How Indian designers are refreshing fashion for men with gender neutral silhouettes. Plus, a push towards shared and polysexual clothing
You’ve probably noticed how every international red carpet today has at least a few men turning up in gender fluid silhouettes — from Harry Styles’ sheer tops and pussy bows to Timothée Chalamet’s sequinned hoodies. To say that a shift is underway is an understatement.
Actor Vijay Varma in a metallic hand-woven kimono from Amit Aggarwal’s Victore collection
Closer home, Indian men’s long-standing love affair with polos, linens and denim is now, increasingly, accommodating other silhouettes. From Gucci’s gender-fluid tailoring to Mard, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla’s dramatic ensembles, non-binary style is having a moment. And this is changing the country’s $26 billion menswear market (Italian Trade Agency). For instance, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited has joined forces with couturier Tarun Tahiliani — renowned for his feminine silhouettes and intricate embroidery — to create a new subsidiary to focus on affordable menswear.
Also read | Street view: fluid fashion in India
Womenswear designers such as Payal Singhal, Anamika Khanna, and Monisha Jaising are foraying into menswear, and men don’t seem to mind; the labels are thriving. “It’s not about straight or gay [or anything in between the spectrum] any more. Even classic dressers have warmed up to vibrant prints, sheer fabrics and sparkle texturing, and experimental silhouettes,” says Singhal, recalling a recent request from a six-foot-tall man from Pune who wanted to wear her sheer organza kurta to his son’s wedding. “I used to hear ‘I want something different’ from women, but now I hear that from men.”
Digital creator Siddharth Batra
Subtracting gender from clothes
What masculinity stood for a decade ago is a far cry from its definition today. Popular digital creator Siddharth Batra is often known to borrow pieces from his girlfriend and fashion influencer Komal Pandey’s closet to playfully recontextualise them on social media. “If I had my way, I would have one closet for both me and my partner; just shelves for tops, bottoms, etc. Tags for gender-specifications in fashion have never mattered to me. I’d say, just wear the same clothes, pyaar badega.”
He credits the queer community for some of the stylistic experimentations. “I do notice a positive trajectory [towards fluidity] across the gender spectrum. Brands have also, finally, started moving towards inclusive approaches, with the consumers following suit,” adds Batra, who is often seen sporting experimental make-up, ruffles, edgy nail paints, and diaphanous separates.
A section of Indian designers are happy that men are not being limited by social conditioning, be it with colour, prints, or silhouettes. “Perhaps for too long we’ve lived under the influence of western culture and tried to adopt what they did, primarily English men or more casual Americans, rather than the free-flowing, colour-centric, metrosexual Italian men,” says Tahiliani. “Indian men have worn kajal. Indian grooms wear copious amounts of jewellery, sarpech, stoles and necklaces, so why must we follow the western diktat of black, white and grey on a day-to-day basis?”
Clockwise from top left: Payal Singhal, Shivan and Narresh, Tanisha Rahimtoola Agarwal, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, Anaita Shroff Adajania, and Amit Aggarwal
From a design perspective, these blurring lines have made clothing conceptualisation more interesting. Amit Aggarwal, who has often toyed with metallic and sheer menswear ensembles, finds it exciting to expand his visual imagination. “My first objective has always been to create something I see beauty in and not control what the person acquiring it would look like,” he says. His new men’s and women’s collections have styles that both genders have tried on and loved. “Now, more than ever, men and women have the freedom and confidence to express their individuality. We have seen this particularly in the case of our signature Kimono. Though it is from the men’s line, the response across the gender spectrum has been immense. Men are styling it with kurtas and turtleneck tees, and in place of tailored jackets. But we’ve also had their partners styling the kimono over their saris and dresses.”
From Shivan & Narresh’s IconoScape series
A sharing culture
One could argue that genderless fashion dates back to the ’80s and ’90s, when bootleg cuts and flared trousers offered neutral choices. But today’s fluid fashion is not just about experimentation for its own sake. It stems from stronger, louder conversations around sexuality, choice and freedom, of the Gen Z belief that gender is an outmoded construct. Lyst, the global fashion shopping platform, revealed that searches with agender-related keywords have increased 33% this year. Shareable labels are popping up with greater frequency, like Stella McCartney’s new genderless apparel line, Shared. And last year, Marc Jacobs launched a polysexual capsule collection for “girls who are boys and boys who are girls [and] those who are neither”.
