Text by Akanksha Pandey
During her time as Creative Director for Vinokilo — the world’s biggest vintage kilo sale — New York-based Doyel Joshi had somewhat of a spiritual experience standing in the middle of hundreds of tonnes of discarded clothes. The yearly trips to India — where she recognised the inherent flaws of its historical dexterity but also its brimming potential — inspired her to launch Fountainhead, a repurposed clothing label. All Fountainhead garments are made in India in a production space led by Joshi’s childhood tailor, Uncle Mukesh.
Incidentally, Doyel isn’t the only fashion forward person in her family. Her Mumbai-based sister Pranchal launched Narangidevi, an accessories brand which specialises in adornment made from waste fabric, named after the moniker assigned to her by her guruji According to Pranchal, even though the amount of cloth that goes into making a product may not seem of much consequence, it is the idea of upcycling that needs to come forward and create a ripple effect.
As the sisters continue to self-isolate together in Mumbai and mull over the future of their careers, we asked them to model clothes and accessories from their respective labels while talking about their design philosophies and the impact of the pandemic on their business.
What is your design process like?
Doyel Joshi: I don’t refer to our work as reworking or repurposing; instead I call our pieces re-imagined. The central design identity in all our pieces is the same: make it timeless, surrealistic, but ultimately joyous. There isn’t enough joy in fashion today. We don’t create “collections” or work within the fashion calendar. Each piece, whether it is a series of plaid shirts or one-off pieces, speaks to someone unique. The design method is automatism — the avoidance of conscious intention in producing art, especially by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations. The initial design process is automatic and then it goes into fundamentals of problem-solving — how do you get in and out of the garment? Can you ride the subway in this? and so on.
Pranchal Joshi: I don’t necessarily have a standard process or a fixed design in my head before I start making a product. We get inspiration and ideas all day long, even when we are not seeking it.
What are your views about the representation of traditional Indian culture in fashion across the globe?
D: While representation is essential, it allows for instances of cultural misappropriation. Misuse of culture and context v/s inspiration becomes a thin line then. I do think, however, that since we have adopted certain behaviors from the West as well, it can facilitate a healthy exchange of practices in the future, if done correctly. It’s important for Indians to claim what is ours and share it with the world in a way that celebrates our vast history in the right context.
You both have diverse aesthetics in clothing and yet we see similarities. What are your intersection points?
D: The intersection is in the way we were raised. While Indian history and values were at the core of our home education — we were reciting Hanuman Chalisa at the age of 4 — we weren’t made to fear our authentic selves and desires. For me, that became an exploration of what one might find beyond what is acceptable and for Pranchal it became a deep-dive into the expansive history of our roots and how it defines our generation. We’ve both been upcycling and redesigning our clothes for as long as we can remember.
What does individuality mean to you?
D: Individuality is the freedom to be. The freedom of being and becoming the highest version of oneself because individualism often falls victim to being curbed at its onset. “You can’t go there, you can’t study that, you can’t wear that, you can’t feel that, you can’t look like that” — all because it doesn’t fit the constructs of what is accepted. Unfortunately, community and individuality have become antonyms over time. It is my personal — and Fountainheads’ — mission to enable that choice. Fashion is one of the primal ways we communicate. The best-dressed women are not the ones wearing the biggest labels but those who wear what defines them.
P: Individuality is a process and is ever-evolving. Unfortunately, a big part of our singularity is now influenced by what happens on the internet. That’s not to say I don’t derive my style from things, people and thoughts, but by carrying the baggage of expectations stemming from trends, we seem to have lost the importance of discovering our own style. Developing an interest in fashion and more importantly, one’s own style, helps an individual tap newer avenues that lead to self-realisation and self-identity.
What parts of India’s fashion history inspire you most?
D: Broadly, the references show up in my work with draping and the unabashed use of colour and shapes. The vast diversity in the tastes, languages, shapes, and norms that change every few kilometres in India is also inspiring. My exploration is about how these references can break form to give birth to something unexpected yet unified in its diversity, much like India.
P: Fashion traverses different cultures and times to get to the present. Women, in particular, have experienced groundbreaking revolutions to entitle themselves to rights and freedom of expression, especially through their clothes. A time of Indian history that really inspires me is the Treta Yuga from the Ramayana that has helped me form beautiful visuals of colours and boundless silhouettes.
Is your design process gender specific?
