Louder and prouder: Activist ALOK and designer Manish Arora discuss life and fashion through the queer lens

MA: Fashion was always about taking risks.

ALOK: Yes, and I’ve always admired the way that you cast your shows because I’ve seen people whom I’ve followed as an artist included there. For a long time, casting a model meant finding someone who was supposed to be only a canvas for the designer. But with you, it seems like
you are working with artists who already have a very developed personality or sense of style, and it feels more collaborative—like you are accentuating what they’re bringing to the table in terms of their art. What is your approach to casting?

MA: The era of using models as hangers, quite literally, was so early 2000s. I don’t believe in it. I consider myself more of a visual director than just a fashion designer. So for me, it’s all about who’s wearing it, where it is… I sometimes even adapt my collection to the characters that I’m going to use on my show. For example, drag performer Charity Kase wanted to wear this kind of a creature-y mask with a big mouth. I said okay, let’s match the garment with that. This is my family. In fact I call my shows ‘We are Family’ Part 1, Part 2… Because this is my chosen family.

ALOK: Always. The biggest argument I had with my mother was when I was packing up to go to college. I had around five suitcases of clothes and I was persistent on bringing them up.

MA: Guess what, I’ve highlighted that part in my research. I knew I needed to talk to you about it because when I left my family to go study fashion in Delhi, it was drama. But then I asked myself, why did I want to leave? Of course I wanted to learn fashion, but another reason was that I wanted to be free. And I’m talking about India in 1991—it was not easy to express yourself. Coming from a very simple Punjabi family born and brought up in Mumbai’s suburbs, the only escape was to study. Now India is changing. Do you go to India?

ALOK: I do. I tend to spend a month there every year. I also see a change thanks to people like you. You left in 1991 and that’s the year I was born. So, in so many ways, the kind of freedom that your generation was styling for us made it easier for us to come in and expand. I recently lost my aunt, a very prominent lesbian Indian feminist and activist here in the United States, and the importance of intergenerational connection has become very clear to me. My generation always thinks that we’re unprecedented or we’re the first, but people were dealing with the same dynamics, same crisis and pushbacks decades and centuries prior to us. There may have been a different language at that time, but it was the same struggle.

MA: My generation suffered a lot. It was dangerous to be a homosexual in those days, when I was a teenager.

ALOK: I see it in your work you know, with your use of hearts and colours and fun catch phrases like “Deep and earnest commitment to hope and optimism”. I, ​​as a comedian, try to explain to people the reason why I believe in hope and levity and humour—because the world is so hard. It’s because I’ve known sorrow that I know joy. So to hear your story now, it makes a lot of your design decisions make sense, because you’ve known suffering, because you’ve known pain. So fashion
becomes a place where you’re trying to heal or template the possibility for freedom.

MA: I do believe that. And even if it’s not true every day, I have to say that life is beautiful.

Also read:

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From Harry Styles to Ranveer Singh: 5 men elevating pearls to gender neutral status


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