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Fashion
July 17, 2020

Body of Work

Text by Prashant Verma. Photographed by Kalpesh Lathigra, assisted by Akanksha Goel. Styled by Akanksha Pandey

Harikrishnan is an ex-competitive bodybuilder who is now a fashion designer. Yup, welcome to the new generation. The narrative has changed.

Having recently graduated from the MA Fashion Design programme at the London College of Fashion with a collection that came through as one of the strongest, if not the most precise student collections of the season, Hari is extremely grateful for all the rave reviews and extensive press coverage. But, it’s not difficult to see that some of those write-ups completely missed acknowledging the breadth and depth of his work and turned instead to the cringeworthy approach of simply telling their readers they could wear his “edgy trousers” with crop tops and look “fabulous”.  

A graduate collection is serious work, and that is why it requires an entire year of pure research and multiple jury presentations before you can even begin to make the clothes. But, this is also where the fun begins. Because in the middle of all the planning and precision, life happens. When I ask Hari what got him thinking in the direction he eventually chose – the answer is not half as dramatic as the visuals of his work. Anti-climactic even, I would say, yet it explains so much.

It was on an ordinary, sunny day while playing with his dog when (much like one of those slow motion moments of a film, in which the camera suddenly freezes on the protagonist’s eyes and a voice-over begins) Hari gazed into the eyes of Kai and wondered what he looked like to his furry friend. To be a human and imagine how the world appears through another species’ visual perception — from that angle, that lens, that exaggeration, that distortion….

“Visualising the world through his eyes was exciting and humorous, with strange possibilities in terms of scale and proportion. The thought of him seeing me as a giant figure or not seeing my head at all was quite puzzling. So I decided to reimagine the people around me through this game of distortion, inspired by his eyes.” Well, you know what they say – whatever floats your boat, Hari. Whatever floats your boat. 

This obsession with distorting body parts wasn’t something new. It was as if the idea of “visual sculpture” had set up its tent in Hari’s imagination when he was just a little boy. Hari recalls a gift from his father – a book about the human anatomy — that brought a new direction into his life. What began as a curious fascination for a high school kid (Hari began drawing exaggerated versions of the muscular figures from the book), soon morphed into a desire to become one of them. The body was his medium now, on paper and in life, but he had no clue where this was taking him. He only knew one truth: he had to get out of his hometown to find his path in the world.  

“One thing I learned from bodybuilding is the importance of having a vision  and a unique one at that. It is a sport where you need to dig deep, understand yourself, physically and mentally, and then set out to make the best version of you. It could be the way you enhance the proportions of your physique or the presentation of those proportions or a combination of both. I guess I applied the same to my practice in fashion as well. It helped me interpret and enjoy the beauty of proportions and open my mind to accept and celebrate the extremes.” 

Over our conversations, many references came to my mind as I dug deeper into his process and experienced his imagery as a designer. His work reminded me of Kansai Yamamoto’s dramatic costumes for David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust era and of the countertenor Klaus Nomi’s unusual stage appearances, and, for some reason, I kept imagining a bizarre hybrid of glam rock singer Cole Berlin, aka Jobriath, in the ’80s and Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman Returns. Hari took me down the rabbit hole of his research: photographer Jean-Paul Goude, the shape-shifting work of Maria Blaisse, sculptor Peter Sheldon, and the nudes by photographer Bill Brandt. And those nudes then took me back to the great painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, particularly to “The Turkish Bath”. I talk of these research points because therein lies the foundation for a conversation of life that Hari will go on to explore in his own work in fashion, through the elements and ideas that have been reflected back to him in the work of these heroes. When you put these disparate images and characters together, there emerges an energy previously unexperienced. A beginning – a fresh ‘vision’ – unique, untouched and unexplored. It’s still blurry at this new starting point, but it’s the same vision that Hari will continue to ‘chase’ in his artistic endeavours. This will be the chaos that he will have to control. The imagined wellspring that he will have to bring to life. 

So from Bowie and Blaisse to the Penguin, from Goude and Brandt to Ingres – each one leads us back to where Hari began: the perception of the human body. What connects his designs is not volume, size, symmetry or design, but rather a more uncomfortable word. “Voluptuousness”. This distortion from the ‘normal’, a ‘weird’ perspective that magnifies and scales down with utmost specificity and such control, creates a form that is an invitation into the unfamiliar — animal-like, surreal. Glossy latex blow-up pants seem amphibian-like when you take into account the texture of the glossed-up beads that he has obsessively sewn together like a layer of wet flesh. The latex inflated with air, enlarges the calves like the hind legs of a beast, and strange thighs and hot-air balloonesque coloured stripes further contort scale with optic play. None of it makes sense, but it all comes together. The garment is like a Salvador Dali painting titled “Portrait of Bjork as Aladdin’s Trousers”. Not that it exists, but you get the picture.  

Hari’s work is not only about exaggeration and hot-air balloons, however. There are the beautiful details, like the beads, which are handmade by the artisanal wooden toymakers of the South Indian village of Channapatna, home to one of the oldest crafts of India dating back to the 18th century. And seventy nine thousand of those perfectly finished, lacquered beads are the emotional centre of Hari’s collection. Months spent with a community that was so enthusiastic to experiment with him, has Hari claiming it to have been the most wonderful experience in all of this. And they bonded over the fact that the project was a first for all of them. While he was stressing over deadlines, the craftspeople, on the other hand, were simply enjoying the process of making something new. The minute he was able to silence his mind and live in that moment — like a child – the year-and-a-half of anxiety and sleepless nights seemed to fade away. Hari slipped into yet another slow-motion moment from a film, this time to when the camera pans out into an endless, hopeful sky.

“Designers should invest time in revolutionising material technology and disruptive manufacturing techniques. This is an approach where you think about consequences before production rather than dealing with the waste. But, sadly, that’s a very hard job to do. And yes, it is not very Instagram-friendly or celebrity-endorsed, resulting in an industry where we still encourage patchwork, upcycling and recycling and so-called zero-waste techniques. It’s high time we move out of this track. The only way we could contribute to clean air or land is when we close the loop in a much more efficient way. 

Also, it’s high time we broaden the concept of “success” in fashion. There are so many designers investing their time and effort to create new materials like MarinaTex. What they need is encouragement and collaborations in mainstream fashion to develop it further and let it evolve. Currently, these innovators are not considered designers and are often neglected by organisations like the fashion councils that hold power, money and audiences. This is partly due to the industry’s perception of success as presenting in prestigious fashion weeks or winning the big prizes. That needs to change. Now.” 

Bringing things back to fashion school, where it all begins (for many of us at least),  Hari and I both agree that the point of this story is not to help someone who’s just scrolling through an article to kill time while waiting at a dentist appointment, or someone who only wants to browse through beautiful fashion pictures. It’s for those who are hungry to go ahead, do something big, make a change and leave their mark on the world. There is nothing more wasteful and damaging — to the environment or spirit — than bad ideas, sloppy research and a lazy artist. If you have an idea and an opportunity, dig deeper, work harder and tap into something innovative that truly comes from within you. And you’ll save the world by inspiring others to work even harder. Change the very notion of success. Otherwise, well, you’ll never know.

Prashant Verma is an actor, singer, writer and fashion designer. 

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