D: I think gender and jurisdiction in clothes is a function of history and its storytellers. I do have an affinity for the female form but Billy Potter in the Fountainhead Blazer is one of the highest expressions of what Fountainhead is. It’s for the individual — it doesn’t see gender, color, form, or caste.
P: I have never thought about how my creations would look on a woman or a man while designing. Narangidevi is gender-queer. There is always a sense of curiosity to see where our product lands, how one carries it, whether it’s a woman or a man wearing it. So the design process really meets its end when the customer wears it.
What is your take on inclusive fashion and exploring the idea of plus-sized clothing?
D: Inclusion starts with representation. My being scorned at a dinner in Connecticut, a predominantly white neighborhood in America, with five other Asian friends or being called prettier than my sister for having lighter skin than her are all functions of misrepresentation of individuals. Fashion is a visual language that goes beyond what you put on after your morning shower.
P: I faced some realities about body-image throughout the time I was working as a stylist. The best part about styling women from different walks of life was that they’d let me in on their preferences and personal style, along with their insecurities. I had the satisfaction of shattering some insecurities by simply being able to convince someone that they looked 100% themselves and beautiful in something that they weren’t confident enough to carry because they didn’t have the ‘perfect body’. I’ve also had the honor of introducing a new colour to someone’s wardrobe and rid them of their belief that some colours don’t go with certain skin tones.
What do you think should be the future of the fashion industry?
D: The Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the sword which was hanging on top of a broken fashion system. One which was not built to sustain a crisis like this, particularly the production side in countries like India and Bangladesh. A global reflection is in place at the moment which makes me hopeful for a future in which mindful consumption is the norm. It may seem idealistic, but canned and preserved food were in high demand during the war and then right after, we saw the rise of organic food culture across the globe. Last time, we became aware of what we are putting in our body. Maybe this time, we’ll start thinking about what we put on our body.
Who is your audience?
D: It’s individuals who are not afraid to be themselves and have the openness to accept others in their true expression. It’s fantastic to see young adults as well as older individuals with wildly different styles and aesthetics make choices from our collection that, in a weird way, align perfectly with who they are. Earlier, we limited ourselves by assigning age and income brackets to our target customer, but each day, we discover new things about what people across different ages and professions want. That has made us reconsider our audience.
P: I refer to our audience as ‘Devi’. Devi is gender-queer and unorthodox. We wish to highlight the value of craftsmanship and upcycling, a process that we began looking at a year ago, which devis from India, as well as Germany, Miami and New York, have been beautifully receptive of. We try to engage with each devi and understand their dynamism through the choices they make.
Have you found any similarities between the way people dress in Mumbai and New York?
D: The similarity is really in the use of color. New York is more daring than other parts of Europe in this aspect. People still wear a lot of black in the winters but come spring, there isn’t much difference between Union Square and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, including the rush to get somewhere.
How was it shooting during the time of quarantine?
D: My sister and I continue to share a room, the same way we did throughout our growing years and I have seen her blossom into this amazing woman. While we work together every now and then, it was really fun to play “fashion-fashion” like we used to when we were kids. Putting together this shoot, involved borrowing clothes from mom’s cupboard, disrupting the whole house, making dad iron our clothes, and taking our pictures. Only this time, jhaadu pocha and dusting was also part of the equation.
P: I have always loved directing Doyel and taking pictures of her against the red wall in our room; we’ve been doing that for 10 years now. It was a little unusual for me to be facing the camera this time, since being a stylist and then a designer always required to be behind it. To my surprise, it was quite an empowering experience too. I believe we are each other’s best critics and also the most efficient cleaning partners — we took turns cooking and cleaning between shots.
How has your business been affected during this time?
D: For a business like ours, the dependence on supply chains is paramount. Because of this, business and production has taken a big hit. Personally, I think we were all in a race until mother earth decided to hit reboot. Now, more than ever, everything that we stand for has come to the forefront in a very big way. People will not consume like before; not only because of the impending recession, but also due to the acute awareness has crept into our collective consciousness. Temporary monetary losses are a small price to pay for a woke, post-COVID-19 world.
P: The pandemic foreshadowed a sudden change in the course of my business. I can’t be negligent towards the fact that the products we make are a ‘want’, not a ‘need’. Economically, things do get stressful, but it gives a creative conscience the time to unwind, create and introspect on previous processes. Meanwhile, Narangidevi is making samples of masks that can get into production as soon as possible.