Manish Arora’s Roaring Tribute To Drag
Entering Manish Arora’s showcase last night at Lakmé Fashion Week’s new experimental space The Atelier, is like walking into a mood. Known to design with an emotional bent it feels pointless to deconstruct his vision or analyze his looks – it isn’t about the clothes. The signature iridescent fabrics in neon tangerines, pinks and blues, encrusted with layers of sequins and kitschy fluorescent prints – selected from his archive — are only vehicles to drive home the theatricality of the presentation. Seven individuals — “an army of dreamers that defy dogma and definition” wearing elaborate wigs and loud makeup stand on low podiums in a row. One of them has a pair of gnarly wings, another a cape made from polyester hair. As the music picks up, they sway and shimmy, pout and rotate, as the audience walks around them, mesmerised. This rare (and clever) opportunity for closeups was a dream for social media enthusiasts.
Manish Arora first presented this showcase entitled “We are family” at the Spring 2020 Ready-To-Wear show in Paris to celebrate the first anniversary of the abolishment of section 377. In the past, designers who have flirted with similar themes have sometimes faced criticism. Drag Artist Tropical Marca raises some of those questions to me, “Is it another designer using the rainbow to sell their fashion? “Is it a PR strategy?”
For a fashion presentation aiming to make a strong cultural, community-based statement, it becomes important to examine the authenticity of the sentiment which often becomes evident through the designer’s dealings off-the-ramp. Has he worked with the community before? Does he pay members of the community well? Is he paving the way to create more opportunity for members of that community in the fashion world. The answer to all those questions in the case of Arora is, yes.
Fashion’s ability to amplify subaltern voices has not been more evident in India than in Arora’s body of work. He was one of the first designers to openly support and be part of the LGBTQIA+ community, at a time when few were out and proud. His film ‘Holi Holy’ in collaboration with Bharat Sikka in 2013 featured members of the community, as have some of his shows in Delhi before this, even his more commercial collaborations like the one with Koovs last year, featured bomber jackets and denims sporting the words ‘love is love.’ He’s even had male models walk down the runway in women’s clothing – for Arora gender equality has been a sustained effort.
I spot model, performer and makeup artist Jason Arland in the crowd at the showcase wearing a slinky black dress and dancing to the song ‘We are family’ by Sister Sledge as it blares through the space. I catch him outside later: “I’m almost teary,” he tells me, “I feel so proud to be queer. To see all my sisters, my fellow drag queens inside living their fantasy, was emotional.”
Tropical Marca agrees, “When mainstream path makers like Arora shed more light on our family, it makes me feel stronger.” While Arora’s unabashed message shows a generation of designers it’s possible for fashion to be political, Arland signs off on a more pragmatic note. “In 2015, in the fashion world, it was all about feminism, in 2018 it was about LGBTQ rights and now it’s about gender fluidity and drag. This is all great, but have we solved any of these issues? Even just within the fashion industry?”