We Need to Be Paying Attention to South Asian Fashion

From sustainability to inclusivity, accessibility to high end luxury — it’s all happening in clothing from this region right now.

We Need to Be Paying Attention to South Asian Fashion
Photo: Courtesy/InStyle

When Mehr Husain and Saad Sarfraz Sheikh embarked on a journey to explore the history of Pakistani fashion, they had no idea of the intersections of fashion, politics and social justice that awaited them. The idea for their book, Pakistan: A Fashionable History, came to life when Husain was dropping her kids off to school in her pajamas only to come across a mother dressed to the nines in those early morning hours, whom she laughingly described in an interview with Perspective Magazine as "looking as miserable as I felt." What struck her then was the need to find out what motivated these decisions, and the driving forces behind the fashion industry and its consumers. Fashion has never existed in isolation, and for a region like South Asia where the complexities of identity, appearances, and the politics thereof span generations, fashion designers have a lot of room to showcase more than just clothes through their work — lately, they've been doing just that.

Craftsmanship has been a big part of South Asian history and so the global shift to unique handmade, sustainable creations isn't new to the region. Rather, it's seeing a revival that incorporates current conversations around gender, class, and identity using ancient customs. In other words, the days of South Asian fashion being limited to bridal lines are over, and upcoming designers want to bring about clothes that mean something to the consumer, no matter what day or by whom they're worn. World renowned Indian designer Sabyasachi featured a male model in a blingy dress and heels, and the reaction was divided — with just one picture, designer was able to make consumers question why they were buying what they were buying; why the gender norms the region still clings to are seen as ironclad. And change isn't stopping there. From the very start of the design process to the people who chose to wear them, these fresh South Asian designers are using fashion as a gateway into far more important conversations on gender, identity, accessibility and sustainable creation.

If you hadn't heard of them yet, you're going to be glad they're on your radar now. The best and buzziest South Asian brands to shop in 2021, below.

Inclusivitee — Karachi, Pakistan

Founded by sisters, Rabeeya and Aisha Latif, Inclusivitee is a new accessible and inclusive unisex fashion brand that's caught the eye of Pakistani celebrities, like actress Yashma Gill and content creator Rebellious Brownie. For Rabeeya, who runs an online safe space for Pakistani women on Facebook under the name Soul Bitches, it was vital to create a brand that was inclusive to all. While the brand doesn't have conventional sizing, it does cater two sizes 'long' and 'short,' and sells gorgeous blazers and overcoats that truly would suit anyone. "The clothes are meant to be loose; one size can never fit all," Rabeeya says, saying that the average sizes came from measuring their friends.

The brand wanted to bring something new to the conversations on genderless clothing. "A big part of Inclusivitee is the use of bright colors like pink and purple for men as well. We wanted to signal moving past colors signifying gender," says Rabeeya. Growing a following has been a slow process, perhaps due to their out-of-the-box style, but the brand has seen some of their most out-there pieces turn into bestsellers.

Bloni - New Delhi, India

Akshat Bansal, whose work with Bloni was recognized in Forbes 30 under 30 last year, believes "gender-neutral fashion is sustainable." Bloni came about in 2017, and since then has focused on bringing new life to the age-old Indian craft of tie-dye. For the forward looking brand, sustainability and a recognition of the impact of their choices is a crucial aim they want to project. With awards such as Grazia India and Lakme Fashion Week under their belt, the brand aims to reinvent the very process of creating fashion itself.

When asked what makes Bloni unique, Bansal says, "Introducing Marine plastic waste textile and giving them a new life. Blending the tech-generated fabrics mixed with local artisanal techniques, the craft of tie and dye, hand crochet and knitting. Glazed fabrics, clean silhouettes and gender-neutral shapes blurs the visual distinction and forms a strong base for the collections for the new tech generation." With a flagship in New Delhi, Bloni stocks across 10 stores in India, 5 in UAE and one in London and are working toward having an art residency and not-for-profit experience centre. "This idea begins with a thought of help and support for a green circular future and an equitable economic growth model working with rural women and empowering them with skill sets that makes them financially independent." says Bansal.

Rastah - Lahore, Pakistan

Rastah means path in Urdu, and the name hits the nail on the head because this Pakistani streetwear brand is indeed carving new pathways for dying artistry in Pakistan. Zain, Ismail, and Adnan Ahmed first launched the brand in 2018. Despite connecting to age-old Pakistani traditions, the brand rejects nostalgia. Instead they focus on reinvention and adding something new and inherently Pakistani to the streetwear market, with a commitment to their artisans.

"The trouble here is that local artisans are exploited for their work by middlemen. They're paid an inadequate amount for their art and those same pieces are sold to buyers at sky-high prices," Adnan told Forbes. Rastah works directly with local artisans and block printers that its founders, like Zain, meet on their travels through Pakistan. The end result? Eclectic fusions like Mughal miniatures printed on streetwear, which has gotten the attention of Riz Ahmed. Rastah has contributed to a reawakening of artistry in fashion by employing and uplifting craftspeople like Aslam Mirza, who had once given up skills like block printing in favor of commercial activities like making bed sheets to earn a living.

Kallol Datta - Kolkata, India

Kolkata based clothes designer Kallol Datta has a group showcase coming up in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum this September as part of the Jameel Prize: Poetry and Politics. The way in which Datta bases their work in artistic research means their exhibiting opportunities aren't the usual kind for the fashion world, but then again neither is this designer's work. The main way Datta does this is through the use of genderless designs but it doesn't stop there.

"By not acknowledging gender, my focus is solely placed on the textile form and then conversely the body that will inhabit it. This in turn allows me to address and further question the gatekeeping that occurs in the fashion industry along with the homophobia, casteism, misogyny and islamophobia that is rampant within the industry, as well as on the outside," says Datta. What the clothes represent and the process by which they do this is equally important to the designer, who adds, "I like exploring notions of cultural sustainability versus notions of cultural diversity against the backdrop of changing landscapes through my work." Aside from Datta's own website, the pieces are also stocked at Garde in Beverly Hills, and online at 1st dibs.

Makhantoas - Lahore, Pakistan

Makhantoas was inspired by founder Sarah Babar's memories of vendors in Liberty Market, Lahore "using their wooden sticks, stirring fabric in giant pots of boiling dye." Each piece is custom made according to the demands of the client and therefore is completely unique, with a careful eye on labor practices that elsewhere in fashion have done so much wrong. "We shop locally, produce locally, and try using as many resources as we possibly can. We don't use machine printed fabric and we don't approach vendors who we feel are not fair to their employees. That has been a big deal for us, because even though we are a very small company, and our actions might not make a difference in the bigger scheme of things, we don't want to take part in the giant wheel of capitalism and exploit labor and consumers, alike," she says.

Instead of being motivated by conventional gender norms in fashion, the young brand pays homage to South Asian architecture in all its beauty of straight lines and symmetry, domes and minarets. While the brand operates on instagram for now, they are hopeful that a post-Covid world will bring about the opportunity for IRL pop-up stores as well.

For more on the Future of Gender in Fashion, read how TikTok is already gender-free, find the best genderless brands to shop, and why the right pair of underwear can literally change your life.

Related Articles