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Published: Mint Lounge, February 24, 2018 Edition
Additional images added to this post.

As ‘yami kawaii’, a Japanese fashion trend highlights mental illness, Lounge looks at the social taboos that fashion in India has addressed, however fleetingly

‘Yami kawaii’ on social media.

Japan, in its inimitable way, has a relatively new subculture called “sick cute”, or yami kawaii. Taking off from the traditional kawaii culture that celebrates pastel-pink cuteness and pristine beauty, yami kawaii has Harajuku locals sporting medical-themed accessories like bandages, syringes, pills and fake blood, or anti-social words like “I kill you”, demonstrating the dark side of life on the same cutesy backgrounds. Suggesting that the wearer is fragile, ill or emotionally wounded, this is an attempt to start a conversation about depression and mental health, taboo in a country that has extraordinarily high rates of suicide.

Over the decades, globally, fashion has focused on issues that were relevant at the time: be it Jean Paul Gaultier’s skirts for men in 1984, Vivienne Westwood’s climate revolution call to action in 2013, or Comme des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo’s acceptance of the imperfections of the human form. Feminism and gender equality have been consistently on the fashion radar, particularly with the rise of androgynous fashion. Many such socio-political movements may not have seen the kind of momentum they did without the support of pop culture.

House of Riot Tee
House of Riot

“Through our clothing, we express our economic status, our social alliance…. For fashion to effect change, it must speak up,” says Australian model-activist Ollie Henderson in a TEDx Sydney talk in 2015. Henderson, who found her voice through slogan T-shirts at the Australian Fashion Week, 2014, founded a Sydney-based fashion label and youth movement, House of Riot, that is described on their website as “an extended art project fuelled by political frustration”.

In India, perhaps an early example of fashion as a means of social change was Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement, which popularized, among other things, the use of local handwoven Khadi cloth. It not only had a political impact on the country’s freedom struggle but also paid dues to the grassroots-level artisans, with a positive socio-economic effect. There have been voices since, from Rohit Bal’s 2003 showing of men on the runway wearing sindoor as a gender-neutral statement to Lakmé Fashion Week’s (LFW’s) Sustainable Fashion Day (now in its seventh year), where artisans regularly take centre stage, walking the ramp with the designers.

“Globally, fashion weeks and organizations are embracing culture-led conversations; whether it is plus-sized model Ashley Graham becoming a rage on the international runways or the feminist movement started by Prabal Gurung in his show at New York Fashion Week last season,” says Jaspreet Chandok, vice-president and head of fashion, IMG Reliance, which co-organizes the LFW. “The first step is acceptance, which we (locally, with the LFW) have been able to achieve; once we move fashion from exclusive to inclusive, it will tip over into a larger conversation which can actually lead to change,” he adds.

Screen Shot 2018-02-23 at 10.31.26 PMA still from ‘The Marriage of Shayla Patel’.

Last autumn at the LFW, Narendra Kumar Ahmed unveiled a short film, The Marriage Of Shayla Patel, with his bridal-wear show of the same name. In it, an elite urban bride-to-be who is in love with a woman is caught in a dilemma: choosing love over what is expected of her. It attempts to strip India’s strongest societal edifice—marriage, and, therefore, weddings: People get lost in the glamour, diamonds and designer clothes as they conform to society’s version of normal. Anjali Lama (born Nabin Waiba) became the first transgender woman to model at LFW Summer/Resort 2017 during their #TagFree show, which also included gender-neutral model Petr Nitka. The show strove to break stereotypes of size, shape, age and sex. The LFW Winter/Festive 2017 turned up the volume on sustainability and the footprint of fashion with the #RestartFashion initiative and Huemn Project’s Reflection. The designers for Huemn, Pranav Misra and Shyma Shetty, created an installation, a landfill of human bodies wrapped in clothing scraps and plastic bags. Misra believes: “Fashion’s primary role is to inspire and bring about change. Clothing is a by-product of the industry.”

Bobo Calcutta’s collection symbolizes the liberation of love and sexuality.

Godrej India Culture Lab’s (GICL’s) initiatives open the discussion on taboo topics—for instance, the Queer Aesthetics Now! installations at the recently concluded LFW Summer/Resort 2018 brought to the fore queer awareness and rights with a showcase by designers like Sumiran Kabir Sharma and Ayushman Mitra, among others. Kolkata-based Mitra’s collection (under the label Bobo Calcutta) symbolizes the liberation of love and sexuality, such as a sexless cotton jumpsuit that depicts gender-neutral faces in liplock, while the hand embroidery is done by craftsmen from West Bengal picking hues from the gay pride flag.

Fashion has managed to highlight issues like sexuality and sustainability, but will it shake up Indian society? While Misra appreciates the positive dialogue that began with their installation, he cannot judge its on-ground impact in a mere six months. Efforts at the institutional and individual levels are rife, but yet to become a movement like yami kawaii, stepping off the catwalk and on to the streets. “Fashion does talk about issues in India, but not in an articulate way. The mainstream voices are so focused on the two Bs—Bollywood and bridal—that these conversations remain on the margins. And at the end of the day, these dialogues should stem from designers that celebrate career-long values rather than ephemeral marketing,” says Parmesh Shahani, head of the GICL. For fashion can be a game changer, a way for people to connect to socio-political movements and express their support—being the change by wearing the change.