Ashish Gupta On Expressing Identity Through Art

From #11 Art Issue, renowned fashion designer Ashish Gupta shares an insight into his creative process and inspirations.

This article was originally published in BRICKS #11, The Art Issue. To order a copy of the issue featuring cover stars Eartheater, Tove Lo, Gab Bois and Sage Flowers, visit our shop.

ILLUSTRATION Emily Blundell Owers

Labelled the ‘king of sequins’, Ashish Gupta doesn’t shy away from the power of maximalism. Turning heads with provocative glamour, this London-based designer draws on his Indian roots to produce mesmerising blends of Western and Eastern influences under the label ‘Ashish’. Since graduating with a Masters from Central Saint Martins in 2000, Gupta’s unique vision has taken the fashion world by storm. He’s shown his collections at London Fashion Week, received the New Generation Award three times, and caught the attention of countless icons such as M.I.A, Madonna, Victoria Beckham, and Lily Allen. 

But ‘Ashish’ is more than just a brand. Gupta is shifting narratives, and championing diversity and sustainability within the industry. As a gay man – who grew up in India while Section 377, the colonial-era law criminalising homosexuality, was still in place – queer visibility and representation are personally important to Gupta and central to his work. Through gender-fluid designs and thought-provoking runway shows, he continues to challenge Western binary gendered expectations, colonial understandings of sexuality, and the accompanying taboos. Ashish has also published ‘Gaze’, an intimate photography book that explores gay desire. 

An advocate for slow fashion, Gupta’s designs are hand-sewn and elaborately embroidered by a small team at workshops in India. Everything produced under the label is made to order, thus minimising unnecessary waste and promoting a culture of appreciation for each garment. Along with protecting the planet, Ashish also gives back to his communities. Employing around fifty people who are paid by permanent salary and work year-round, Gupta provides his workers and their families with security. And when using traditional Indian techniques – such as block printing – he seeks out experienced craftsmen and contributes to the local economy. 

In an increasingly throwaway culture that prioritises mass production, profit, and bland ubiquitous appeal over innovation, responsibility, and careful craftsmanship, Asish’s ethos is a breath of fresh air. His work is made with love and care. It injects life and humanity into fashion. It’s wearable art. 

What are your thoughts on a call for a genderless future of fashion?  

I think people should wear whatever makes them feel happy and expresses who they are.  

What do you think it would look like/what would you like it to look like?  

I think I would love to see more people exploring their inner selves, and their fantasies through fashion and dressing up.  

Your collections have beautifully melded Eastern and Western influences. What’s the importance to you of showcasing the many facets of your identity through your art?  

I think it’s important to reflect my identity and my experiences through my work. But also, I don’t see how it’s possible, as an artist, to not do this – consciously or sub/unconsciously.  

What would it have meant for you growing up to see your Indian culture represented in Vogue, and on the runways of Western fashion weeks?  

India was a closed economy until 1991. Growing up in Delhi, all my fashion exposure came from illicit copies of American and European editions of Vogue and everything in those pages seemed exciting and magical and it was complete escapism for me at the time, and I aspired to be in those pages myself.  

Growing up in Delhi, all my fashion exposure came from illicit copies of American and European editions of Vogue and everything in those pages seemed exciting and magical and it was complete escapism for me at the time, and I aspired to be in those pages myself.

Ashish Gupta

What does it mean to you now?  

Fashion in India is a relatively new and young industry. It has been interesting to see it grow and develop in the last couple of decades. It’s wonderful to see more designers of Indian and South Asian heritage in the industry now, but I think there is still a very long way to go in terms of representation within the international industry as a whole.  

Since your art seems to be so personal, what’re your thoughts on the popular debate around whether you can truly separate the art from the artist?  

It’s a debate in my head also.  

Your designs are hand-sewn by a handful of seamstresses, what’s the importance of a slower and more sustainable business model and creative practice to you?

We have seamsters and seamstresses at the factory and they are all incredibly talented. We have never made anything in bulk, everything is made to order. And because our production process is almost entirely by hand, it is slow, and this means we can only produce a certain number of pieces every season. I have chosen not to expand because I would rather keep it small and maintain the quality. Mass manufacturing does not interest me. I think this is a more sustainable way of working.  

I know that along with your fashion design, you’re also a photographer and have published a book exploring gay desire. What was your experience of gay desire growing up as a queer person in India? 

