Indian-born, London-based designer Ashish Gupta has long been a leading fixture in the more experimental end of prêt-a-porter. However, it’s Ashish’s knack for playing matchmaker for a number of strange bedfellows that sets his work apart from the rest. Take his SS13 collection for example, in which he proved that sweatpants can not only be sexy, they can also be adorned with copious amounts of sequins. Oh, and FYI: high-vis construction worker vests can be translated into uber-glamorous, catwalk-worthy jumpsuits.
We caught up with Ashish to discus the trajectory of his career from his early days growing up in India in the 1980s, his obsession with sequins and the “angsty emotional scrapbook” we call Tumblr.
What was it that initially inspired you to become of a fashion designer?
I have always wanted to make beautiful clothes for as long as I can remember. I used to love fashion magazines, all the beautiful models in gorgeous looking clothes. It felt like the best escapism as a child growing up in India. So I came back to London and just started making some clothes. A friend of mine was wearing something I had made for her and she got noticed by the buyer at Browns Focus while she was out shopping one day. They rang me and asked me to come in with my collection and placed an order. That’s how I started, it was sort of a cross between bad luck and a happy accident really.
What originally brought you to London from India? Did you have any formal training/schooling while in India or did you dive straight into Central Saint Martin’s?
I actually got a degree in fine art before I studied fashion, but I always knew it was fashion I really wanted to do. I couldn’t get into any of the fashion colleges in India, so I decided to try and get into a design college in London. I finished my MA at Central St. Martins in 2000. I then went to Paris for a couple of job interviews I had lined up in the big houses, but managed to get my portfolio stolen at the Gare du Nord. So I came back to London and just started making some clothes. A friend of mine was wearing something I had made for her while she was out shopping one day. They rang me and asked me to come in with my collection and placed an order. That’s how I started; it was sort of a cross between bad luck and a happy accident really.
Sequins are a mainstay of your collections from season to season. What is it that draws you to sequins as your decorative embellishment of choice? Does your family have any special connection to the production or manufacturing of sequins?
No, my family doesn’t own a sequin factory-—I wish they did! But I think I have a bit of a sequin fetish. I love how sequins reflect light, how they change when the light changes; I think it’s almost magical. I love how they add weight to fabric and hang on the body—they light you up. I also think it’s amazing how color gets another dimension with sequins. You can create effects like rainbow, oil, and this season we did a combination TV static-white noise effect.
What do you think of American pop culture? Has any particular element of American pop culture influenced your work?
I love Hollywood. I love American TV. I grew up watching Dynasty and Dallas on cable TV in India, and reading my mother’s copies of Vogue. I found it so inspiring; it was like a fantasy world to me. I used to rip out all the fashion and perfume ads and stick them on my walls as a teenager. So I guess all that imagery was a big influence, all of the ’80s American designers, models, movie stars, and advertising.
What sort of person do you envision wearing your clothes?
I think its usually someone fairly left of centre, someone cool, someone who is going to wear a sequin trouser with a big cashmere jumper and beaten up old trainers and go out for dinner. I have customers in their 20’s and customers in their 60’s. It’s just a matter of context and personality; it’s how you wear something.
Please give us a picture of how much work goes into creating the average Ashish piece.
I think every Ashish sequin piece is really a labor of love. People still find it unbelievable that every single sequin is stitched by hand. Sometimes people who are not familiar with my work will look at pictures of the clothes online and think it’s a print, but usually i’ts all been created from tiny sequins, so the effect can be quite puzzling, like trompe l’oeil fabric. An average sequin dress can take as many as eight people about a week to make, from start to finish, more if it is complicated. But I think that’s what makes it special.
After seeing your brilliant LFW show featuring your “Working Girl” Collection, I wrote a piece connecting the collection to gentrification-related construction in East London. Was that an accurate parallel or did I totally miss the point?
I think it was really spot on, thank you! I’m really interested in taking iconic visual references from everyday life and doing a fashion spin on them. I think those hi-vis builder’s vests are such a common sight in London that we are almost immune to them. But if you take them into another context, or look at them outside the reference of builders clothing, they are actually so amazing in terms of graphics and color.
In your AW13 collection, one top reads “THE END IS NEAR.” Were you referring to anything in particular?
I am really inspired by Tumblr and I sort of like that kind of randomness you find in visual collections on Tumblr, like an angsty electronic scrapbook feeling. But also, I thought it was quite funny to have that towards the end of the show. Plus it’s always interesting to see how people translate things. One of my buyers, who has a shop in Egypt, thought it was a really positive statement, implying hope for an end to the unrest in Egypt. I thought that was a really beautiful translation of it.
Of all the pieces you’ve ever made, which do you think describes your personality best?
I think the half denim and half “leather-effect sequin” jacket from my SS13 describes me well because it’s a bit split personality and a bit ADD. I feel I am quite random with a short attention span, and also get bored very quickly.
What has been the best compliment someone has said about your clothing?
I made a couple of dresses for Debbie Harry once, and she thanked me and said I had made her ‘a very happy girl.’ Also, this season I was chatting with one of my American buyers about how nervous I get before a show, and she threw one of my pieces on the floor and said, You could throw your collection on the runway and it would still be fabulous! I thought that was so funny and so sweet.
And the most offensive?
Luckily I haven’t had too many offensive comments apart from the rare blogger who has got very wound up by what I do for some reason and decided to have a proper rant about my work.
How old do you actually feel?
Mostly I feel about 16 years old, not very grown up (but legal!), like I’m still figuring things out. Some days I feel very grown up though, but I don’t enjoy those days as much.