the ashish exhibition is a bright and healing balm for troubled times
“To be able to make somebody happy when they put on a piece of your clothing, that makes me really happy" Ashish Gupta tells woo about their new exhibition
words Zoe Whitfield
When curators from The Met asked to loan a couple of Ashish looks in 2019, designer Ashish Gupta was unfamiliar with Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, on which that year’s exhibition (and star-studded gala) was based.
“I was just like, ‘oh, this is interesting’,” he recalls of his subsequent reading. Four years on, a passage from the 1964 essay accompanies Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender, a major retrospective of the designer’s work at the William Morris Gallery in London. Echoing the phrase emblazoned on a pink sequin t-shirt that featured in the earlier New York exhibition, Fall in Love and Be More Tender was co-curated with the gallery’s Roisin Inglesby and Joe Scotland of Studio Voltaire, with whom Gupta published his 2019 book, GAZE.
Initially formulated over the pandemic, when Gupta suddenly realised his label was 20 years old (“normally I would have said let’s just have a dinner, but it was lockdown”) the exhibition explores two decades of the designer’s colourful archive, showcasing more than 60 designs and a specially commissioned image series, made between India and Walthamstow with the photographer, Ashish Shah. “The stars aligned a bit and the gallery actually got in touch,” clarifies Gupta.“ They really liked the parallels of my practice with how William Morris worked, which has a lot to do with making things by hand and the work being quite intensive; a lot of the values aligned.” Indeed, his pieces are produced in a workshop in India by artisans with whom he has a long-established relationship, using methods that ensure minimal wastage (only the necessary fabric is ever embellished).
Since launching the label in 2001, off the back of an order from iconic London store Browns, Gupta has been influential in the case for year-round sparkles: sequins are a core part of the Ashish formula, and his clothes have been worn by Charli XCX, Hunter Schafer and Rihanna. In tandem with the exhibition, he worked on a series of custom looks for Taylor Swift’s Eras tour too. Born in Delhi and now largely based in London, the designer first became enthralled with sequins while watching The Wizard of Oz. “I must have been 20 or 21 because I actually first watched it when I moved to England,” he explains. “That’s probably my earliest sequin memory, those red ruby slippers.”
As well as oversized tees and party frocks, the label’s sequin assault extends to socks, baseball shirts and carrier bags: the latter has become something of a cult item since arriving in 2013. “I just thought it was quite funny and sweet at the time. It was nice to take something we all take for granted and elevate it into something funny,” explains Gupta of the bags, which subverted the branding of recognisable British supermarkets into queer-coded slogans, (M&S became S&M, TESCO became DISCO, and a pair of striped numbers mirrored corner shop carriers). “But obviously there’s deeper meanings – disco is so associated with gay culture and black culture,” he continues, acknowledging the subtext of his work. For all the surface-level glitz, glam and lolz of his clothes, in the background there’s often a reference to identity, be it gender, sexuality, race or class (and sometimes all four). Similarly, the exchange and interplay between Western and Indian aesthetics underscores the bulk of his archive.
“I have always been politically engaged, but I haven't necessarily been vocal about it. I got to the point in my work where I felt I had enough of a platform to be able to engage with it, around the same time as a lot of big, political and cultural shifts were happening,” says the designer, alluding to the powerful Immigrant t-shirt he had printed the night before his SS17 show, which he later wore to take his bow. “It’s very close to me. I'm an immigrant, my grandparents were refugees, I understand that trauma, and how hurtful it can be to listen to people discussing you and your history without the slightest understanding of what it might be. So those things made me go, ‘what can I do? How can I say it?’” The immediate response was overwhelming he says, with his DMs full of people sharing their stories.
Furthermore, the influence of Oz on Ashish is twofold. Beyond the ruby slippers, for AW17 Gupta considered the political undertones of the Judy Garland classic, which ultimately led the Yellow Brick Road show, described by Vogue at the time as “a passionate, loving, and bold appeal for resistance and solidarity aimed squarely at the USA”. A nod to the then recently inaugurated president Trump, the designer sent rainbows, snowflakes and slogan-heavy looks down the catwalk in a stirring display, which visitors can watch at the new exhibition. “It was very significant, and is still very relevant if you think about the stuff going on with refugees, immigration, trans people's rights, abortion rights in America,” explains Gupta. “That was a reason to dedicate a third of this show to it, because it just speaks to lots of people and raises issues people should think and be talking about.”
In the case of the original Fall in Love and Be More Tender tee, which featured in the show and is on display alongside the video, the designer put his heart on his sleeve. “It felt like a very intense and important feeling to me, for the world we were – and continue to be – in. There’s a lot of anger, aggression and cruelty in the world generally, and I think love and tenderness are very underrated, important feelings,” says the designer, whose own joy, he shares, comes from making other people smile. “To be able to make somebody happy, when they put on a piece of your clothing, that makes me really happy. Also, for me to have a business doing what I love – being accepted, earning a living, paying my taxes – for 20 years in fashion as an independent brand, and to still be doing it? That feels important.”
A vital figure within the changing landscape of the fashion industry, the designer’s focus on wider society is only set to continue with the retrospective. “I'd love young people to see it,” he replies to a question about audiences. “It’s so important to make art and culture accessible, especially to young people. The way the government is clamping down, cutting funding, is a travesty. You want young people to have the hope that if they want to do something creative, they can.” In Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender, the positive role model energy is offset by the label’s cheeky one-liners and backed by genuinely beautiful pieces, while Gupta’s own approach to life he explains, is informed by the notion that tomorrow might not come. Ultimately, he posits, “Would you rather find a moment of pleasure, or sit and do your taxes?”
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