Iis the spangle perhaps the most glamorous product of evolutionary biology? Psychologists say that humans are attracted to things that shine because our ancestors once looked for the light reflected in rivers in search of water. Now we look elsewhere for sparkle – a diamond ring, a disco ball – and find it to have new meaning beyond survival. Like glamour, or valor, or – in the case of Ashish Gupta, a designer known for his sequin art – freedom.
This month is Ashish’s first retrospective, showcasing 20 years of her brand’s hand-embroidered sequined clothing, such as the zardozi robe, a South Asian method of gold-thread embroidery, and the pink T-shirt with the slogan “Fall in love and be more tender”, and sparkly pieces worn by stars such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Debbie Harry. Entering his London home is like stepping backstage – he’s replaced the front door panels with red glass, so we’re bathed for a quiet minute in dim light. He designed the kitchen countertops to house huge planters, and lush trees grow toward the glass roof. There are stone busts, Indian paintings on glass, and stacks of books, but no sequins. They are all presumably about work currently on display at the William Morris Gallery in east London. “The curator said,” Gupta smiles, “’This is really interesting to me because this is the first time I’ve worked with a live artist.’ And I said, ‘Well, we still have three months left, you never know what might happen!’” Revisiting his archive at age 47 has been a strange experience, “a bit surreal actually. You kind of travel back in time. In a way, it feels like a lifetime has gone by too quickly.”
He never planned to start a record label. Growing up in Delhi, Gupta lined her walls with pages from fashion magazines and moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins. When he graduated in 2000, he was invited to Paris for interviews at design studios, but while at Gare du Nord, his portfolio, containing all of his work (along with his money and papers), was stolen. He had nothing to show for all his years of study and no chance of getting a job.
“It was devastating! One of the most horribly painful experiences of my life. The police thought it was funny. They told me to check the bins around the station. It was shortly after that, though, that he got a call. A friend wore one of her embroidered blouses shopping, and a Browns shopper asked where she bought it. They wanted to place an order. He returned to India, produced a small collection, big on glamour, and (long story short) Ashish, the brand, was born.
But, “In the early 2000s, the world was a very different place, in terms of just being a brown person in fashion. I guess people didn’t expect me to stick around for long.” He struggled for years to gain UK citizenship, which added particularly heavy pressure to his work, and when he started touring, he found himself typecast. “I was called things like ‘Bollywood designer’ or ‘Hindu designer’, which I didn’t quite understand the relevance of. I wanted to be judged on what I was doing, not my identity.”
Recently though, he has started to lean towards his heritage. “I’m Indian, I have my own look, which comes from my feeling of having grown up in a certain country, so there are references to which I react differently. The way I use color, for example, things that are so ingrained. Everything you do is through your eyes, your lived experience – whether you are an immigrant or a queer person.” He feels more comfortable exploring this today, through “the idea of dual culture clothing. Like, I remember Indira Gandhi, when she would travel abroad, she would make her sari out of silk, but then she would wear a fur coat over it. This interesting clash of east and west. And in queues at Heathrow you’ll see Indian women wearing a sari with a big cardigan and sneakers. I have explored this a lot in my work, which becomes a bit political. Because it’s about dress codes and how people react, what message you’re sending.”
Last year, Gupta photographed a collection in India for the first time, featuring clothes inspired by Indian film magazines and velvet quilts her family bought in the 1970s. all elevated to new levels of glamor with its dense embroidered sequins.
In 2016, bewildered and upset by Brexit, Gupta bowed at the end of his London concert in a T-shirt that read “Immigrant”. It was an attempt to regain the word, show pride and seek compassion. It sold out instantly. “The older I get, the more I think about the political situation and its structures. This constant dialogue, for example, about immigration makes me very upset. It’s completely insensitive. It’s almost as if people don’t understand the traumas immigrants go through. And even if you look at the vocabulary around you – when people from the west move to countries in the so-called ‘developing world’, they call themselves expats. The word immigrant happens to be reserved for people of color moving to predominantly white countries, which I find very interesting because I haven’t yet found the difference between the two.”
