HT Brunch Cover Story: “Don’t call me a clothes maker”

Updated on Aug 08, 2021 09:03 AM IST

He calls his collections “projects” and his shows “exhibits”. How designer Kallol Datta questions fashion with everything he does

Kallol says that he always sees himself as an outsider, even while he’s doing shows every season; (Rahul Dhankani)
Kallol says that he always sees himself as an outsider, even while he’s doing shows every season; (Rahul Dhankani)
ByNonita Kalra

Kallol Datta has long been a polarising figure in fashion. You love him or hate him, but you cannot ignore him, because he uses fashion for a purpose: for dialogue, dissent, dissection.

When I speak to him one Saturday afternoon, it’s easy to see that hasn’t changed. In a country dominated by conversations on craft, textiles, and artisans, he remains detached from fabric. In fact, it’s the last thing he thinks about, he says, often choosing music for his shows before textiles for the collection. Deeper into our conversation, he reveals he isn’t much interested in the human form either.

“I don’t really think of humans. I think of the shape and the form of clothing, how it is layered with other pieces, how it will behave when it is mounted on different forms. It’s the human who has to adjust to the garment; the garment won’t adjust the other way around. I don’t acknowledge humans while drafting patterns so, in a weird way, I think that makes it more inclusive when it comes to sizing. The same garment can be worn by you, could probably be worn by me, depending on the silhouette. It would just skim our body or drape differently on both of us,” says the designer, a graduate from Central St Martins, London, and National Institute of Fashion Technology, Kolkata.

Comfort with discord

Like most conversations these days, ours takes place on Zoom. And I realise that life as a virtual meeting place has had an interesting ramification. It is easier to let down your guard and be guarded at the same time. Just as Kallol and I are chatting, like old friends, or so I think, he immediately points out that he has a lot of “acquaintances” but not too many friends. It is a distinction he maintains. Such specificities are what make the designer. He measures his words, and disperses them with care. Something that was visible right from his debut as part of the Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2007 Gen Next show. With a surprisingly vulnerable collection that showed exactly who he was – zero embellishments, zero artifice – he announced a new sensibility in fashion.

“His youthful bravado, his intellectualisation of fashion, and his audacity to show a middle-finger, so to speak, to those who relegated fashion to only the exorbitance of pomp and show, was what really delighted the budding journalist in me,” says Bandana Tewari, a sustainability advocate and authority on fashion, of her introduction to Kallol’s work. “What resonates the most for me is his comfort with discord, his ability to play with contradictions and offer a ringside view of the irony and beauty of fashion.”

Kallol uses visible markers like jewellery, nail paint and tattoos to shape his unstructured genderless aesthetic
Kallol uses visible markers like jewellery, nail paint and tattoos to shape his unstructured genderless aesthetic

The ‘heavy’ designer

Deconstructed clothing that was carefully constructed led fashion editors to use words like anti-fit, genderless and “ethno grunge”. But these descriptions seem erroneous when you consider how Kallol describes his process: “I enjoy pattern cutting. It’s been so many years now that I’m able to do it without a ruler, a French curve or any tools. I am able to do it freehand, and that’s the part I really enjoy the most.”

Over the years, Kallol has also been called “dark”, “angsty” and sometimes even a “problem child”; he, on the other hand, thinks of himself as India’s “heaviest designer” (half in jest and half seriously).

The truth is, he prefers to ‘un belong’. That’s how he shapes his approach to his audience, too. He isn’t indifferent to viewers; rather, he goes to the extent of making them feel uneasy. Unwelcome. And he is involved in each step to the extreme end. One season, he had his entire line sheet in Korean, inspired by a visit to the Ewha Womans University Museum in Seoul, and all the Korean series and films he had been watching. For a show in Delhi in 2013, he brought in extra air conditioners: “I wanted to make the space feel as uninviting as possible. I wanted it really cold as I didn’t want people spending too much time at the exhibits.”

Art influence

That’s another thing about Kallol. He calls his collections “projects”, and his shows “exhibits”. Perhaps for good reason. His designs have always straddled the worlds of art and fashion. In 2011, Delhi-based writer and curator of textiles Mayank Mansingh Kaul invited him to Khoj’s first Art and Fashion Residency, titled The Idea of Fashion, where his work interacted with that of artists. Says Kaul, “I saw his work then, as I see it now, not just on the bodies and wardrobes of people who own his clothes, but equally as provocations which should be included in exhibitions of contemporary art, as well as home of art collectors. Kallol’s work disagrees and questions so much about fashion and its conventions that we have received as a generation. But in its larger role, it has a place in the artistic discussions of our time.”

Sure enough, his stint at Khoj set the stage for a longer, more formally-structured residency in 2013, which resulted in a four-minute film, Blood Song, which was part of his exhibit, ‘Paranoia Pronoia’. The subsequent year, he did another, this time with T.A.J. Projects and GallerySKE, in Bangalore; and in 2017, he held a solo show Random Access at Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery, where billowing, amorphous, genderless black fabric and plastic were draped over sculptures. “It’s a form of education,” says Datta.

A look at Kallol’s career path
A look at Kallol’s career path

More than fashion

Most recently, though, he is shortlisted for the Jameel Prize, one of eight finalists selected from over 400 applications. While he isn’t a stranger to critical acclaim, this latest award puts him on an international platform. Organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in partnership with Art Jameel, the aim of the prize is to “recognise the influence of Islamic tradition on contemporary culture and celebrate contemporary practitioners inspired by Islamic design and visual culture.”

Says Rachel Dedman, V&A Jameel Curator of Contemporary Art from the Middle East, and co-curator of the exhibition, “The Jameel Prize jury was impressed by the rigorous research that underpins Kallol’s innovative design practice, and his commitment to clothing as a form of self-expression. A sari designed by Kallol has been part of the V&A’s permanent collection since 2015.”

Kallol adds: “This time it is not just the Jameel Prize, it is the Jameel Prize: Poetry to Politics. I thought it was so apt because all eight of us, our work deals with the personal and the political. And it is often the same thing. I always see myself as an outsider. Even while I was doing shows every season. Now even more so. I always tell people I am more than just fashion. I just happened to make clothes. There isn’t an industry large enough to contain me as a clothes maker.”

Nonita Kalra is Editor-In-Chief, Tata CLiQ Luxury. An authority on luxury and fashion in India, she has been Editor-In-Chief, Elle India & Harper’s Bazaar India

From HT Brunch, August 8, 2021

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