'Masculinity isn't gender based': Designer Arjun Saluja

The reclusive fashion designer on why he presented a fashion show after six years

saluja Arjun Saluja; glimpses of his latest collection 'Almost'

Among the highlights of the just concluded Lakme X FDCI Fashion Week was the return of designer Arjun Saluja. The creative force behind the label Rishta presented after six years and 12 seasons, and the fanfare around him proved that he was missed.

His customers are a loyal and growing tribe, flocking to the designer for his impeccable tailoring and inventive, almost military shapes. Saluja has been known best for marrying fluidity with tailoring, or borrowing looser drapes from womenswear for his menswear, and vice versa.

Ditto with ‘Almost’, his latest collection. He calls it an inquiry “into the fragility if masculinity”. One look at the pieces that comprise the collection—half a blazer with a shirt insert, wide pants worn with a fitted shirt, shirts with several over-sized pockets—and you can see it reflects the mood of menswear today—an aesthetic that’s trying to break way from a template. But, as Saluja eloquently puts it, “there is no template to break away from”.

The maverick, who is known to play with crossovers and confusion, has been doing collections, look-books and videos, but hadn't done a live show for six years. In the collection, Saluja says, he has taken deconstructed and hybrid silhouettes to a new artisanal platform.

Ironically, Saluja, who studied art and fashion design from the Philadelphia College of Textile and Science, says he doesn't have a full take on masculinity. “I think we are still finding it. Looking at our cultural conditioning. social conditioning—masculinity isn't gender-based—it doesn't belong to man, it’s a part of a person. And I think that's something we need to address,” he says. He feels it is important to understand masculinity at a societal level. This probably is a recall to his time in New York, when he worked for a stylist Patricia Fields, who had several transgenders working for her.

Saluja started designing androgynous lines even before they became the phenomenon they are today. “It’s part of the zeitgeist today. People now are finding their identity, have found their identity or have become more comfortable with who they are, which is lovely. But, there's also a confusion in identity and labelling and that translates into experimentation in finding your individuality. I think if other designers are influenced by that, then I don't see that as a problem. But it has to come from a place of belief. If you're just cashing in on a trend, that's another thing.”

His label Rishta was established in 2004. Twenty years in the business has taught him that “in India, to establish your label, working on its own codes, takes time”. Twenty years has also shown him how the industry has changed. “For anything new or original, or something that challenges the core, it takes time to settle down. Having said that, I also feel Indian fashion at some point needs to push forward because of the amount of talent it has.”

Known for side-stepping stereotypes, Saluja has stayed away from dressing celebrities on the red carpet, an opportunity any designer would jump at. “It is very important for us to be associated with people for whom, being associated with the brand works and vice-versa. It has to be a match core-wise, aesthetic-wise, philosophy-wise; so it’s a conscious decision we take as to whom we dress. Our customer profile is very select,” he explains.

True to this philosophy, Saluja has kept the social media profile of his label curated, too. “Social media is what you make of it. It is a part of the business language and it is important how you understand what works today for your brand. There are social media managers and PR teams who handle accounts, who direct your brand to the direction you require to. We are very thoughtful about how we want to portray the brand—the language used to talk about it vis-a-vis the clothes and the message we are bringing across, he adds.

For now, Saluja is happy to shift paradigms.


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