This designer is debunking the 'fair is lovely' myth

United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2018

If you are a social media butterfly, Instagram might come across as a promised land. Beauty abounds here - perhaps in its most superficial form with advanced camera settings and Photoshop ensuring no one looks 'bad' anymore. However, a virtual space thriving on visual spectacle also templates the idea of beauty - often boxing it as per what is trending on the Internet. Anything outside then becomes an anomaly. It is this desire to be anomalous that is at the centre of Ayush Kejriwal's works.

Much of the conversation around the 36-year-old designer centres not just on the gorgeous drapes of kanjeevarams, banarasis and patolas, but also his presentation. The women modelling his clothes are real women - many of them with dark skin tones. The choice of using these models is as political as it is aesthetic, given the Indian fixation with light skin that has led to the flourishing of the multi-million dollar fairness creams market. On his social media page, Kejriwal doesn't restrict the captioning only to his clothes; there's also incisive commentary. Sample this - an image of a dark-skinned model wearing a blue choli and a pink lehenga is accompanied with an elaborate caption that reads: ''Am quite dark, do you have something for me?' Many a times I get messages asking me to suggest something for someone who is dark skinned. It breaks my heart when people choose not to wear something they want because they feel they can't due to the insecurities they have about their bodies. The most gorgeous coloured flowers of all sorts grow on dark brown soil and they look stunning. Nature doesn't feel shy of experimenting with colours, then why should we?'

'I did not set out to consciously look for dark models,' Kejriwal tells us. 'I think it was my second or third shoot in London where I came across a model. She came up to me and said, 'Ayush, are you sure these gold, pink, orange colours will suit me? I am extremely dark.' I said, 'Let's put this on you. If you don't like it, we won't share the images on social media,' recalls the Glasgow-based designer.

Incidentally, these were the images that set the ball rolling as soon as they made their way to the Internet. Kejriwal received messages from many women across the world admiring how he'd presented his subjects flaunting the colours (pinks and oranges - hues that dark-complexioned girls are often encouraged to stay away from) and silhouettes that were conventionally considered a no-no. The attention was unprecedented. A good sales pitch? Or a cry for freedom? Kejriwal insists it's the latter. 'Has my choice of models generated a hype? Perhaps. But I know if I see something on a shop's window, I am not going to buy it if I feel it does not resonate with me. I think it's an honest way of portraying your work. As a brand, I want to appeal to real people. And real people come in different shapes, colours and sizes.'

Real women have been at the centre of his creative pursuits from a very young age. He was only three-and-a-half years old when Kejriwal's mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This meant that, among the many things he saw his mother struggling with, dressing up was a key hurdle. 'Wearing a saree, getting a matching petticoat and blouse and jewellery for special occasions was a hassle. Eventually, I started helping her organise her wardrobe. That was also my creative outlet.'

Kejriwal went on to have a regular job as a brand and marketing professional in Glasgow, even though he retained a passion for fashion design. A passion that led him to design five sarees on a whim while on a trip to India. Why sarees? 'I grew up seeing my mother dress up in the most beautiful sarees. I feel saree is one garment that gives me a six-yard canvas to showcase my dreams,' says Kejriwal. The images of these sarees made their way to social media, thanks to Kejriwal's sister who wanted to test waters. 'In no time, people really liked what they saw. One woman from Germany bought my first piece for 150 pounds. That left me gobsmacked because I never thought someone would spend money on something made by me without touching or feeling it.'

The idea to rope in real women came during the initial shoots when Kejriwal modelled his clothes on his mother and sister because 'financially, it made sense then'. The response generated encouraged him to rope in real women to showcase his works. The creative process, he explains in a nutshell, is 'when I do my shoot, my models have to look real and comfortable. I don't want their hair to be perfect. I don't want their lipstick to be perfect. Of course, the setting has to be aesthetic.' Then how do the pictures look so perfect? Kejriwal says he does not Photoshop them as such. 'But I do use the various filters that are available on social media websites. I am not a good photographer, so using those filters help,' he says.

Kejriwal's way of presenting his works comes with its own perils. For one, it means becoming something of a pariah from mainstream fashion that still largely thrives on its established standards of beauty. But the designer insists it was never on his agenda to be part of the 'rat race'. Despite his choice of presentation being hailed as a brave and bold move, he continues to be scrutinised for it. He says he often receives messages asking him to showcase his works on models other than the dark-complexioned ones. 'I tell them that I use dark models because they relate to my brand's ethos. My point is beauty doesn't discriminate.' Does it affect sales? 'I may not make 100 million sales a month, I make 10 sales a month. But you have to realise I don't just talk about clothes alone but a positive lifestyle. That overall helps customers connect with my brand,' says Kejriwal who designs around 20-30 pieces a year.

Ayush Kejriwal

The Ayush Kejriwal phenomenon comes at a time when the fashion world itself is undergoing a churning. Concepts like plus-size clothing and modest dressing have become buzz words in mainstream fashion. Is the fashion world finally opening up to alternative possibilities? Kejriwal is far from convinced. 'I think fashion is getting schizophrenic,' he says. 'People have no clue about what they want. They're running from pillar to post to find new things. There's a constant urge to come up with something new every month. They are in a rat race to prove a point and that just shows how insecure everyone is.' The problem also is, he explains, that fashion criticism is not exactly directed against calling out a trend. 'Social media has made everyone a critic. But there are also, big brands and publications that critique fashion, but what they often choose to focus on is what a celebrity is wearing to the gym. That's not fashion criticism. The critics are also scared to share their true opinions because they want to go with the flow. Nobody is bold enough to say, 'I don't care if only 200,000 people follow me instead of a million, but I will still be true to what I believe in.''

Noting the talking point his works have become on the worldwide web, the Indian newspaper The Hindu noted, 'Ayush Kejriwal is a designer made by the Internet, or more specifically, through social media.' The Internet, and the social media, moves at a fast pace, which means brands and influencers are under pressure to constantly reinvent themselves. Kejriwal is aware of the rules of the game, but would rather play it on his own terms. 'It's important for any brand to keep moving forward and reinvent itself. Having said that, I also feel it's extremely important for my brand to not lose its ethos.'