South Asia’s New York Fashion Week needs to get better at nurturing marginalized cultures and designers within its own community
On September 7th, I flew to New York City for the most famous opportunity of my fashion career to date: I was selected to style at the inaugural South Asian New York Fashion Week (SANYFW). Up to this point, South Asian fashion has only had a small part within New York Fashion Week. This was the first time the South Asian fashion community was able to host a full week of shows and events dedicated solely to South Asian fashion. I, a college student with minimal experience, was given the opportunity to participate in a revolutionary project. SANYFW has been as hardworking, fast-moving and luxurious as can be imagined. From attending shows on Wall Street and the Chelsea Factory to meeting Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Versha Sharma and other influencers I’ve followed for years, I felt like I got my toes in more than just had dived the pool of contemporary fashion.
How did I get it?
I believe I deserved this opportunity because it came from my South Asian church, a church that I wanted to reach out to on my own initiative. By contacting SANYFW through all their platforms and sending an email with my CV, cover letter and portfolio, I soon got in touch with Hetal Patel, SANYFW’s COO. From this I created a sample portfolio of looks I would use to style the CEO and COO. I spent three days extensively curating the portfolio and the morning after I submitted it, I received an email from Hetal Patel stating that she felt I had accurately captured her personal style and that they would like to take me over. During the week I worked with different people like designers, models and makeup artists. My role was fluid and self-directed; I went where I was needed and where I thought I would serve best.
The diversity issue
Many of my opportunities such as internships and writing experiences were due to the South Asian community’s support in providing me with the necessary experience and resources. But in terms of activism and valorization of marginalized identities, it is the same community that often harms one another more than those outside the South Asian diaspora. While the overall fashion industry is still far from where it should be, the South Asian fashion community is even further behind. We are still confronted with beauty norms such as unrealistic body standards and colorism standards. Many subcultures remain underrepresented, conveying to outsiders that South Asian culture is North Indian culture and nothing more.
The remnants of colonialism create this tension in our community. Western fashion has been able to take more initiative to bring about actionable change in terms of body inclusivity and inclusion of marginalized communities, largely due to increased dialogue and media exposure in Western societies in recent years, but this Language is not as widespread in South Asian regions.
How can we expect the countries that have suffered from colonialism not to focus on the most Eurocentric display of beauty? Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the South Asian community to do the internal work to decolonize fashion and eliminate the harmful effects of colonial governance. SANYFW is the platform for destabilizing inaccurate representations of our community through the lens of fashion. SANYFW filled a void in South Asian culture in mainstream fashion, but in many ways that’s all it’s done. The intricacies of the South Asian community were not accurately reflected in this year’s fashion week.
Working behind the scenes from morning until late at night, the best way for me to observe the industry was while I was a fly on the wall. As I steamed lehengas and dressed the models, everything kept swirling around me — including the whispers of gossip.
Working backstage for the Mayyur Girotra show it felt like the team was working with the North Indian version of Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. While this trope works well for the film and fashion designer of the early 2000s, when our society wasn’t that socially conscious, the “diva designer” personality doesn’t do so well for this current era of critical awareness and inclusivity. I spoke to a model who said she avoids eating all day because Mayyur Girotra reportedly didn’t like seeing his models eat. A stylist I worked closely with said she should model, but Girotra only wanted tall and thin models. Another model was told she was too skinny and too muscular.
What’s disappointing is that this isn’t shocking; this is the industry in general. When catwalks have models that are curvier or shorter, it’s more of a dispersal of them among the taller and thinner models. Inclusivity isn’t just about hitting a good promotion quota, but that’s what we find with most luxury and couture brands during fashion week.
The luxury fashion industry still embodies the value that being thin and tall is the norm as it continues to marginalize anything outside of that standard of beauty. There were curvy, short, ebony models in SANYFW’s smaller runway shows, but they were dismissed as models only worthy of these smaller brands. The larger couture designers like Nomi Ansari and Mayyur Girotra selectively chose the most Eurocentric styles when the smaller designers didn’t have the “privilege” to do so. Many I spoke to at SANYFW brushed it off with an air of “what can we do?” or “this is the industry”.
In a way, there is some truth to these statements. The fashion industry is a hyper-capitalist space and in this day and age it seems a luxury for designers to break out of the systems that oppress marginalized communities and devote all their resources to better standards. Many who are starting out in the industry do not have the status or capital to make decisions that promote inclusion standards because they are forced to play within the space that is already there in order to move up.
SANYFW received backlash over inclusivity standards on TikTok. During an Instagram Live, SANYFW CEO Shipra Sharma addressed the controversy briefly. She said many of the modeling applications they received were from individuals who exceeded one standard of beauty over others, implying that the majority of their applications embodied the Eurocentric beauty standards that are sweeping the industry and that they were confused with the applications received got the best out of themselves.
I believe that statement was honest and spoke to what the leadership team was working with. However, realizing that as someone not involved in executive decision-making I still needed to be critical of what I see and hear, it gave me a social responsibility that I carry as someone working in this industry enter.
Leading the very first SANYFW means working with limited resources and wearing many hats. However, there was a lot to do in the initial phase. The SANYFW leadership team is mainly made up of North Indians who can only have the North Indian or non-resident Indian perspective on the South Asian experience. South Asian is not simply Indian or North Indian. In the future I would like to see other South Asian communities from regions such as South India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Indo-Caribbean communities represented on the leadership team.
I believe this inclusivity will more authentically represent the South Asian diaspora at the top level, where important decisions are made about models, designers and cultural events. I only saw one dimension of South Asian fashion that was heavily represented at SANYFW, mainly North Indian, with only one major Pakistani designer and one South Indian designer. As a South Indian Tamil, I don’t feel that my culture and the many other marginalized cultures of South Asia have been given the representation that we generally need in South Asian fashion.
The future of South Asian fashion
Referring to the entire fashion landscape, SANYFW deserves to be considered the landmark of the first fashion week, which offers the South Asian fashion industry a platform to be included in the fashion rhetoric of the western world. With this space that our community has worked so hard to fill, there is so much more we can do. We now have a voice that can further amplify our people and their artistry. I hope SANYFW is able to wield this power for greater representation in the future.