Here’s the thing about transgender and non-binary identifying folks living in a cisgender and gender binary conforming society – we are often – be the sheer act of existing considered political or to be activists. In my opinion, Saisha Shinde’s Intertwined collection is political.
Very often due to misinformation and transphobic representation in mainstream media, people around us do not tend to actually know much about transgender folks and their experiences – beyond the stigma. Therefore we find ourselves inadvertently being activists as well.
Whether we do it visibly as Saisha Shinde – often credited as India’s first transgender fashion designer – has done through her transition and the representation she creates for the community, or by simply answering the inane questions we get asked in public. For example, at the cinema purchasing popcorn and being asked if I am on hormone replacement therapy, and what is that experience really like. Would I be doing ThE SuRgErY? All being asked by a cisgender person I met literally seven minutes ago. Or even if we only ever had to explain to our own family that we aren’t actually monsters but human beings, and that their ideas and assumptions about us are unfounded. We are activists.
Here’s the thing about Lakme Fashion Week and the fashion industry in India – the vast majority of them try their level best to be apolitical. And can you blame them? We live in a highly polarised time, not the greatest economy and surmounting unemployment. Where brands, celebrities, and others can get taken down for being on the ‘wrong’ side of the polarization. The pragmatic, capitalistic and smart thing to do would be to remain apolitical. I personally do not believe everything needs to be political.
But when your very existence is political, who you love and who you can marry or even whether you can marry is political, then I guess you resign to the fact that you just can’t be apolitical.
I have been attending shows at Lakme Fashion Week since 2016. In all that time I have seen what issues and topics designers tend to highlight through their work and also how these issues changed over the years, as we got to 2023. A time of national self-imposed censorship and silence, including my own.
Honestly, if someone as much as says that their collection is inspired by Kashmir, I would easily consider it to political in this climate.
When asked about the inspiration behind the Intertwined collection Saisha said, “The starting point was this outfit I had custom-made for Deepika Padukone with the Criss cross trellis weave – which has become synonymous with the label. I was listening to the song “Kashmir” by The Yellow Diary on loop … and that’s how the idea of taking inspiration from Kashmir came around. I’ve always been fascinated by architecture and local crafts That’s when Kashmir came in and the idea of Kashmir was important because it’s battling and at the same time it’s beautiful. It’s pretty much what trans-woman in this country are, they are beautiful but they are battling.”
Now we are definitely beyond guessing if this Queen is being political with her art. I was super excited about her show, from the moment it was announced. I knew that I wanted to be there, in that room, didn’t matter if I was sitting in the corner (I was). But I wanted to be there for this moment. So we did the fashion week hustle, DMs, introductions, stalking and Saisha Shinde’s PR was able to secure a single invite for me.
“The collection finds inspiration from The Kashmiri specialty of wood carving known as Khatam-band which has geometrical patterns beautifully done on the wood, while the colour story is inspired by its beautiful landscape. Kashmir’s eponymous “Tilla-WORK” lends motifs and technique.”
We often talk about the importance of queer joy, and that is what this moment was. It is a massive win and a milestone for this community. Sushant Divgikr, Jason Arland, and other queer fashion icons were present in celebration of Saisha. We cheered as soon as the video came on for Saisha’s show announcing that she can’t afford to have celebrity showstoppers and still fairly pay her really showstoppers, “The real showstoppers of this show are the models, backstage team, hair and makeup team, masters, tailors, assistants, the show choreographer and above all the clothes.” “FUN FACT :- I was the ONLY ESTABLISHED designer at fashion week without a show stopper … something to think about !”
We cheered and were filled with glee when Nehal Chudasama – Miss Universe 2018, walked out in that first incredible outfit.
When snapped our fingers with love and approval when Gaia walked in that beautiful Pacific Ocean Blue gown that is worthy of the red carpet they didn’t have at the Oscar’s this time.
Gaia is a transgender-identifying model.
When Saisha walked out at the end of the show we lost it, those of us who weren’t already standing like me stood in applause, as the lights went off and we all collectively struggled to avoid the tears because it was early afternoon and we had to get through the rest of the day with our makeup intact.
In all of the 25 years of the history of Lakme Fashion Week they have not had an openly transgender fashion designer. Let’s be honest about some more things, Saisha had to do a lot to be accepted in this world.
Yes, the fashion world is friendly of gender expression so much so that the first time I even openly experimented with my gender expression in a fluid way was at LFW in 2017. But let’s not forget that this is also a highly competitive and closed world. It has at times and in places been conformist, able-bodied, sexist, misogynistic and toxic.
Let’s be honest about one more thing, within the realms of the fashion world, cisgender gay men wield considerable power and influence. Some of the top designers of India today are cisgender-identifying gay men. Historically speaking and to some extent even today, the cisgender gay community tends to be exclusionary of the transgender community.
There has been massive progress on this and the situation is definitely not the same as it was pre-trans act, but the stigma within the community still exists. I felt it at LFW this edition, which was the first time I went since I came out as transgender and began using she/her/they pronouns. In the little time I spend peaking into this industry, I found folks who were friendly with me pre-transition find it difficult to be around me this edition. I found that they behaved in a certain way – taking in my entire femme experience and accepting it – and then behaving another way when I corrected them on my pronouns and realised I am a transwoman and not an effeminate gay man.
Saisha’s is even more significant to me, because of our shared experiences of transitioning “late” in life. Seventeen years Saisha had been in the very industry that she had to then “come out” to, uncertain as to what would happen – because literally, no one had done it before her.
Another aspect of late transitions is the struggle with the concept of the “self” and confusion around accepting yourself. Those who are out early or transition early might grow up with themselves and may have worked through this confusion (although not always). The confusion of where you begin and where the social constructs take over. “For seventeen years it was this confused identity”, Saisha observed about her collection the show.
To work and operate in this industry and make it here, was enough for me to want to celebrate Saisha Shinde as a transwoman. Then to witness her collection that was inspired by her work in a movie that is highly significant at this time and to pay homage to Kashmir on the very day I was paying tribute to my own Muslim identity and now I am also applauding her for what she chooses to do with her art and privilege.