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Fashion
July 22, 2016

Tracing The Rise Of Androgyny In Indian Menswear

Text by Riaan Jacob George. Illustration by Deepen Sharma

A new breed of designers is pushing the envelope of Indian fashion and slowly blurring gender boundaries with their myriad interpretations of androgyny

In November 2015, during the promotions of his film Bajirao Mastani, actor Ranveer Singh, known for his outrageous sense of fashion, made a bold statement by showing up in skirts designed by couturier Anju Modi. As Singh pulled off the looks with panache, the fashion scribes lauded him for embracing androgyny and bringing this trend into the spotlight.

Modern androgyny in Indian fashion got off to a slow start. The turning point was in March 2013 at Lakmé Fashion Week. One particular emerging womenswear designer managed to turn heads and get the attention of the industry with his curious long tunics with side slits. The tunic, which fitted brilliantly into the wardrobe of both men and women, quickly made waves. The edgy designer in question was Dhruv Kapur of DRVV who has carved a niche for himself by reinterpreting fey masculinity in Indian fashion.

Pranav Mishra, co-founder of fashion label Huemn, interprets androgyny differently. For him, it is more than just a trend; it is a mood and it is part of a gender-bender movement. Huemn’s raw and sensual collection for Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2016 was Mishra’s take on streetwear and was inspired by the luxury fashion market. There is an underlying element of sports luxe too. “We’ve tried to make clothes where a guy and girl are not too differently dressed,” says the designer. “Women in tuxedoes symbolise how important it is for women to be professionally successful and financially independent. We are using dressing to fill up the gender gap. At the end of the day, a guy and a girl should have the same feeling for and the same understanding of the product.”

Another young designer who is taking the trend up a notch is Dhruv Kapoor. “For me, it is more an expression of power rather than gender. Power has traditionally been associated with men. Through androgynous silhouettes, there is a sense of power being transferred to women. Making women look more masculine than men — not only does this change gender stereotypes, but it is also an empowering gesture. It is not a fad, it is here to stay. Something as simple as a skirt can look androgynous, purely because of its cut.”

This season, Kapoor’s interpretation of androgyny comes in the form of silhouettes (which include Italian suiting fabrics) with a resolutely masculine appeal that are paired with traditionally feminine elements like lace. At Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2016, Kapoor’s collection worked cotton and nylon blends with effortless ease, giving them an unmistakable fluidity, sheen and structure. Since playing around with waistlines and necklines are the mainstays of the trend, the designer generously used higher necklines and bold ribbed belts with zippers at the back. Most importantly, Kapoor believes that what is shown and seen on the runway is not always practical. So, this is tweaked sufficiently before it is presented on the shop floor. For this collection, he has chosen utilitarian fabrics, keeping the weather in mind.

Androgyny in India

The idea of androgyny found expression in Rimi Nayak’s womenswear Lakmé Fashion Week showcase in the form of menswear detailing. “Some of my silhouettes have masculine influences. Detailing on collars, for instance, add a sense of masculinity to women’s clothes. I even have one ensemble where a man’s tie is printed onto a top. From shirts and bombers to boxy shorts and boyfriend jackets, the gender lines are being blurred and I am happy to endorse this trend,” says the designer.

I catch up with Archana Walavalkar, celebrity stylist and co-founder of StyleCracker.com, to gain some insights as well. She is quick to bring up the younger, more avant-garde Indian labels like Bodice, Huemn and Lovebirds which, she says, “have created androgynous prêt with minimalist separates like cropped trousers, and bold graffiti-esque slogan prints that you can steal from your girlfriend’s closet and vice versa”. Fashion designer Arjun Saluja’s creations have always had a strong gender-neutral vibe. His voluminous palazzos and flared trousers can fluidly move from a man’s wardrobe to a woman’s.

Walavalkar also speaks of athleisure clothing, which has furthered the case for un-gendered styles and inspired even mega high-street brands like Zara, Topshop, H&M and New Look to launch special collections without gender tags.