It is a subject that disturbs and distracts him. He hopes art and fashion will remain a voice of dissent, but (he admits, shuffling in his chair) he remains concerned. “I emigrated here to build a life and I don’t consider myself different from other people. But obviously I’m seen as different by some people. When Brexit happened it was very sad, because now there is a whole generation of young people who will be deprived of so many experiences, it’s a shame, isn’t it? When you think about food and fashion and you just fall in love… it sucks. Why wouldn’t you want that?” This government, he adds, “instead of trying to fix real problems – energy prices, the environment, trade with Europe, which from recent personal experience I can tell you continues to be an unmitigated disaster, is trying to detour by blaming refugees. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so cruel and tragic. Privileged people who have such a lack of humanity and empathy should not be in these positions of power.”
When he wore the T-shirt, “I felt like an immigrant,” Gupta laughs. But the subject also creeps into his work in less obvious ways. Growing up in Delhi, homosexuality was illegal and he dreamed of moving to New York, or Paris, or London, “a world of escapism and fabulousness. Sequins remind me of that, of big cities at night. Because cities have always been a haven for people, or communities, that didn’t feel like the norm. For gays who come from small towns, the city’s nightlife becomes a kind of refuge. Wearing sequins reminds me of that idea, of not being hidden.”
The clothes Gupta creates use sequins to distract and deceive the eye, with trompe l’oeil effects and unexpected references. The lure of glitter seems paramount – that ancient pursuit of water – but in her 20s working with sequins, making her own fabrics, hand embroidering them (they’re the opposite of fast or throwaway fashion – a typical dress costs around £ 2000), figuring out how best to help them catch the light, Gupta had time to dig deeper. “Part of my attraction to sequins is that collision of high and low taste. When I started designing, they really had this kind of dubious party dress association. I love a little bad taste, so that was part of it.” He strokes his beard as he thinks. “The other thing is this idea of glamour. The word comes from the idea of witches casting a spell. So it’s a very powerful association. And I think of the golden age of Hollywood and how sequins appear in film. There’s such a magical quality about them. Also, the danger and beauty that I associate with nightlife – you want to be seen, but there’s a mystery there. They light you up,” he nods, a sort of casual admiration. “It is a very magical medium.” Today, he’s wearing an orange shirt in a soft psychedelic pattern. Does he ever wear sequins? “No. I like having a little distance. They feel like… I don’t mean ‘sacred’? But I think I like being on the outside, looking in. He looks a little embarrassed.
Pulling past work into the retrospective, Gupta was pleasantly surprised to find… was it fabulous? Like the older piece, from 2003: “It’s like the most country rugby shirt in the world”, in gold and silver stripes, which arose “from the idea of taking something hypermasculine, fetishizing it and subverting it”. And the bags, where he reinvented plastic supermarket bags in sequins – instead of Tesco, the letters spelled out Disco. Instead of M&S, S&M. “They had a gentle humor about them. But it was also that idea of taking something throwaway from everyday life and making it really special, elevating it.” He shrugs. “It’s a really cool thing, being able to create joy. I am grateful for that.”
In the past, Gupta has booked vacations – flights, hotels, packed her bags, but has not been able to make it to the airport. “I don’t think I’ve had more than four days off in the last 20 years,” he shudders. “Running a small fashion business is difficult and it is very difficult to disengage. But there are so many other things I would like to do!” He would like to take more pictures, for example. He would like to do gardening, he would like to design more interiors and “I would like to write a book about sex”. Oh yeah? He has so many stories, he says. And it’s a subject he’s close to because, “We often dress to undress. So when I design a dress, I think about how easy it is to take off – I always use zippers. And I love pockets. I once lent an overcoat to [redacted A-list celebrity] and when I took it back, there was a pair of panties in the pocket. I thought, well, she had a great time!” The ultimate compliment.
When he says gabardine, of course, it’s important to realize what he means is something more like a sculpture in the form of a gabardine, but painstakingly handcrafted from discs and cotton. When we talk about politics, about that dismal year of Brexit and Trump, he remembers being at a rally and seeing a shiny gold sign that said: ‘Fight the gloom with glitter!’ “I was very inspired by that,” he says. “And – the sequins are kind of a protest in themselves, aren’t they?” A protest against what? He thinks. “A protest against fucking softness!”
Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender, is at the William Morris Gallery, Forest Road, London E17 4PP (wmgallery.org.uk) from 1st April to 10th September 2023