Kallol Datta: “We Need More Angry Designers”
My beard. My hair. My kurta. My cropped shalwar. My jewelry in Urdu script. My hijabs. My usage of black. Friends and acquaintances have brought them up as a point of concern. That people will think I am a Muslim. That it’ll bring about unnecessary attention when I travel, especially international travel. That they find it intimidating. That I won’t be welcomed in certain establishments in this country.
In times of political and economic instability, expressing the conditions of your immediate environment is important. “…And those indulging in arson can be identified by their clothes.” When the person who occupies the highest office in the country, at a rally in Dumka, Jharkhand, December 2019 makes a remark like this, the act of a person donning a garment is under the scanner. Within the fashion industry, surely clothes making must be anthropological? Especially when what you wear makes you an immediate marker of your community. When invariably clothing becomes your first line of defense. Or conversely it becomes your first act of providing relief.
The everyday habit of wearing clothes has always been a political act. When the Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi, in 1923, was returning from the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome. When her train arrived in Cairo, she drew the veil back from her face as she stepped out. This unimaginable act elicited loud applause from the women waiting on the train platform to greet her. The second, more recent, act of resistance with the aid of clothing was in 2019 when the image of Sudanese architecture student Alaa Salah went viral. Salah was at a rally speaking against the 30-year rule of Omar al-Bashir, amidst widespread protests in the country. Salah wore her mother’s thobe (an ankle-length garment similar to a kaftan, commonly worn in the Arabian peninsula), which in itself became the marker of female protestors in Sudan.
Photographer Lana Haroun’s image of Alaa Salah resonated not just with protestors in Khartoum but with the NAWA (North African Western Asia) diaspora. By wearing her mother’s thobe Salah brought into focus memories of women in the 70s and 80s protesting against previous brutal military regimes. Female protestors were now being referred to as ‘Kandaka’ – the Roman word used to describe Nubian queens who passed down their legacy of stability and women’s rights to the present generation.
We run labels and production houses where one hears – ‘No one cares about the story. People just want clothes.’ Or ‘…we have a business to run.’ But is it enough to create a seasonal body of work and put out press releases stating how you were inspired by a random flower to make this line of clothing?
We have calls for representation in boardrooms, cinema, art, politics and education. Why not in fashion? Not tokenistic or dangerous gestures – having a random show dedicated to the repeal of Section 377 while homophobia is rampant in the industry is meaningless, as is a show to promote the sari when the sari never needed saving to begin with. We’ve done irreversible damage by not catering to a segment of the population in this country when we’re making clothes. We’ve chosen to tell them that they don’t matter, they obviously do not have any interest in fashion and that we’re still interested in their money if they choose to ‘clandestinely’ come to our studios to place private orders.
How do we make meaningful clothing which best captures the zeitgeist? We’ve got to get ourselves and our design assistants out of our privileged, ideologically isolationist bubble, step out and see what is happening. Read up better. Engage with our communities, neighbourhoods and cities on a more visceral level. We cannot churn out 40 ensembles in a runway show and call it a sustainable line, without even addressing the manner in which fashion consumption is impacting the industry. It should be taken for granted that we’ve adopted sustainable practices in our craft, that we’re using raw materials indigenous to the region. These cannot be the unique selling points of a label. Good design is what the USP should be.
We have those who we deem outsiders now actively opining and writing about fashion. These ‘outsiders’ do not need to worry about their relationships with designers in calling out a tone-deaf campaign or a misogynistic show. They question notions of gender, private and public spaces, and the body in design. And we feel angry, get defensive about having to read and/or respond to them. But the truth is they have a point – we never have employed critical thinking in clothes making. We’ve lowered ourselves to the thinking of those popular filmmakers who ask us to leave our brains behind when we view their films. We’ve made articulation via design seem like a dumb idea.
Where have all the brave designers gone?
I am so encouraged by the generation of enthusiasts studying in design school now. More of my peers should take time to go to design schools and conduct modules, workshops and mentoring programmes, interact with them on a level to provide more information and transparency about the industry they will be stepping into. We need more risk-takers, disruptors and angry designers. Designers who do not hinge their happiness on what a white journalist will say about their work or what the white-owned store will want to see. And adding to that can we please include West Asian and East Asian history in design schools? We have designers with unbelievably Orientalist outlooks to clothes making because of what they’ve learnt and because of the information that is available to them. Designers also need to value their work more. Our entire design legacy cannot be tied into our incestuous relationship with the Mumbai Hindi language film industry. If that is your only currency then you’re failing as a clothes maker.
If any of this angers you, irks you and you ask yourselves, ‘why is Kallol Datta so ridden with angst all the time?’ – because it is 2020 and we live in an awful ecosystem and I cannot believe that I have to still articulate this..