South Asian New York Fashion Week needs to do better in uplifting marginalized cultures and designers within its own community
On Sept. 7 I flew into New York City for what seemed to be the most illustrious opportunity in my fashion career so far: I was selected to style at the first South Asian New York Fashion Week (SANYFW). Up until this point, South Asian fashion was only given a small sector within New York Fashion Week. This was the first time the South Asian fashion community was able to run a whole week of shows and events dedicated purely to South Asian fashion. I, a college student with minimal experience , was given an opportunity to participate in a project that was revolutionary. SANYFW was as industrious, fast-paced and luxurious as one may imagine. From attending shows on Wall Street and Chelsea Factory to meeting Versha Sharma, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, and other influencers I had been following for years, I felt that I had more than dipped my toes into the contemporary fashion pool.
How did I get involved?
I believe that I earned this opportunity because it came from within my South Asian community, a community to which I had the initiative to reach out. Through contacting SANYFW through all their platforms, along with sending them an email with my resume, cover letter and portfolio, I soon got in touch with Hetal Patel, the COO of SANYFW. From there I created a sample portfolio of looks I would style the CEO and COO with. I spent three days extensively curating the portfolio, and the morning after I submitted it , I received an email from Hetal Patel stating she thought I accurately captured their personal styles and that they would love to bring me on. During the week I worked with various individuals such as designers, models and makeup artists. My role was fluid and self -directed; I went where I was needed and where I thought I served best.
The Diversity Issue
Many of my opportunities such as internships and writing experiences have been because the South Asian community was supportive in giving me the experiences and resources I required. But in terms of activism and uplifting marginalized identities, it is this same community that often hurts each other more than those outside of the South Asian diaspora. While the overarching fashion industry still remains far from where it needs to be, the South Asian fashion community lags even more. We are still met with beauty norms such as unrealistic body standards and colorism standards. Many subcultures remain underrepresented, promoting to those outside our community that South Asian culture is North Indian culture and nothing more.
The remnants of colonialism create this tension within our community. Western fashion has been able to take more of an initiative to create actionable change around body inclusivity and inclusion of marginalized communities, mainly due to heightened dialogue and media exposure in Western societies over the past couple of years, but this language is not as abundant in South Asian regions.
How do we expect the countries that suffered from colonialism to not center on the most eurocentric representation of beauty? Even so, it’s the South Asian community’s responsibility to do the internal work to decolonize fashion and uproot the detrimental aftermath of colonial governance. SANYFW is the platform to do so, to destabilize inaccurate representations of our community through the lens of fashion. SANYFW filled a void of South Asian culture in mainstream fashion, but in many ways, that’s all it has done. The intricacies of the South Asian community were not accurately reflected in this year’s fashion week.
Working behind the scenes from morning until late at night, I was able to take in the most in terms of observing the industry while being a fly on the wall. While I steamed lehengas and dressed the models, everything continued to whirl around me — including whispers of gossip.
When I worked backstage for the Mayyur Girotra show, it felt like the team was working with the North Indian version of Miranda Priestly from “Devil Wears Prada.” While this trope works well for the movie and the staple early-2000s fashion designer when our society was not as socially aware, the “diva designer” personality is not as well-suited to this current era of critical awareness and inclusivity. I spoke to one model that said she avoided eating all day because Mayyur Girotra supposedly didn’t like seeing his models eat. A stylist I worked closely with said she was supposed to model but Girotra only wanted tall and skinny models. Another model was told she was too skinny and too muscular.
What’s disappointing is that this isn’t shocking; this is the industry at large. If runways do have models that are curvier or shorter, it tends to be a scatter of them amongst the taller and skinnier models. Inclusivity doesn’t just mean hitting a quota for good publicity, but that’s what we find with the majority of luxury and couture brands during fashion week.
The luxury fashion industry is still embodying the value that the norm is to be skinny and tall as they continue to make anything outside of this beauty standard a minority amongst the masses. There were curvy, short, dark-skinned models in the smaller runway shows of SANYFW but they were cast off as models that were only worthy of these smaller brands. The larger couture designers such as Nomi Ansari and Mayyur Girotra were selective to choose the most eurocentric models when the smaller designers didn’t have the “privilege” to do so. Many that I talked to at SANYFW brushed it off with an air of “what can we do?” or “that’s the industry.”
From the Top Down
In a sense, there is a truth to these statements. The fashion industry is a hyper-capitalist space, and in this day and age, it seems to be a luxury for designers to break out of the systems that repress marginalized communities and fully put all their resources towards better standards. Many starting off in the industry don’t have the status or capital to make decisions that promote inclusivity standards because they’re forced to play within the already existing space to rise up.
SANYFW received backlash on TikTok about the inclusivity standards. During an Instagram Live, Shipra Sharma, the CEO of SANYFW, briefly addressed the controversy. She said that many of the model applications they received were from individuals that fit one beauty standard over others, insinuating that the majority of their applications embodied the eurocentric beauty standards that sweep the industry, so they did the best they could with the applications they received.
I do believe that this statement was honest and spoke to what the executive team was working with. However, realizing that I, as someone that wasn’t part of the executive decision-making, still needed to be critical of what I see and hear , gave me a social responsibility I carry as someone entering this industry.
To spearhead the first-ever SANYFW means working with limited resources and wearing many hats. However, there was much that could be done in the early stages. The SANYFW executive team primarily consists of North Indians that can only have the North Indian or Non- Resident Indian perspective on the South Asian experience. South Asian does not merely equal Indian or North Indian. In the future, I’d like to see other South Asian communities represented at large in the executive team from regions such as South India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Indo-Caribbean communities.
I believe having this inclusivity at the top tier where major decisions are made about models, designers and cultural events will more authentically represent the South Asian diaspora. I only saw one dimension of South Asian fashion largely represented at SANYFW, mostly North Indian, with only one large Pakistani designer and one South Indian designer. As a South Indian Tamil individual, I do not feel that my culture and the many other marginalized cultures of South Asia were given the representation we need in South Asian fashion at large.
The Future of South Asian Fashion
In terms of the fashion landscape as a whole, SANYFW should be credited with trailblazing the first fashion week that gives the South Asian fashion industry a platform to be included in the fashion rhetoric of the Western world. With this space our community has worked so hard to occupy, there is so much more that we can do. We now have a voice that can further amplify our people and their artistry. I hope SANYFW is able to wield this power for greater representation in the future.