Arjun Saluja | Journeyman

The avant-garde designer says that for him, androgyny in fashion is an expression of strength, not sexuality

Arjun Saluja’s spectacle frames make him look like a left-wing artist but when you continue to observe him, his trousers—usually a cross between a divided and draped long skirt and easy pants—and his unconventional jackets alert you to an alternative fashion moment. Saluja’s label Rishta is now synonymous with androgynous garments in Indian fashion and, as his friends will tell you, he can be very nonconformist in his entire approach.

The first thing you must take off before you wear Rishta is self-consciousness about your gender or class. Saluja’s last three collections, planned as a trilogy, are now an open-ended pursuit. Construction (inspired by women construction labourers—Fall/Winter 2012), Two Equals One (provoked by Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis—Spring/Summer 2013) and Aik (a mystical pursuit of oneness—Autumn/Winter 2013), all underline androgynous design in clothes. “These are aspects of India the way I see them and I initially wanted to present them as a trilogy but am not sure any more," says Saluja, who founded Rishta 12 years back in New York, US, before moving to India in 2005.

Here, he tells us why androgyny is not an exercise in exploring sexuality but a reiteration of innate strength regardless of gender. Edited excerpts:

Androgyny has always been a recurrent theme in your work. What about it fascinates you so much?

Arjun Saluja.

Your collections are inspired by dark issues, often to do with the underprivileged. How do you relate that to fashion?

Everything has such a “class" issue about it in India that I wanted to show the challenges those women labourers face every day, working in a tough and challenging industry, where the houses they make are never going to be the ones they sleep in. Or, the life of Dimple the eunuch in Narcopolis, who is peculiarly exploited by men. Hers is a gripping story. Sexuality is only a part of that life, the rest is about battling cultural mindsets.

Construction workers are strong women too, as strong as men. I see androgynous power in these roles. The burnished sequins I used for my clothes represent a breach between aspiration and reality; my prints are derived from construction sites and some of the capes I made were about the warmth these women will need when it is winter.

Your most recent collection, Aik, is about mysticism. How do you see it in clothes?

Aik is a journey to a simplistic truth in a complex reality, a minimal space in a maximal cosmos. This multiplicity is explored via the motifs, the prints, layering and beading but it is unified in simplistic and clean, even monastic, silhouettes. At the end of it, it can be a shirt-sari or a sari that has been picked up and tucked into pants. My fashion is not a literal translation of my ideas but my silhouettes reflect my core theme and push a new aesthetic.

You had set out to do a trilogy. Now what?

Yes, I had but now I am not sure, this interpretation of India where segregation by gender and class may go on through fashion for me. I may explore it further through my future collections. Design is a journey and I am hardly done.


Scarlet lesson

Red rocked on the runway this season, making other colours blush

A sari with a military cap by Anju Modi.

She was one of the many who painted the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week (WIFW) red, underlining it as one of the strongest and most visible colour trends of the next season. Red has been a staple on Indian runways but this time its use went beyond the luscious creations of Suneet Varma and Tarun Tahiliani.

An androgynous trouser set in Banarasi brocade by Abraham &Thakore.

Rahul Mishra departed from his now familiar handloom-Chanderi pieces and created caterpillar sleeves on net and lace dresses. But his best reds were in chintz-inspired garments with embroidery on handwoven fabrics. “My red is a deep scarlet," he says.

A scarlet red creation by Rahul Mishra.