International runways

Purushu Arie, a Chennai-based fashion blogger, who has also launched his own label, India’s first gender-neutral fashion line, offers a different perspective. He shuns the word androgyny and prefers to refer to this trend as ‘gender-neutral’. He says, “Sex and gender, though used interchangeably while speaking colloquially, are two very different terms. Androgyny is a gender expression that falls between masculine and feminine. However, gender-neutrality does not distinguish between genders and is blind to gender norms. It looks beyond what society has described as feminine, masculine or androgynous.”

To better understand the trend in India, Arie takes stock of the international runways to see how it all began and subsequently trickled down to the Indian market. “A man wearing lace and net was normalised in collections by Gucci, Burberry and Maison Margiela. Rick Owens’ creations have always had a gender-neutral appeal, much before the whole gender-binary issue was rekindled in fashion, a few years ago. J. W. Anderson and Rad Hourani are other pioneers who have consistently presented unisex clothing on the runway. Chroniclers of international fashion shows, in the recent past, have heaped praise on Burberry and Gucci, two brands that have constantly raised the bar, bringing androgyny to the fore. Burberry with its luxurious jogger pants, animal and pop prints as well as retro colourblocking, Gucci with its extravagant floral prints and unstructured trenches and colourblocking. Louis Vuitton and Givenchy had the industry’s experts raving when its male models walked down the ramp in skirts.

The royal connect

While some might say that androgyny is an emerging trend in India, Walavalkar points out that it has existed throughout Indian history. “We have seen men from Indian royal families wear floor-length angarakhas and achkans, present in the wardrobes of both genders.”

Even designers like Rohit Bal, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, JJ Valaya and Tarun Tahiliani have showcased graceful silhouettes for men, sometimes paired with hand-embroidered shawls, with flora and fauna motifs. Rajesh Pratap Singh went a step further by showcasing matching metallic suits. Hints of androgyny have always been prevalent in Indian dressing. Historically, Indian men have been known to wear fluid garments and jewellery. Churidars and salwars are still worn by men for ceremonial dressing. Most Indian couturiers make use of floral motifs and embroidery for men.

Changing social mores

This leads us to our next question. Has this trend sufficiently caught on in Indian fashion? Mishra says, “Clothing is not only meant to cover oneself. It is a means of expression. I am happy to notice that androgynous silhouettes are now finally making their way into streetwear. People have started incorporating this into daily wear.”

Arie adds, “Ranveer Singh is popularising gender-neutral style in India. In 10-20 years, credit will go to this man, who is currently the face of a cultural revolution.” Walavalkar reassures that androgynous trends are moving into the Indian wardrobe. “It is not a direct and obvious effect, it is subtle. Men and women are both happy to channel the boardroom hipster with slimmer cuts and cropped lengths, while mixing textures, prints, colours and fabrics. Men are ditching stiff chambray for softer, fluid and semi-sheer fabrics like linens and mulmul. They are even open to experimenting with colours, shorter lengths, accessories and jewellery in their everyday look.”

Sarah S. Gonsalves, co-founder and head designer of Mumbai-based bespoke menswear studio, SS HOMME, throws some light on androgyny in the Indian menswear space. “For men, it is purely about having the ability and confidence to carry it off. For example, Singh, with his skirt-and-suit combinations, did it with ease. Indian men are not at all comfortable with this trend, as some find it effeminate. Design is not limited to a particular gender, so I believe that androgyny uses key elements, cuts and the like from the opposite gender’s wardrobe in a very interesting way.”

While at the heart of this trend is the notion of gender neutrality, it is also laden with social connotations. Runway trends, celebrity style and social media have played a huge role in this blurring of gender binary. With famous trendsetters like Kanye West and Jared Leto being spotted in skirts, bows and blouses, it is natural that Gen Next is going to be a whole lot more open to experimenting with style. Recently, Singh was also photographed wearing Gucci’s pussy-bow blouse and a nose ring.

After all, when Louis Vuitton put Jaden Smith in a skirt for their womenswear campaign, they were making a strong statement. Masculinity is no longer about being rugged. It is about embracing all aspects of your personality, including the feminine. And as Arie concludes, “Men and women of today lead parallel lives and their clothing needs to perform similar functions. It is only a matter of time before gender-neutral fashion goes mainstream.”

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