Friday 24th July

| BY Paul Toner

Ten Meets Ashish, the London Fashion Week Staple Whose Sparkle Cannot be Dimmed

Ashish Gupta is a designer with his foot always on the peddle. For two decades now, he has been a London Fashion Week staple – showing on schedule, twice a year, for 16 years straight. 2020 was on track to be no different. The 45-year-old designer revealed his glitzy AW20 collection to a gleaming fashion press on February 17. One month and a day later, the entire UK went into lockdown.

Admittedly, the designer has found it difficult to keep creating whilst at home. A sufferer of insomnia, Ashish often found himself waking up at 4am. Instead of scrolling through Instagram or whacking on the telly – although he has watched “loads of crap TV” recently – he began to write. “They were just thoughts or weird bits of poetry and it actually really helped me because I felt like I was doing something that I always found quite hard to do,” he tells me over the phone. “I feel like when I’m at four in the morning and the house is completely silent, it is an amazing way to focus your mind.”

Aside from a spot of cooking here, some collaging there, Ashish has also used this well-deserved fashion pause to hone in on his photography skills. He was able to step behind the lens last year for Gaze – a photography book, published by House of Voltaire – that explored queer desire in all its glorious forms. “Often it feels like gay culture is trying to attain a certain heterosexual approval and respectability. I wanted Gaze to be unapologetic about lust, cruising, hookups, trade, promiscuity, fetishes, sexual desires,” he says. “So many of us have been told our bodies are too feminine, too fat, too skinny, or just not welcomed because of our colour. I like to think that sexuality is like a playground, and you should feel free to explore the rides.”

Photographs by Ashish. 

The designer has always been a champion of diversity, long before both performative and tokenistic attempts of appearing ‘equal’ infiltrated the industry. His catwalks are home to all body shapes, ages, races, sexualities and genders. Ashish, as a brand, has never been defined by the binary; fun, fluid and never short of sparkle. Back in 2014, he received a bulk load of attention from the press for only using black models for his SS15 catwalk – a decision he says was made without any sort of agenda.

As a man so unapologetically queer, both through his work and in his own life, Ashish grew up in a culture were homosexual imagery was illegal. Hailing from Delhi, India, the designer wouldn’t come in contact with queer exotic imagery until he moved to London at age 20, to study at Central Saint Martins. Instead, he spent his adolescence idolising clothes, specifically those worn by his mother. “I was really inspired by my mum because she was actually really glamorous,” he explains. “One of my earliest memories is of my mum in a lime green jumpsuit with really big heels and massive sunglasses.” Submerging himself in the 6-month old issues of Vogue she would bring to the house, a young Ashish would get lost in a world that was hundreds of miles away from his own.

Ashish grew up in a household with two GP parents, yet escaped the prospect of following in their footsteps by continually proclaiming he couldn’t stand the sight of blood, therefore couldn’t become a doctor. Instead, he was on track to study a degree in psychology before a slew of bad grades stopped him in his tracks. “I was kind of saved from that,” he admits. “In India, if you did badly in school you didn’t have another option of going to college, so most people ended up going into the arts and studying history or whatever.” Settling on a fine art degree in Dehli, his real fashion awakening came when he arrived in London. Taught by the formidable Louise Wilson, it was his time outside of university and inside London’s clubs when his eyes were really opened. His favourite spots included G-A-Y on Tottenham Court Road, The Fridge in Brixton and Heaven under the arches. Well, that’s before he got banned. Why you ask? “I can’t say, it’s too rude.”

SS20, courtesy of Ashish. 

This new-found freedom was evident in his designs from the get-go. His first collection out of uni, SS05, was bulked up with rah-rah skirts worn with rainbow tights and shredded Minnie Mouse t-shirts smothered in hot-pink glitter. This brilliant sense of humour and an unshiftable love for anything that sparkles has followed Ashish throughout his career. “I can’t imagine that if I hadn’t had grown up in India I would still have this attraction to colour and sparkle,” he says. “I mean in England for example, things like tinsel are only out at Christmas whereas in India, tinsel it’s an all-year-round thing.”

From sequinned Bollywood princesses to glitter-fied ravers, each season Ashish delivers a joyous collection which is always a mood-booster after a full day of quote on quote ‘serious’ fashions. Yet even though Ashish’s designs are full of life – as witty as they are shiny – they’re in no way simple. “I have always had a problem with people calling my clothes fun and playful because I always think that there is always so much thought and a lot of skill that actually goes into making those clothes,” he explains. “If you think about it, every sequin and bead is literally hand-stitched and it takes days and days and days to make one little piece of clothing.”

AW20, photographed by Jason Lloyd-Evans.

For AW20, Ashish spoke of wanting to create a collection that served as “a loud, proud counterpart to the dark clouds that loom outside.” Tomorrow’s uncertainties were given the firm middle finger via a dazzling display of prints – including leopard, zebra and polka dots, all sequined of course. It’s not a coincidence that when Britain has been in some of its darkest times, Ashish is always there to offer a much-needed dose of escapism. Just what the doctor ordered.

“I think that if you are an artist and have a platform, then it’s kind of your responsibility to reflect the times you live in,” he tells me. And not only that, but the manner in which Ashish operates his business is one that should be a shining example to all. He only ever shows twice a year – no Resort or pre-collections – and produces all his clothes in his factory in Delhi, managed by his mother. “It’s interesting because a few years ago, I got into a fully heated conversation with a journalist who was talking about how I never expanded my company and I’m still kind of quite small. It made me realise how much I value being that small,” he says. “I know that some people react with horror when I say that I’m turning town clients and the opportunities to be in more stores. I’ve even told some people to cut down the size of their orders because we can’t fulfil that. We have a certain capacity and I don’t want to change that.”

Instead, Ashish has kept his blinkers up, ensuring his clothes are made properly, his team is paid well and his suppliers are not overwhelmed with excess pressure. He is the sort of designer who cherishes local artisans over international Cruise travel expeditions; an ethos that will need to be adopted by many more in a post-Covid fashion climate.  “There’s so much stuff in the world and we need to slow down the amount of things that we are making,” he adds. “Maybe it’s about not even having the pressure of a schedule anymore, it’s about just doing things creatively when you feel like you have something to say.” And when he does, we sure will be listening.

Top image by Jason Lloyd-Evans.