Ava Williams: Please tell everyone a little about yourself. As much or as little as you're willing to give.
Utkarsh Shukla: I am Utkarsh Shukla. I am a fashion designer currently based out of New York. I have a BDes in Fashion Design from NIFT New Delhi and an AAS and MFA in Fashion Design from FIT New York.
AW: What drew you to fashion design? When did you start and why did you start?
US: It was purely accidental. I didn't grow up with any vocation in fashion. I grew up in a family where clothes weren’t discussed. What you wore only mattered to the extent of one being presentable. Nothing more. To have a long story cut short, the deal made with my dad was, if I got into Fashion Design at NIFT New Delhi I would do fashion or else would pursue law. Sadly, I got the last seat at NIFT. And 9 years later here we are…
AW: How is it an outlet for you in ways other mediums are not?
US: I didn’t grow up with art or design as an outlet growing up. My house back in India is filled to the brim with books. When I say filled to the brim, I mean books. everywhere. On the couch, underneath the couch. On the dining table. Sometimes even in the bathroom. Most walls everywhere are covered in books. So I grew up reading a lot. And writing. And that was my outlet.
Over the years, I have slowly started to lead my own creatively, through photography and film. I love analog. And anything I can do with my hands I enjoy.
AW: When you design, where do you draw inspiration from? Parts of your life or maybe making things you would want to buy?
US: It’s rather unusual, but as visual of a person I am, I get most of my inspiration from reading. I feel words paint a picture that can be explored and understood more literally than pictures.
And a lot of it also comes from life. I understand I have lived a life that most people will find unusual. Especially in this part of the world. And that’s where my references come from. My master's thesis for example came from growing up in India and having a strong sense of the imperial raj always in the background. That led me to study a lot about how the colonization of the Indian subcontinent altered the perception of modesty and clothing. And that became a huge part of my thesis. Also with the British imposition always being in the background, I have this deep fascination with that Victorian way of life, in contrast to how people lived in my part of the world.
With that being said, people inspire me. I remember seeing you and Chloe on April's Instagram, and you guys played a huge part in my work too. I thought about what narratives I could explore with you guys wearing my clothes. Even talking to Chloe I think one time when she was hanging out at the FIT studios, I don’t remember what she said exactly, but I remembered thinking, that’s so interesting, and went and patterned a whole new look after that.
AW: That is actually a really amazing thing to dive into. I obviously don’t know what it is like to be you and to go through all the things you go through as we have very different backgrounds. I think sometimes it can be very hard to share an experience people don’t widely understand but at the same time can be so freeing. Did you ever find that you’d make something from your subconscious? I know with my work I sometimes make a photograph to figure out what I really think.
US: It's hard to quantify how the Indian education system works. And I won’t say I know how it does. But there are entrance exams for everything. Some are associated with specific colleges, some are for specific fields. I gave the entrance exam and they released a merit list. I think I was ranked 49 or 39. Unclear now. And getting the last seat meant in my head that I was the worst. I was also going into the program with no knowledge of fashion. So it definitely was motivation. I will say, with as much humility I can muster, I worked really really hard. And I became best friends with two girls who are my lifelines, and they worked really hard. I remember we would go back to my house and sit in the same room and work. Laugh and work. Cry and work. Till 4 AM or not sleep. It was actually so much fun.
As for the ultimatum, I think I got very lucky with my parents. As far as Indian parents go, they are pretty liberal. But me doing well (which made me rather annoying to everyone around me. HUMILITY WHO?) made them confident that I could make this a career.
I actually couldn’t even tell my father. My sister, who is two years older than me and probably the smartest person in any room she walks into, told my dad, rather casually at the dinner table, that I would be joining NIFT. I literally couldn’t breathe or look at my dad once she said it. And he was ever the gallant man and said okay. I think that’s all he said.
I always thought I wanted to be in a creative field. And I tell this story often, but I think I was in the first grade. And had drawn something that I was very proud of, and I showed it to my dad. And said it was amazing. And asked me what I wanted to do in life. And I said I want to be a painter. And his response was great! But how will you earn money to live? That was probably the last time I drew anything beyond what was required at school. At least until the NIFT entrance exam.
I will also say, I wasn’t particularly great at designing. I would like to think I had decent taste but designing didn’t come that naturally to me. I see my friends, like Jeremy for example! It’s almost like second nature to him. He is so so so good. But I focused on being technically great. And I had awesome teachers. And then designing came easily. It was scary. In fact, it's very scary. And it still is. But I truly enjoy creating. I know a lot of people say that, but I truly do.
AW: From a fashion designer’s perspective what does clothing do to speak for the person wearing them? So basically, when you look at an outfit or a piece someone is wearing what does it say about a person?
US: This is such an interesting question for me. Only because I didn’t grow up thinking about what clothes say about a person. I think that sense of my understanding was almost forced into existence after I moved to NYC. I don’t think we knew each other when I was rocking up to FIT in Walmart sweatpants and feeling like the coolest person ever. I am fairly new to using clothes to express myself. And very unsuccessfully so at that. I think more than anything clothes help express your mood. At least to me. Mostly if I am tired or not. Which are my only two emotional states.
