His latest showing, Pinjala, at the spring/summer 2017 Amazon India Fashion Week, has warranted the appreciation of more than just the usual suspects (that is, industry insiders, editors, and peers). Maybe it has to do with timing – that people are finally ready for what he has to say. Or maybe it is that Gupta has, through some combination of experience and introspection, built on his strengths. Because to get it right for the catwalk can be hard, possibly more so for an understated label like Akaaro. From the clothes to the make-up, to the styling and the music and the choreography, every bit of this collection came out strong, things amplified every so slightly. Graphic black and white stripes coupled with molten shots and sheets of metal made for a visually arresting statement. But right through it all, there was no mistaking that Gupta’s weaves were the hero.
Gupta started his career with textiles. Even the name Akaaro (which denotes the letter A in Sanskrit), points to textile as the starting point for Gupta’s sartorial labours. He cracks out a yellowing binder full of swatches, his graduate submission at National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), New Delhi, where he did a BCA diploma in Fashion Design and Information Technology. There are fabrics woven with magnetic cassette tape, bamboo, cigarettes, fish wire, plastics, paper, copper wire, and stainless steel. It drives the point right home: as far back as 2002, Gupta had started on the discovery of the materials and processes that would come to define him. Except, of course, he didn’t know it then.
“From the clothes to the make-up, to the styling and the music and the choreography, every bit of this collection came out strong.”
“I didn’t know what I’d done. I thought I was an idiot, that the fabrics I’d sold won’t last and that people would come and beat me up. I wasn’t a confident maker.” But this wasn’t simply whim. It was a work backed by serious research, and an immense effort that included importing the relevant yarns from the USA. Pages of formulations indicate that he’d started exploring ‘algebraic expressions’ in weaving. Though his project won him multiple awards, and good press, he was still on unsteady ground, “I thought my technical skills weren’t good because I hadn’t studied textile”, he remembers. In short, Gupta was hardworking, serious, but slightly lost.
Soon after, he went to Chelsea College of Art and Design, London where he completed a second Bachelor’s degree in Textile Design. “If NIFT shaped my aesthetics, and gave me a foundation, Chelsea gave me direction. Because at NIFT whatever we were doing, there was nobody there to validate it, nobody told me what my style was,” explains Gupta. In London, aided by tutors who could guide him on to the path he’d already stumbled upon, he found clarity. “It made me realise what I was doing, that it was relevant. I knew exactly what was going on, and I took a more practical approach.” Here, he developed an architectural style, or what he calls ‘engineered fabrics’.
Upon returning to Delhi in 2005, he freelanced for a while, teaching at fashion schools. “Indian fashion was not at all about textiles so there was no platform in India.” It wasn’t until he participated in Origin: The London Textile Fair in 2007 that he set up his label. “I took a collection of scarves. That’s where the commerce started happening,” he explains. Through fashion school, Gupta was shaped by the work of Issey Miyake, Hussein Chalayan, Nuno, Yohji Yamamoto, and Alexander McQueen. His love for graphic design, photography, and architecture also shaped his aesthetic. Today, his work is guided in equal parts by spiritual preoccupations. “The narrative of Akaaro is to look within. I’ve made a lot of changes in my life towards purity and cleansing. I think I’m on that junction where I’ve started understanding things about energies – of food, people, and environment,” says Gupta.
Pingala is a culmination of a thought process that started two collections ago – two of these also competed in the International Woolmark Prize for womenswear. “Pingala took off from the global state of affairs, the chaos of a world which is hyper social and political. There’s so much negativity. We’re so engaged, constantly being fed information. In yogic terms, Pingala, is that active state of mind where you can differentiate. You see that whatever is happened is momentary, the fact is that nothing really stops. So I asked myself: In the past, how would people find happiness if they were depressed? If there was negativity, what would people do? The first thing that came to my mind was festivals. So our visual research consisted of gathering images of Indian festivals and we came across a series of Indian miniature paintings called Ashta Nayika, based on eight states of a romantic heroine in popular Indian painting, literature, sculpture and classical dance. In particular, I was taken with the Vasak Sajja Nayika, the state of dressing up to wait for her lover, for sexual union. I didn’t want it to look very traditional, because that’s not my space. What we did instead was look at colour, and scale. We said what would Indian festivewear be, if it weren’t bridal?” he elaborates. The final product was electrifying. “This show changed a lot of stuff for me. People were ready. We connected,” he acknowledges.
As India moves towards embracing its textile-rich legacy, Akaaro’s time is now. “I like to think of it as Textile 2.0 for India, this new way of looking at textiles, which is not about motifs, block prints, colours, or ornamental jacquards. I want to elevate Indian textiles, expand the horizon of what it could also be other than what it already is,” surmises Gupta. “To me, fashion is also about creative expression and what you like. So I think Akaaro should equally be about music, or textile, or ideas.”
At an event in Mumbai, the winners of the International Woolmark Prize’s India, Pakistan and the Middle East regional final are announced
Amazon India Fashion Week explored the dualism of modern India for autumn/winter 2016