“Sequin Serotonin”

MEET | Apr 4, 2023

A rolled-up issue of Friday’s The Sun newspaper poked out of one of Ashish’s sequin-emblazoned shopping tote bags. Just visible is a portrait of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in his latest row about gender identity at schools. Last Friday’s miserable news was a happy coincidence for the designer Ashish Gupta who addresses society’s pressing issues with his signature sequinned designs; the newspaper acts as a fitting prop for his first retrospective, newly opened at the William Morris Gallery.

By Augustine Hammond

The last stop on the Victoria line, the Walthamstow-based gallery is home to the world’s largest collection of print pioneer, craftsman and radical socialist William Morris’ artworks. The Grade II listed building and former residence of Morris between 1848 and 1856, sits beside pruned grounds, that act as an oasis from the hustle and bustle of Walthamstow Central. For its second solely fashion-focused show since the Giles Deacon exhibit back in 2013, the gallery teamed up with Ashish for a spellbinding show that allows audiences to get up close and personal with the designer’s detailed, handcrafted creations.

Unexpected, but resounding parallels are drawn between Ashish and William Morris’ work; both champions of arts and crafts, who create meaningful pieces rich in reference, intricacy and depth. Ashish, who grew up in Delhi and moved to London to study MA fashion design at Central Saint Martins in the late 1990s, has been designing joyful and thought-provoking collections for the past two decades; injecting vibrancy, personality and a heavy dose of glitter into the London fashion scene with wit and conviction. “It's difficult being an independent, small brand in London especially, and it was nice to mark the achievement,” he says, “20 years feels like a lifetime.”

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Showcasing over 60 designs, the exhibit includes looks spanning Ashish’s career, from his distressed denim splattered with sequins that emulate Holi powder paint, taken from his AW16 collection where no two garments were the same – each stitch randomly placed; to a more recent AW22 fair isle-inspired vest (donned by Tom Daley) which mesmerising detail can only be truly appreciated off the red carpet or runway and up close. The entire print is reproduced from a kaleidoscope of individual sequins.

“A lot of time when I would do shows people would assume my fabrics were just prints. That used to really annoy me,” he says. It's hardly surprising as his intricate garments can take weeks to be made by a team of artisans in a small workshop in Delhi, who separately apply each sequin, rather than cutting from rolls of pre-embellished fabric and leaving waste offcuts.

“I always want to make very beautiful and very special things. I remember was I was at St Martins Louise Wilson said to me when you make clothes they should be objects of desire, they should be so unique and special to you, and that really stayed with me,” he recalls. This ethos lives on through each glimmering piece that catches the light in the exhibition and beyond, in what Ashish calls “sequin serotonin”. The harmonious blending of comfort and glamour that can be seen via sportswear and loungewear staples, oversized silhouettes and draping, illuminated by his love for excess, the dancefloor and big cities at night. “If you are a marginalised community, if you live in a small town where there's nobody else like you big cities almost become like a refuge. And in a way, that's what sequins are. They don't hide, they come out,” he says.

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In 2016, in the wake of Brexit, Ashish took a bow at the end of his London show in a T-shirt that read “Immigrant.” Today, a mannequin wearing the same slogan tee, paired with a full embroidered skirt, gold crown and sari-like veil, dominates the exhibition. “That t-shirt still feels so important because we just haven't moved on. In fact, I think we've taken steps back,” says Ashish. His work continues to inspire us; playfully yet astutely challenging ongoing global fears with his expert blending of cultures, generations and styles.

The story continues in an exclusive film and photo series, titled Be More Tender, captured by Mumbai-based emerging image maker Ashish Shah. The commission places the designer's work in a new frame, paying tribute to how his garments navigate the complex global history between British and India. “He is creating a new language, and capturing things through such an Indian lens, which is so important,” says the designer.

The stunning series, shot on location in both India and Walthamstow, is entrenched in references from Hollywood and Bollywood films, Indian mythology and Queer photography; using “how Indians stand” in both a physical and metaphorical sense as a starting point. This new body of work beautifully celebrates Indian culture and challenges the historic representation of Brown bodies – which feels particularly poignant and positive on the walls of an institution like the William Morris Gallery.

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