AW: That’s interesting I think you have a wonderful grasp of clothing and your personal style always feels very you. Even if you were wearing sweatpants I would think you were rocking it. You have that way about you. But I think that statement about sweat pants is very interesting. How are the cultures different? I am curious when you were in India did it feel like people wore things with the purpose of self expression or did it feel like getting dressed was just a routine of the day? How did the act of getting dressed when you were younger change as you got older and were in another part of the world? Does that make sense? I guess I am asking what feels different to you between the two sorts of “norms” you have experienced? I have always thought that fashion was a form of self expression for everyone.
US: I think, more so than anything, I never thought about what I wore. I mean I had my colors that I liked and stuff like that. But also fashion was so far out of reach. I think growing up, maybe until I went to college I never really went to a mall to shop. We sometimes lived in big cities and even then, my mom would take us to local markets and we would choose what we wanted to wear. But never shopped at a Zara, or H&M. I will also say, they weren’t available. Here I feel like you have almost an excess of options. At least that is what it felt like coming to the US. Me and my sister, I think got new clothes once on our birthdays. And once during Holi and Diwali. Plus we had uniforms for school so I never really thought about it.
AW: How do you know when a collection is complete? What do you look for?
US: I don’t ever think a collection is complete. And just the way I approach fashion, I rarely go from one inspiration to another completely diametrically opposite inspiration. I think as a fashion designer, we are given the luxury to build on our work. And maybe influences alter and evolve, but the ethos remains the same. So a collection is never done. Just the current iteration for the work. And how that is done is deadlines. I mean it's usually the best way to conclude one's work because nothing is worse than something that is overworked. I am not a person who procrastinates or overthinks when I am working. Even before I go to actually making something, whether it's patterning or draping, I have a strong understanding of what I want to make even if I don’t know how it will look after it's done. And that helps conclude something easier.
AW: How has your influence changed then over the years? Where did your influence start and where is it now?
US: I think I was very scared to be identified or labeled as an Indian designer. And not because of anything other than the fact that it puts you in a box here. I was expected to be colorful and maximalist. And I didn’t really want to do that. And I think in a way that changed when I did a thesis which was all about the Indian subcontinent. But I did it my way. And now that is all I can talk about. I think…more so than changed, I think my understanding of inspiration evolved. And I became more confident. I started by almost idolizing the west and western fashion because that is what is force-fed to you. But it has come to a point where exploring the other side is exciting. My work was always very personal and it's exciting to explore the cultural side of things.
AW: What type of materials do you like to work with? How do these materials help you get across the message you want to instill with your work?
US: It's like that old saying that I am going to completely butcher, but you can’t teach an old horse new tricks. And I feel like that is the death of a designer. I feel like materials are something that is evolving faster than this industry is, and one needs to be open to exploring more. With that being said, I am a woven designer and I love working with wovens. I like my fabrics to tell a story that I want to explore and the narrative dictates the materials.
Citing my thesis as an example. I worked with white organdy. In terms of color, white is the color of mourning, peace, and enlightenment and that is what I was trying to convey. And it renders beautifully to tailoring and draping. So I went with organdy from India.
AW: It seems as though all these little details of your work mean so much and I love when an artists really thinks about what they are doing and what things mean. I know maybe to some the color of a garment means nothing but I love that for you, it represents a part of life and living that we sometimes choose to close ourselves off from. You said people need to be open to exploring, do you plan on exploring any other materials in the future?
US: I am. And it’s partly also because of the people I surround myself with. I always feel like my friends are ridiculously talented and that makes me want to challenge myself.
AW: Are there any sort of design elements or themes that you are drawn to when you create a piece?
US: Again, it evolves and changes. Being in school I swore off corsetry. I found it redundant and dated and overdone. But where my work led, it became an essential part of my collection. One thing that I am conscious about while designing, is designing away from the body. I feel like a lot of designers design around a strict parameter of a dress form. And that seems limiting. I like creating garments that take the body into consideration and comfort and ease but it doesn’t end there. So in ways that would be an element that I keep going back to over and over again.
AW: How do you take the body into consideration? I would like to hear more about this process for you. How do you think about your pieces and the people wearing them?
US: I mean, just citing the system of designing my thesis collection was all about the practice of dress. I mean much like many other cultures in the popular media, I feel the way India and Indian clothing is represented is so stereotypical. There is a rather unhealthy understanding of how clothing is worn. And just by making these Victorian inspired dresses and trousers and tailoring, to be worn in a way that mimicked the draping of a saree gives the person a hands on vocation on the practice of dress from that part of the world. That is rather a high brow way of saying it gave me joy to see people struggle to figure out a dress and how it worked.
