On the first day of Van Heusen Men’s Fashion week at the Grand Hotel in Delhi, Samant Chauhan showed a strong collection based on the concept of the psyche of the serial killer. When he first called me a couple of weeks before the show to talk about this I couldn’t exactly see how such a harrowing theme could be interpreted as a catwalk collection, it both bemused and perplexed me. Taking such a theme as inspiration for a fashion collection might raise eyebrows, but Samant seemed with this collection to be less concerned with fashion as commerce and more with fashion as art, and thus presented a collection that as with some art, sets out to shock and challenge the acceptable boundaries of taste and provide social commentary by asking us to reflect upon our reactions to subjects that are disturbing and taboo. As Samant explained to me, he is also keen to take eco fashion out of the box of cliched images of “back to nature”.
The show itself began with a sound clip from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and followed with a score reminiscent of the thriller scenes from Psycho. The actual feel of the show was dark and foreboding, with models masked in strange and menacing masks, their bodies bound at times with leather. This gave the collection the aesthetic of bondage, creating a claustrophobic feel and underscoring the menace, were they bound in service to the psychological pleasure of restraint or to restrain them from their dark, psychotic pleasure in killing? In this warped world the boundaries between pleasure and violence were entirely blurred.
Some pieces seemed to have less clarity in terms of the overall concept, the crushed jackets and wide skirts with heavy biker boots seemed more like the cliched stylisation of a post-apocalyptic movie. If the over-riding link between the concept behind the collection and its realisation in the clothes themselves was “killers in disguise” then I think the most successful pieces were those that made the models look more like spies. The styling of these ensembles made me think of Patricia Highsmith’s most famous character Tom Ripley. In the “Ripliad” novels the mercurial sometimes spy, sometimes hit man Ripley is given moral ambiguity by the way in which Highsmith asks us to judge, in consequentialist terms, the rightness of his actions in the context of revenge or justice. I always feel that she partly underscores sympathy for Ripley through a carefully sustained narrative which describes in detail Ripley’s clothing, that of a gentleman- never a libertine he is always a connoisseur. Fine linen suits and leather accessories are amongst the sartorial repertoire Highsmith uses. Some of the pieces in Chauhan’s show could have been straight from a spy novel, brown leather attaché cases and a large trunk, cool linen trousers and jackets cinched with leather belts had the feel of 1960s Riviera type styling and were highly wearable off the catwalk. It was these pieces, layered and bound with straps of leather to the body, coupled with grotesque leather masks, that successfully translated some of the broader conceptual themes that Chauhan was evoking that of human “nature”, of traces found and hidden and the mysterious world of the violent mind and its chilling seductions.
Yet what made this collection and its dark, gothic themes really different were Samant’s eschewing the cliché of black leather instead playing with a monochromatic palette of creams, brown, bronze and rust. A technique of rusting nails left over the fabric for several days was used on a pair of trousers to create beautiful scrolling patterns, the rust leaving a disturbing blood-like effect and were perhaps a way of interpreting the normal, human façade behind which many killers have hidden. The textured surfaces of hand-woven silk and the bristle of undyed linens decorated with rust red patterns had an earthy, elemental feel which underscored the theme of unbound amoral passions and of the decay of souls, flesh and blood that circulate around the image of pre-meditated death. These elements rendered in beautiful detailing renewed the sense of shock at their darker meaning.
Most importantly, this monochromatic palette is the expression of a more profound conceptual orientation to Samant’s collection, the monochrome woven tussah silks and linens are firmly grounded in the designer’s political commitment to sustainable livelihoods of a collective of weavers from his native Bihar. The introduction of linen to the collection is part of a long-term plan to expand the livelihood opportunities of these weavers beyond tussah silk and its seasonal work opportunities. Linen also expands potential markets for the clothing. The leather used in the collection was tanned and dyed using chromium free, vegetable tanning processes and the American brand Anthropologie is now stocking some of Samant’s leather designs as part of its showcasing of Indian design talent.