reminds him of holidays, «evoking certain memories and feelings». Many follow the traditional Bandhani method of tie-dying – plucking the fabric into miniature bindings to configure a particular design. It is known for being a highly skilled process and one which is done by hand to ensure saturated colors and their combinations. The fact that one dyed pattern is different from the next is some- thing which Gupta appreciates; its properties are in line with the organic stages of designing. Like with block printing, artisans use natural dyes, such as madder and pomegranate, to generate patterns on the fabric.
Ashish Gupta’s SS20 ready-to-wear collection
Every season, Gupta and his team try to incorporate different textile and embroidery techniques into his collections. In his SS20 ready-to-wear collection, he employed the traditional techniques of mirror work – also known as shisha – from Rajasthan and exemplified this artisanal skill in a fashion context. What makes the technique so intricate is the stitching of pieces of shaped mirror onto the fabric, which are then encircled by decorative embroidery. This type of artistry originated in India around the sixteenth century and, over time, artisans have excelled in this craft. For centuries, people all over the world have used images and drawings as a means to communicate. In India, where one in three people remain illiterate, limiting the ways in which their stories can be told, traditional Indian handicrafts are all the more valuable; holding the untold stories of those entrusted with the knowledge of this ancient craft.
For one season, Gupta and his team worked with hand-spun and loomed cotton. The Indian woven textile – known as khadi – refers to fabrics that are hand-spun and hand-woven. Its rugged texture and propensity to keep people warm during winter and cool during summer, are attributes that fit into Gupta’s attitude to- wards creating comfort. No machinery is used in the process, resulting in a softer feel to the finished fabric. As with many Indian handicrafts, this technique dates back centuries and its historical significance is what attracts mindful contemporary designers to use it with honor and respect in their collections. Gupta’s back- ground gives way to the assumption that he blends western and eastern influences to distill the best of both worlds. These nuanced cultural profiles are second nature to him, unconscious creative thoughts which he taps into as he works. «I don’t try to rationalize the fact that I grew up in India and how to use that creatively, but naturally, I am attracted to color because I grew up in India. My threshold for color and pattern is probably higher than if I had grown up in the West». To depict the extent of this threshold, Gupta’s sequin crochet jumpsuit from his AW19 collection contains seventy-two different colors. Having been surrounded by a riot of intense and vivid colors and patterns all through his childhood, Gupta’s arrival to London in the Nineties was almost a cultural shock. Out of the window of a second-story bus, he noticed the muted, monochromatic color palette of the busy streets. «I was used to an Indian high street where you literally can’t see enough red, pink, orange and every clashing pattern, print and color».
India’s natural pigmentation and traditional techniques
India’s extensive ability in the field of natural pigmentation is reflected in its traditional clothing and the techniques which artisans have practiced daily for generations. This is not the case everywhere – past or present – and is what might have contributed to the amalgamation of east-west cultural elements. Gupta reflects on how fashion was more serious in Nineties London, instilling a grunge mood throughout the industry. Overall, the finished garments coming out of the British fashion world at the time, along with the varying levels of zeitgeist between India and London, pushed Gupta to create joyful pieces. He couldn’t help but picture himself creating «dynasty-inspired frocks and gowns for movie stars», a vision not shared by many. This was a creative perspective which was solely encouraged by his course leader, Louise Martins, during his time at Central Saint Martins. The censorship of media in India during Gupta’s childhood resulted in him watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time whilst at university, with Dorothy’s red slippers being the inspiration behind his final project. The juxtapositions of elements in the film, and those of India’s colors and patterns to which Gupta was so accustomed, displayed significant overlap; a train of thought which may have determined his capacity to combine such different cultures. By doing so in a subtle way, the risk of alluding to garishly constructed garments disappeared. The additional level of unconventionality in his designs, is simply a by-product of the processes that inspire them.
This contrast is seen throughout his collections, and in particular in his use of graphic text and slogans to make political statements. «It’s the juxtaposition of something that is usually not considered serious. It makes it more digestible». Having moved to the UK from India, Brexit made Gupta question whether or not he was welcome in the country that he thought of as home. This is why, at the end of his SS17 show, he took a bow wearing a simple, white, long- sleeve shirt with the blunt statement, Immi- grant, across its front. Years later «immigrants are still being vilified» and immigration continues to be considered a taboo subject. «We live in a polarized world and that language is weaponized now. Part of the reason why I start- ed putting words and phrases on clothes was as a means to make people think». Combining this concept with themes of social commitment and Indian craftsmanship presents a possible insight into the future path that the industry could and should take – the numerous levels of what can only be described as sustainability.