As for the body, I feel like we as fashion students are taught to make clothing for a rather dated dress form. A lot of designers wouldn’t know how to dress anyone who isn’t that. I think that is something people don’t realize when they talk about body inclusivity in fashion. Many of the designers don’t know how to approach that. So whenever I design, there is a slight consideration of who is going to wear this. What and how would they want to dress their bodies. If you remembered a lot of my collection was modular. And would work around bodies that are different and beautiful. I mean this is a whole conversation on its own (and an infuriating one at that), but as a designer, especially if I am designing something custom, I want to, yes, design it in my own visual vernacular, but you have to take into consideration about the person you are dressing. How they want to look and feel. Not sure if that even is an answer to your question.
AW: We were out together the other day and you were listing off designers and opinions about them. I agreed with what you said and though I won’t type it here it was critical in a refreshing way. So what fashion designers actually inspire you?
US: My first year as a fashion design student, I started discovering the design world and fashion designers. And it was like a whole new vocation opened up to me. I like a lot of designers. There is always something to learn from a lot of designers. Designers like Margiela or McQueen or Charles James or Balenciaga, they literally created a whole new way of approaching fashion. And that is what fashion should be. I am also inspired by my friends and who I surround myself with. I know I always tease you by saying you are my design icon, but it is true. I feel like anyone who can command an aesthetic and run with it, is inspiring. If you look at my friends, you will see a whole plethora of different identities and approaches to fashion and they all inspire me. From how you would tie a sweater around your neck, would give me an idea about a coat with a deconstructed lapel or how Jeremy would wear a shirt as a skirt. These are the first things that came to mind but things like that.
AW: I love this! I love that you could just pick something out of the air and list off a design. I find that inspiring and you are truly a vision to be around and create with. I was honored to be asked to participate in anything and going to your photoshoots seeing how you work was just amazing. I think you’re insanely talented and I wasn’t lying when I said if I was ever important enough, and I ever got invited to an event important enough for a custom garment or to wear anything special, you’d be my first choice. Of course, I mean this in a way of, you’d have to say yes and all that. I think I sound a little narcissistic I am not trying to flatter myself I am trying to flatter YOU. I just mean anytime I have been able to wear your designs I have felt so honored and therefore I would be honored to wear something of yours if you would let me because you are so talented. But, back to the point, what is the strangest thing you have ever been inspired from if you have something you recall. Or even the most unexpected?
US: I mean not to be too specific, but you take your traumas and you create something beautiful. And when a person puts it on, it creates its own new narrative. And I guess that was the most unexpected thing.
Not to mention, it was my honor that you guys even considered being a part of it. I can’t ever thank you enough or tell you in words what that meant.
AW: What outside of fashion inspires you? Like books, paintings, or even nature stuff like that.
US: Bookworm. I read a lot and about too many different things. I love reading autobiographies for people I look up to. And not necessarily even in fashion. I think just reading about lives lived allows me to create narratives away from me. I also feel like. That makes designing for me sustainable. Where I don’t have to make every collection about something horrid that happened to me, but can infuse elements of me into whatever story I am trying to tell.
AW: Do you ever create fictitious scenarios to create around or are you drawn to telling real stories?
US: Oh my god! All the time. I live 90% of the time in my head. I am always creating stories and dressing people in those scenarios. Funny thing is, I'll sit at my desk and just think for hours about how to create a dress, or how to pattern something, without touching a pen or paper. That's just how I design. It’s infuriating for people around me. Especially when I was in school and you had to draw illustrations of garments before you made it. I never was great at that. That and drawing gives me so much anxiety.
AW: What do you hope to accomplish in your own career in the future? It can be just overall career goals or near-future goals or anything really.
US: Short and simple? I’ll be a creative director of a brand in Paris. Which one? I'll tell you in person.
AW: A TEASE! What do you hope the future of fashion looks like? Would you change anything from the current state of the industry?
US: I would change everything about this industry. From the way people behave to the way the industry is structured. We all had hoped that post covid there would be changes made, but we all went back to exactly how we acted before. And this is not to say I am above it all. I am part of the problem as well. Me complying to things is me aiding whatever I want to change.
One thing I will want to change, would be, we as creatives need time to lead lives so contribute better to any vision and that is something the industry doesn’t offer. Time. Time to yourself
AW: I believe you will change the industry, I don’t believe actually…I know! Last question, will you ever design the Ava dress? Gucci has the Jackie bag and you will have the Ava mini. Just kidding that’s fake but I had to ask it because ha ha.
US: The funny thing is I already designed an ‘Ava’ dress and a ‘Chloe’ dress. You just hate me and never want to hangout with me.
AW: I will be over ASAP and I am SERIOUS.
US: Please do. I'll feed you yummy Indian food. And we shall have wine and talk about all our futures.
If you would like to see more of Utkarsh’s work:
I think the best thing to know in the industry is! That you don’t always know how to do everything. And you don’t need to! Don’t try and master every single skill or format! There is a reason why you always work in teams. Find people you love and trust! I know it’s not what people tell us, but I find working with friends so much easier and so much more fun. And friends can check you! Keep you humble.
This Newsletter is Brought to You By:
Crippling anxiety of a brown man.
me being unrelenting in becoming friends with the best twins I know.
Prada’s dad (make of that what you will).
try ping while cooking dinner for a canceled dinner party.
just the slightest bit of presence from a fashion designer