We need more of this in India, and the time is ripe for it. “Earlier, many of the men I styled would stick to a beautifully-cut suit or shirt. It was a struggle to convince them to wear a different colour [especially a pastel], or more fluid silhouettes. Now they are picking up women’s slim cardigans and printed shirts. Even our biggest sports stars are happy to wear an embroidered denim jacket and layer it with cropped pants,” says stylist Anaita Shroff Adajania, who is behind some of India’s best fashion shoots (who can forget the 2018 Vogue edition with Ranveer Singh). She adds that her teenaged son doesn’t hesitate to borrow her sweatshirts and tees, even if they are purple and pink.
Designs from Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla’s Mard, Antar Agni, and Chennai-based Aliph’s Yugen capsule
Sanya Suri, co-founder of The Pot Plant, a conscious fashion label, is seeing this change reflecting in their sales. “There has been a 30% increase in cishet [cisgender heterosexual] men optioning for gender fluid styles [drape shirts, bandhani jumpsuits, bright colours, layering clothes]. As the conversation around gender identities grows, so will the need for fashion to be more inclusive. There is a true movement towards identifying clothing as just that, clothing, irrespective of the gender you identify with.”
And with the next generation coming of age now, the change will only ramp up, believes Shivan Bhatiya, of Shivan & Narresh. The resort label has always worked towards innovating and expanding the stereotypical definition of masculinity, especially through castings for shows and campaigns. “We are constantly widening the masculine spectrum, by defining the Shivan & Narresh Man through different mediums of menswear. Adapting to fashion and beauty is just part of this gamut — where you use it to identify yourself, to see where you fit on this spectrum,” he concludes.
With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar
Pushpak Sen on the streets of Milan and at his college in Florence
Saris in Milan
A bearded man in a sari with red lips and a red bindi, will always get noticed. But for Pushpak Sen, who is doing his Masters in fashion communication and marketing in Florence, it’s just who he is. “I have been wearing saris in the form of dhotis since my school days. I have always been experimental when it comes to sartorial choices because I have always found the idea of non-living things to have gender as ridiculous.” The 26-year-old (@thebongmunda) recently shared photos of himself rocking saris, kurtas and churidars on the streets of Milan and Barcelona.
How different was the reception from, say, Delhi or Mumbai? “I am celebrated more as an Indian outside of India,” he says. “While on social media, people from my country show me love and support, I am not sure if it would be okay for me to walk down Connaught Place or in Kolkata’s New Market area. But on the streets of Milan or Barcelona, either people mind their own business or, most often, they come up and say the nicest of the things. Even in my college, my friends, professors, right down to the security people, complain when I don’t wear a sari or don’t dress up for class.”
Talking about beauty
Men are paying more attention to how they look. “They have started going to dermatologists more, and are spending a lot on skincare,” says Vasudha Rai, Weekend’s beauty columnist. “They are very much into grooming that can’t be seen — good skin, clean hands. A man in Raipur that I recently interviewed is spending up to a ₹1 lakh in skincare!”
The rise of social media has had a huge impact on the way men perceive self-care. “Most male figures [on these platforms] have normalised self-care by sharing their routines and talking about the products they enjoy using,” says Melbourne-based blogger Arjun Sudhir (@justaskarjun). “Obviously, there are still people who have old-fashioned notions about what’s considered feminine and masculine, but it’s come a long way in the last few years [and still has a long way to go, especially in India].” Most of the men he talks to are interested in targeted, results-oriented skincare. “I get many asking for Vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and retinol product recommendations. Serums seem to be very popular because they are designed to target specific skin concerns like acne and hyperpigmentation, and cleansers, exfoliators and eye products are in demand too,” he says, adding that gender-specific skincare is on its way out, with men gravitating towards unisex cosmeceutical products.