Lampoon reporting: where does Ashish Gupta’s inspiration for his collections come from
Coming up with collections is an organic process for Gupta, who does not limit them to particular themes or stories. Rather, he collects inspiration as he goes about his day-to-day business, photographing that which he finds compelling. «Sometimes it’s not even what people are wearing but how they’re wearing it. It’s a subjective way of looking at things». Gupta also does not limit the range of his unconscious bursts of creativity: London high streets, Indian marketplaces and even his own employees. «Lots of times I’ll ask them for suggestions on ways to do things and how they would do a certain design». This is true for his sequin crochet collection which took years to create, returning to it time and time again until the pieces fit together. Being physically part of the team and maintaining a presence in the factory – even if it’s from a computer more than 4,000 miles away – encourages the transfer of skills between cultures. Above his employees’ ability to offer idiosyncratic inspiration, Gupta appreciates the depth of their knowledge. Known for handicraft, indigenous Indian knowledge among some of the workers is abundant. «I didn’t realize the amount of ways there are to work with sequins».
Gupta’s homeware project demonstrates the extent of his social commitment. Inspired by kantha blankets from India, he incorporates traditional embroidery into Western creativity, Nineties pop-art and Disney prints. The blankets were made using salvaged textiles, such as vintage and end-of-stock fabrics which are usually dumped into landfill. The process of cut- ting, assembling and sewing these pieces was done through a fair-trade organization that sup- ports people from marginalized communities seeking work. Some of the blankets were sent to Kolkata where female artisans worked on the embroidery sections. Traditional kantha has evolved to become an art form. For centuries, Indian women have passed down their expertise in this craft, furthering its sophistication. Practiced in the villages of the Bengali region, female embroiderers use craft to elevate their socio-economic position. Now recognized as artisanal masterpieces, demand for kantha has grown into a substantial market. Designers, such as Gupta, from all over the world now work with these artisans to produce high-quali- ty and intricate pieces. Gupta believes in remaining agile. «I’ve never been interested in having a huge operation, because I would rather have the quality and be able to control it. I don’t want to make 500 of the same dress because there’s enough stuff on the planet already». He sometimes asks retailers to reduce their orders because of the limit on what they produce, which «might sound like a strange way to run a business, but that’s just how we work. It’s good to know that jobs are created based on skills, especially given India’s development». Working in parallel with zero-waste production methods and smaller scale suppliers, local artisans and craftsmen, they «understand the restrictions of doing things on a smaller scale». Handcrafting is a slow process, but results in a final product that resembles a piece of art, justifying respective elevated pricing and discouraging fast fashion.
The second-hand trade in India
Many second-hand items and clothes collected in the West are sent over to developing (or previously colonized) countries. The second-hand trade in India comprises billions of old garments – in the north, Panipat receives hundreds of tonnes of clothing from across Europe and the U.S., resulting in its moniker as the cast off capital of the world. Imported clothing is divided into mutilated and wearable categories. A license is required by importers of wearable clothing to protect local garment manufacturers – buyers need to guarantee that the pieces won’t be subsequently sold in India. Mutilated clothing doesn’t require a license as these are recycled to make fibers or scraps to add to fabric. Gupta buys this surplus of second-hand clothing in bulk to use in his creations. Throughout various seasons, Gupta has used excess denim from the West, salvaging them by taking them apart, stitching them and using them as patchworks in his collections. Whatever the case, Gupta is adamant about obtaining materials locally.
Indian handicraft has gone through waves, from being left to be forgotten to becoming a major export product. Industrialization everywhere has led to dips in handcrafted production, whether temporary or permanent. However, the stages of India’s evolution and growth may have been necessary to its long- term appreciation of traditional craftsmanship, allowing artisans to come out on top. People are recognizing the value of handcrafted items over machine-made objects, a transitional phase which takes into consideration social commitment and engagement with groups of craftsmen and artisans. Creating international markets which take this value into account, allows for a fairer and more just chain of demand and supply. In 2014, India became the first country in the world to make Corporate Social Responsibility mandatory, an act which requires companies of a certain turnover, to invest two percent of their net profits into CSR. Recognizing artisanal production and the laws which engage in ethically-oriented practices, allows for social commitment in India. Gupta’s commitment to Eastern craftsmanship and Western media-influenced fashion has magnified the need for sustainability, civic engagement and social commitment – ethical practices firmly rooted in his daily life.
Fashion designer, based in London and designing under the label ‘Ashish’. Born in Delhi, Gupta studied Fine Art in his native India before moving to Middlesex to complete a BA in Fashion Design. After completing his MA at Central Saint Martins in 2000, Gupta ventured to Paris with the intention of working in a design studio in the French capital. However, when his entire portfolio of work was stolen, Gupta instead began quietly making clothes for friends until being spotted by Yeda Yun of Browns Focus, who placed his first order in 2001.