The Love Issue | A fair model

MINT

The Love Issue | A fair model

There are many things to not like about the fashion industry—hierarchical vanities, casting-couch politics, incestuous dealings between sponsors and powerful designers, undeserved worship of film stars, rampant plagiarism. But even its worst critic will not call it a confrontationist and unequal space for gays. If anything, it is otherwise.

One of the observations that did the rounds after Goan designer Wendell Rodricks was recently awarded the Padma Shri was the irony behind honouring the work of a designer whose love life is “illegal”. Anyone who knows Rodricks understands his devotion to his long-standing partner Jerome Marrel. The two have been in a civil union called PACS in France (Marrel is French) for many years and Rodricks rarely misses a chance to talk about Marrel as his confidant, his strongest critic, and the love of his life. Rodricks’ 2012 memoir, The Green Room, is immersed with anecdotes about life with Marrel woven inextricably with the author’s experiences in fashion.

If such openness is rare in India, so is designer Rohit Bal’s unflinching, almost flamboyant, acceptance of his personal choices, Suneet Varma’s commitment towards his beliefs or Gaurav Gupta’s affirmative nonchalance. There are many other names that have become inspiring personal stories for younger designers, but listing the number of uncontrived gay people in Indian fashion is hardly the point. It is the fuss-free and non-judgemental space the industry makes for everyone—short, dark, divorced or gay—that makes it, in the words of fashion consultant Edward Lalrempuia, “a comforting haven for young boys, especially from smaller towns, who battle censorious attitudes towards homosexuality”.

Thirty-year-old, Delhi-based Lalrempuia was born in Mizoram and studied at a boarding school before joining Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift). He later worked with Vogue India. “Homophobes would feel out of place in fashion,” he says. “We made the gay boys junior to us in college comfortable and welcome, which was a conscious step. I have seen nervous young boys bloom by the time they are in their second year—their personalities start evolving in the fashion industry.”

This is hardly a closed community where gay men blindly support their own kind and the rest are on the other side of the fence. “Before joining fashion, I had reservations about the attitudes of gays. Now, my best friends are gay men, I find them more trustworthy, dependable and compassionate compared to anyone else,” says make-up artist Anu Kaushik.

Many agree. “Contrary to experiences outside, in the fashion industry being gay is not considered as the defining criteria before striking friendships or for work,” says designer Ashdeen Lilaowala. When he was with a gay partner, the two of them would be invited as a couple for meals at the homes of straight friends who never once threw curious queries about their personal lives.

The buzzing fashion weeks inflate gay-friendly moments with their unwritten licence to dress up in an expressionist manner. They are an engrossing playground for people with varied orientations—straight or gay. Observing dressing is germane to understanding life scripts—a man wearing a handloom sari or a strapless gown, for instance, is a visual rarely spotted on the streets or in a mall but is not exceptional at a fashion week. When you look closely at the procession of perky hats and smart jackets, jazzy accessories and funky hairdos, neon shoes and quirky bags, you realize that gays are often the most innovatively dressed.

That, however, doesn’t make the industry a rarefied outer space cut off from the harsh realities of court rulings, public interest litigations (PILs), protest marches and the visceral humiliation when love lives get branded as “unnatural”. That’s why many prefer to keep their masks on, fashion or not.

And yes, gay jokes fly too, agree both Lalrempuia and Lilaowala. The latter says that when he came out to his parents they initially asked if he was gay because he was in fashion. But as Lalrempuia points out, gays too can go over the top both in dressing or behaviour, inviting ridicule—like anyone else.

Which is why senior designer David Abraham interprets the industry’s openness as a larger questioning. “Fashion constantly questions norms and stereotypes; it encompasses a lot more change than even other creative professions like art or writing; it mirrors social change and is visible for scrutiny. This is where popular culture trends are first spotted before you notice their trickle-down into society,” says Abraham.

The fashion industry may just be an inspiring ecosystem after all, a fair model for change and acceptance.

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