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Fashion
November 30, 2017

Ujjawal Dubey On Knowing Exactly What Style-Conscious Men Want

Text by Tina Dastur

He lets us in on Antar-Agni’s design ethic, fascination for all things technical and how he’s managed to successfully marry the two

In an industry that caters primarily to the female form, it really does take someone of substance to break the mould and accomplish the extraordinary. When it comes to men’s fashion in India, Ujjawal Dubey’s name springs to mind almost instantaneously; the 29-year-old designer has, in a matter of three years, carved a unique niche for himself in a field that was neglected for the longest time.

Raised in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Dubey was always interested in public spaces, furniture, architecture and sustainable product design, but was particularly enamoured by the technical aspect of things such as the workings of suspensions and hydraulics in automobiles. His fascination led him to dabble in projects that included creating sculptures out of metal and wood and even designing bus seats at an artist commune in Noida. Although he initially applied to study furniture design, the plan fell through and he was left striking out the failed options and looking at what he was left with. In this process, Dubey enrolled in the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Kolkata, in 2006, and it was there that he understood the meaning of the word ‘design’, when he was persuaded into studying textile design by a friend. His time at NIFT coupled with an exchange programme at the Queensland University of Brisbane, Australia, not only broadened his thought process but also made him more pliable as a designer in his embracing of the unknown.

Even as he honed his theoretical skills, Dubey was in search of an opportunity that would expose him to the practical, hands-on aspect of design — and this opportunity presented itself soon after his graduation, when he got the chance to intern as a graphic designer for acclaimed Indian designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil on their sportswear collaboration with Adidas. “More than the aesthetic, what really inspired me was them as individuals and their work ethic,” says Dubey, of his time spent working there. Even though he eventually began working full-time with the designers, his yearning to do more with fabrics and explore the technical side of fashion designing prompted him to take a bold step and branch out solo. Although he designs for both sexes, his fascination with all things technical has led him to focus on men’s fashion in particular. “With men’s garments, the challenge lies in ensuring a technical level of tailoring while still maintaining a keen eye for detail,” states Dubey. And it was thus that his brand Antar-Agni was born.

After consistently working on defining his craft, Dubey decided to take the plunge and enter into the Gen Next programme at Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) in 2014. The concept of his show, titled No Longer The Hunted, saw its origins in the barren yet beautiful landscape of Afghanistan, with the inspiration springing from the designer’s obsession with the way the country was described in Khaled Hosseini’s very first epic, The Kite Runner. So invested was Dubey in the story that he went the whole nine yards by growing an Afghani beard and sporting relaxed, breathable fits just so he could get a realistic sense of Afghani culture. Dhotis, palazzos, jackets and draped kurtas crafted from malkha cotton, khadi and hand-woven cotton linens made up his collection, which, interestingly enough, was created using the help of only one womenswear tailor. And so, the clothes were cut very loose in an attempt to allow the fabric’s appeal to ascertain what could be created out of it. In fact, it was through this landmark showcase that his affinity for his signature drapes was born.

“Antar-Agni literally means ‘the fire within’,” explains the Noida-based designer, elaborating, “The brand is focused on individual style and is all about enhancing oneself. If I had to define the aesthetic, I would term it ‘Eastern-inclined, updated classics, with global appeal’.” Today, it is easy to identify Dubey’s garments on the runway — or on the street — because of their distinct aesthetic, which fits comfortably into the anti-fit space, with their blend of structured yet fluid drapes and a sharp-yet-relaxed silhouette. Moreover, Dubey places great emphasis on his selection of fabric (he tends to favour raw Indian textiles) and uses dull, earthy hues of blacks, greys, navy and rust for his clothes — with the occasional pastel peeping through — because he “doesn’t connect to colour as such”. Another differentiating factor that sets his garments apart from the regular menswear that fills designer boutiques in the country is their androgynous nature.

Because most of his clothes do not conform to any one sex, a sizeable number of his female clients ends up picking up attire from the brand’s menswear collection.

Elaborating on his career choices and daring ­— and not to mention, risky — transition to menswear, Dubey highlights, “It was important for me to start on my own because I wanted to learn constantly and grow intellectually. I had this unending curiosity, which pushed me…and still does.” Emboldened by the positive response at LFW, he focused his attention on creating outfits that were individualistic in design and had personality. The outcome of this philosophy is quite plainly seen in Antar-Agni’s creations — because of their flexibility and versatility, they are not limited to and cannot be compartmentalised into a specific category, as is the case with most men’s clothes in the country. Dubey’s garments are for those who don’t need unnecessary frills and prefer a simpler yet stronger aesthetic that reflects their individualism. “I believe more in style than fashion. And I don’t think I am a ‘fashion’ designer; just a designer,” he opines. “I think it’s important to wear something that keeps you comfortable and confident, projects the right attitude and differentiates you from the rest. It’s good to have that statement of your own.”

Earlier this year, Dubey’s solid body of work saw him bag the prestigious 2017/18 International Woolmark Prize, Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East regional final, in the menswear category, giving him an added boost in the right direction. His collection, which was inspired by the nomadic tribesman of India, came to life via fabrics like zari silk blended with Merino wool and techniques such as knitting and handloom weaving. His winning look was a striking woven twill salwar-kurta set, with a neatly draped layer around one shoulder ­— apt, given his brand’s unconventional take on menswear.

With his honest work ethic, attention to eco-friendly Indian fabrics and determination to create something new and exciting for Indian men, it’s hardly surprising that Dubey’s brand is fast gaining worldwide attention, with Bollywood celebrities Ranbir Kapoor, Arjun Kapoor and Sushant Singh Rajput already flaunting Antar-Agni creations. But even as he amasses global attention, the unassuming designer is busy putting in place the finishing touches to his collection, designed for the International Woolmark Prize global finals to be held early next year. And while he continues to add new dimensions to menswear in India and reduce the glaring gap that currently exists in the fashion market, Dubey signs off with his thoughts on why men’s fashion in India can be fun for budding designers who choose to take it up. “Menswear is very challenging because men don’t like to experiment too much…and there is only so much you can do to push them. So, to create something new each time with this sort of restriction is all the more exciting!”

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