Homosexuality was only decriminalised in India in 2018. But of course, it takes much longer to change social attitudes and what people find acceptable. Changing the law is only the first step. I’m Gen X, so grew up in a pre-digital world and had limited access to information, and zero access to any kind of queer community (I went to an Irish catholic all-boys school), so as you might be able to imagine, it was not easy.  

It’s wonderful to see more designers of Indian and South Asian heritage in the industry now, but I think there is still a very long way to go in terms of representation within the international industry as a whole.

Ashish Gupta

The book is also wonderfully representative of the diversity of the gay community. What are your thoughts on racial dating preferences that still plague the community?  

I think it’s partly a sad reflection of the very narrow visual point of view we have been conditioned to think of as the standard for what is physically attractive. But mainly I think “racial dating preferences” is really just a way of trying to pass off racism and racist sexual tropes as a kind of socially acceptable ‘choice’.  

How do you think we decolonise queerness and gender moving forward as a community and society?  

By learning, but also unlearning. By not auto-associating liberal with Western, by understanding non-western genders and sexualities but not just through a narrow western lens. Ancient India is a good example, perhaps – where open sexual relationships, both polygamous and polyandrous, weren’t uncommon. There was an abundance of erotic sexual literature, and erotic art & sculpture – elaborately carved facades of buildings in the public domain showing every variation of sexual couplings along with an endless catalogue of sexual acts. Throughout their long history, the arts of India – both visual and literary – have consistently celebrated the beauty of the human body and its sexuality.  

Women were not considered creatures of temptation but were associated with fertility, abundance and prosperity. There was an open acceptance of sexuality as another route to the divine. Indian mythology is also rich in characters who are third-sex, intersex, non-binary and gender non-conforming. Hijras – officially recognised as the third gender in the Indian subcontinent – have a recorded history in the Indian subcontinent since antiquity.  

In contrast, for the colonial British, the sensual bodies of Indian sculptures were deemed immoral and dirty. Not surprising, perhaps – Christianity has traditionally seen the human body as a vehicle for sin, lust and shame. In 1861, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was introduced by British colonial rule, which made sexual behaviour “against the order of nature” illegal and punishable by imprisonment. India finally decriminalised anal sex, and by default, homosexuality in 2018.  

Colonialism contributed to the discrimination of the LGBTQIA+ community in India, so perhaps India, rather than becoming more “Westernized” by decriminalising homosexuality, it is in fact decolonizing?  

What’re three things you’d love to say to your younger self?  

Worry less. Find joy. Have fun, (I also tell myself this now).  

Could you please tell us a little bit about your scarf collaboration with Pret, what was the inspiration?  

I chose Pret’s Pesto Pasta salad, and drew inspiration from the beautiful and distinctive hand-painted designs from southern Italy, featuring lots of fruits and vegetables and often found on ceramics and homeware, as well as on fabrics such as dishcloths.  

Pret’s Spring salads have ingredients that are so fresh and vibrant, and they lent themselves very well to a bold and vivid design – bright red tomatoes, crisp green leaves and creamy mozzarella. A vital part of this project for me is that all proceeds from the scarf sales go to The Pret Foundation, which helps to tackle homelessness, hunger and poverty in the UK and on a global scale. With food bank usage on the rise, I feel it is so crucial to support this important project.”  

Over the last 25 years, the Pret Foundation Charity Commission has supported charities and projects working to alleviate homelessness, poverty and hunger in communities across the UK. This summer, the foundation partnered with three stalwarts of British fashion, who have lent their unique style signatures to three exclusive scarves inspired by a suitably summery essential – Pret’s seasonal salads. The limited-edition scarves on sale exclusively via Shopify on Pret’s Instagram for £30. 

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin

Our Politics Editor, Prishita (they/them) is a writer, editor, and LGBTQ+ community organiser. They’re currently a Trustee with Voices4 London and sit on the Advisory Board for Split Banana, a social enterprise redesigning relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum. Prishita has been published or featured in METAL, gal-dem, Hunger, and Dazed, amongst others. They also featured in ‘Soul of a Movement’, a film by British creative directors Carson McColl and Gareth Pugh that documents some of the British LGBTQ+ activists, artists and allies carrying the revolutionary fire of the Stonewall Uprising today.
Prishita‘s writing is represented by The Good Literary Agency, and they’re also a signed model and social human with CRUMB.

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