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India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
October 12, 2020

Home At Last

Text by Akanksha Pandey. Photographed by Aishwaryshree

The Delhi-based Leh Studios’ free-thinking ethos is a post-COVID prototype for design brands

It was like staring into a mirror when I first saw Himi. Both of us were running late for student orientation day at a design school in Lucknow and, from a short distance away, trying to figure out if the person in front of us was a girl or a boy (small towns had no gender awareness a decade ago). We looked the same: skinny and brown with short hair, androgynous. We became friends instantly and were inseparable during the time we had together. We were called names and made fun of for how we dressed; the strong doses of gloss on the verge of dripping off our lips stood out under 90s Sanjay Dutt hairdos, or better yet, we were Rekha from Khoon Bhari Maang (after the surgery).

Two years later, while shooting a street style project outside Kalkaji in New Delhi, I bumped into Himi who was interning at Péro as part of his design module at NIFT Shillong. I clearly recall what he was wearing — a yellow cardigan secured around his waist with a brown leather belt, white shorts teamed with rainbow socks and chunky Adidas sneakers. Later that year, I ran into him again; this time he was sporting a deconstructed asymmetrical knit top and microscopic shorts. His aesthetic was a shocker for me since my own style had begun to lean toward normcore (like if Acne married Celine). Even so, I was supportive. It felt very normal for me to protect him from the dirty gaze, the intentional rubbing of hands on private parts on public transport, or to indulge in fights with shopkeepers or anyone who aimed sleazy comments at him. But by then he had grown immune to this.

After we finished college, we had another reunion, and this time he looked like an average guy his age but with a personality and mind of his own – sneakers and jeans topped with a t-shirt and a brain brimming with ideas. I was curious about the change; we discussed how outrageous his look used to be and what a nightmare it was for the teachers. Now, however, he had come to realise that he was done with rebel mode. Wanting to look like a sexy girl wasn’t his authentic identity. I recall the instance when we both bought an identical pair of denim dungarees while shopping together. It dawned on us then that clothing – or the idea of dressing up – is not meant for a conditioned version of gender but instead intended to dress who we truly are and complement the thoughts that make up that person.

And Himi’s journey of self-realisation has manifested into a clothing brand. Leh Studios is a space that’s free of constraints and brings together Indian handicrafts at the heart of its design process. Here, neither age, sex, shape, caste, religion nor race form the identity of the designs or audience. It’s a free world.

Excerpts from a conversation with the young designer…

Introduce yourself
I graduated from NIFT Shillong with a degree in design, where I focused on studying the elementary of proportions along with developing a design language deeply rooted in the Indian lifestyle. Having grown up in the late ‘90s and early ‘2000s in Farrukhabad, the ancestral heritage of the city acts as a suggestive backdrop in my body of work even though I’ve modernised it with my new-age philosophies. The basic moral is to employ interdisciplinary research in order to “think global, act local”, and there is a milieu of memories and disciplines I access in order to take inspiration to play at Leh Studios.

Considering the abundance of fashion brands with a strong foothold in the industry, what prompted you to launch your own?
I stepped into the world of style via FashionTV and lifestyle magazines at the age of seven. With Leh Studios, I aim to establish a landscape for urban designs inspired by Indian culture, especially in a post-COVID world, where the consumption of fast fashion will hopefully reduce and the South Asian culture of investing in handmade pieces will thrive.

What is your vision for Leh Studios? What were your influences when you were conceptualising it?
It’s too early to think about a specific vision right now because Leh is still a baby. I envisioned the label as being free of prejudices and malice; it would have the child-like quality of accepting differences without judgment and be built on the foundation of the alter ego that one hesitates to display in public. I’m influenced by my childhood memories, personal experiences and the hand-me-downs from my elder siblings that I wore purely to “fit in” as a fashion student. Even then, I subtly restructured ancestral tucks, pleats, folds, hand stitchings, hand knots, weaves and textiles, an approach which now forms the spine of my label. The idea is to fully optimise the raw material. With Leh, I strive to produce consciously and am therefore working towards reviving the made-to-order culture, which has a 45-day delivery period on artisanal handmade garments. I hope to find a balance within our culture and Western influences to create products that speak of reality while placed in constructed settings.

Who is your target audience?
I think that if my work connected with anyone, in any way that would give meaning to my creations, they would become part of my target audience. And that could be a 45-year-old art lover who takes a fancy to our open-back dress in creased canvas denim or a Gen Zer finding bliss in our handloom khadi mould denim basics.

Tell us about the sustainable elements of your production and business.
An entire community of artisans has worked towards reviving the Swadeshi movement by creating fabrics like indigo or kohl khadi denim for Leh. Handwoven linens and cotton silks form part of the core category of my business.

A host of bloggers, influencers and stylists are now diversifying into the business of making clothes. Do you think this undermines the role of a designer in any way?
I feel like it has been a long time coming. The current crop of creative individuals in our community has been working towards expanding their medium of expression, which is needed more than ever this constantly evolving world. Storytelling is everyone’s right, and there’s no reason why designers should monopolise it.

Who are the new generation of artists on your radar?
Anvita Sharma (founder and creator at Two Point Two), Shraddha Kochhar (co-founder at LOTA), TR/ST (Canadian electronic music band), Tyler Mitchell (American photographer) and Eric N. Mack (American painter, multi-media installation artist and sculptor).

The pandemic has accelerated the demise of high street fashion, forcing brands to optimise their online offerings and restructure the retail experience. How do you plan on doing this with Leh Studios?
I actually started operations in November last year, before the pandemic hit us. I had my days of overthinking, but I just decided to take the plunge in the end and let my heart lead me. I’m trying to face the challenges and adversities head on, considering I’m an outsider in this industry and numbers don’t come easily. However, I have faith in my capabilities and believe that Leh Studios will be a profitable business. I’m currently working on setting up my e-shop, which is set to go live on October 15th and will include detailed descriptions of the procedures and materials involved in the production process.

What plans do you have for the launch since it’s unlikely to be an offline event?
Virtual presentations are gathering steam in these unusual times, and, in any case, I find them easier to execute than press previews and physical launches. Our ACT-001 campaign titled Home Sweet Home is a collaboration between friends and the people I work with, and it helps set the tone for the launch of our website.

How have your previous stints with Lovebirds, Rahul Mishra and Péro influenced your design approach?
Being a part of some of the most ethical Indian labels like Péro, Rahul Mishra and Lovebirds has helped me to understand the value of “togetherness” that binds the energy and emotions of the founder to his/her label. My aim is to infuse that same synergy into my label.

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