Ojas Kolvankar is an openly queer stylist who is currently working with Grazia Magazine as a fashion stylist and writer. His profile on Instagram offered me a peek into his aesthetic and work ethic, opening up numerous topics to discuss. Ojas’ perseverance to represent his community better is reflected in his work and the way he approaches topics like queer identity and gender politics. His point of view is as strong as his will power to be a better ally to those who do not have the same privileges as he does. In the telephonic interview that ensued, he candidly discussed his experiences of working in the mainstream media as a homosexual man.
Q. How do you feel about the general public’s nonchalance regarding gender fluidity in fashion?
For the general public, more so for cis-gendered, heterosexual men, anything that doesn’t associate to the conventional gender binary of male or female is confusing. Hence the first step would be to undo the years of conditioning for the acceptance of individuals who identify as genderqueer, gender-fluid or non-binary.
Gender fluidity in fashion has always existed, for instance, the saree is largely worn by the Hijra community in India. As queer folks are asserting their gender identity, more and more brands, i.e. within the last four to five years, are attempting to create non-gender specific clothing. Although I believe the real impact on the masses can be felt only when aspirational, luxury design houses like Fendi, Gucci, Prada, or in an Indian context, Sabyasachi, put a queer mode or a plus size, curvy model in their campaign. Because they are mainstream, cis-gendered, heterosexual brands, it would not only increase the visibility but also set an example for other brands to imbibe an inclusive and diverse approach. Fashion designers need to introduce these topics and vocabularies so that a conversation about such things can start. Otherwise, we’re still going to have super muscular, straight men as the representation, when it comes to campaigns.
Now, for upper middle class and middle class people, these brands are not approachable enough. For them their knowledge about trends and clothes come from brands like HnM and Zara. If they also change their industry and introduce something which does not adhere to mainstream notions of what traditionally men have been wearing, then the narrative can be shifted to a much more open one. The real narrative shift can only come from aspirational brands. Different classes approach different brands according to their wealth and awareness. So in India, designers like Sabyasachi, Anita Dongre, focus on ethnic wear profusely, which aren’t ready-to-wear in that sense. So, if Sabyasachi puts jewellery on a male model, it subverts the notion of what we consider a “traditional” man. Personally speaking, I do not feel any relatability towards the design prospects of ethnic wear, but I understand the impact of subverting the views of the general public through the use of ethnic wear, since it is very culturally significant in our context. A queer model or a dark skinned model helps in changing the views of the consumer who’s willing to buy from these brands; it opens up a fresh and more approachable market. These people then, while approaching a somewhat effeminate man in their surroundings, would be a little more careful in the way they address them, which in itself is an important step in normalising the existence of queer identities in our country.
Q. Where does gender and sexuality stand for you, in your styling process?
I think a lot of these things come from the person’s background, the ability to approach these topics depend on the person’s gender politics or politics in general. So a lot of my context comes from the fact that I studied law, I did not study design or fashion. I used to work at a cultural think tank for about three years. This influenced my work a lot, be it my writing or my styling process. It developed in me the habit of questioning everything.
It’s not just gender and sexuality that comes into the process, it’s the larger idea of inclusivity and diversity that’s at play here. For instance, asking questions like are we working with a lot of photographers from the North-east, are we including women photographers, are we casting models who are a part of the trans community, models that do not conform to the rigid idea of beautiful that we as Indians have been consuming, becomes important. So, when you work with a team so diverse, you can come up with things that haven’t existed before, things which might make even you question your existing biases, while you put together this entire shooting process.
So for me it’s never been about gender. I approach a garment as a silhouette; it doesn’t matter if it’s a man’s silhouette or a woman’s silhouette or if it’s being filled up by a member of the LGBT+ group. Diversity is key, whenever you’re creating imagery and we put a lot of emphasis on queerness or sexuality or gender fluidity because we think they’re under-represented and rightly so, if people want to reclaim it at a separate scheme, it is great that they are doing so.
In fashion photography, there are more cis-gendered male photographers who are always looking at the subject, as in a female model, or even in movies. If you go through the camera work, you would notice a major difference between how women photographers would capture certain details that male photographers might overlook. So if a queer stylist is involved, wherein the subject is sociological, or anything for that matter, a more diverse view point would come forth during that process which would be very different from a cis-gendered straight person’s view point. So, diversity provides a lot of different lenses which can be used to look at the same subject.
As a queer individual, when I am writing a story about LGBT groups, I know my privilege as a cis-gendered homosexual man. So I will acknowledge that privilege and do whatever reading there’s required and pass it through my friends for their opinions on what’s right, what could be better and only then put it online, to make sure it does not affect any group in a grave manner. Working with under-represented groups, it becomes very important to involve them in the process. A lot of people do this in a very vocalist manner, since fashion is a trendy hot topic and everyone wants to know what’s going on and what’s cool all the time, it is important to figure out how long has that person been engaging with the topic. Has it been engaged with for long enough or is the person just rambling away, has it come from an authentic place, etc. Let’s say, a cis-gendered heterosexual person cannot create queer imagery, but in order to do that, are they talking to queer groups, are doing enough research, are they involving some members of that community to ensure that is it sensitive enough, these questions become important to ask while indulging in this topic.
Q. How does your journey as a queer man get reflected in your work?
I work in a mainstream media space. I have been very lucky to work with people who are accepting ‘of sorts’. I say ‘of sorts’ because I’ve spoken to a lot editors and publishers and they have asked me questions like why do we have to do this, why does this matter. For instance, I’ve written a few pieces about non-binary folks or gender fluid folks and conversed about using the pronouns they/them and how do we go about writing them in, properly. So for these people, who have been in the publishing sector for 20 years, almost half their life, to be baffled by the concept, for them to be so disabled in navigating their way through this vocabulary is surprising for me. At the same time, there are people who are welcoming enough, who want to hear us, who are willing to understand how we should be represented, how do we incorporate the proper pronouns, etc.
There a lot of other challenges you work with, but unless and until you ask these questions, these issues won’t get addressed. We won’t be able to destigmatise them unless we write about subjects like fetishes or sex positivity. If you typically bring in only one particular kind of public, say in the social sector, you cannot get a diverse approach. It can be achieved by including queer voices, if you hire someone who has lived that life. So if you have a diverse team, even in terms of sexuality, who are open and enthusiastic enough to talk about issues only then we will be able to enhance our voices as queers.
I have had to write about the queer spectrum, genders and pronouns for my team, out of a casual conversation. Some people were writing about lifestyle, about gender, far more senior people, who were not as much equipped about the right terminology, but were willing to learn, willing to change. There can be more spaces which can talk about these things, especially the mainstream media. There are many ways to do it, it just depends on how you treat it, how you go about it.