Antar Agni’s Ujjawal Dubey talks about looking inwards during the lockdown, the future of fashion and more
2020 has managed to turn the world on its head, breaking down existing patterns and forcing everyone on some level or the other to course correct, with varying levels of success. Some have found themselves better prepared for the curveballs of fate than others. Menswear maverick Ujjawal Dubey has been one of the lucky ones.
Born in eastern Uttar Pardesh, in Gorakhpur, Ujjawal grew up with a fascination with structures and spaces, and wanted to study extensively. Although he had initially planned to study architecture, Providence landed him at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Kolkata. After graduation, he worked for a little over three years at a prominent designer label before starting his label Antar Agni under the Gen Next category at Lakme Fashion Week in March 2014. Success came fast, and Ujjawal won Best Upcoming Designer for Menswear at the Grazia Young Fashion Awards 2015. He was named as the '50 most influential young Indians by GQ India' and won the Elle Graduate Award in 2016. He was also named in the 30 under 30 list by the Forbes India magazine in 2017.
The exciting young designer wowed at the Bangladesh Fashion Week earlier this year, right before the world went to pieces, and ten months on, Avenue T got to have a quick chat with him.
The story goes that you originally wanted to study architecture before pivoting towards fashion design, and indeed, your experiments with form and structure speak to your interest in architecture. Do you think about the roads not taken, or are you happy with your journey so far?
The various avenues of design are quite intertwined. The soul remains same no matter what you touch and work on. Form and structure have always excited me and I have tried to explore the same through clothing. The journey so far has been an adventure and I believe it’s only the canvas that has changed. The technique, the effort, and the enthusiasm is just the same.
The silhouettes in your recent collection ‘Slate’ is being considered by some a departure from your usual style. Could you tell us what inspired the move in a new direction?
Slate is a collection that was meant to be a juxtaposition between fluidity and rigidity. A visual representation of the variances of our mind, it also is a resonation of our collective acceptance of it. This time has pushed us towards a journey of self-discovery, to explore those grey areas that exist within ourselves and that is what I have tried to channel through this collection. Also, change is always good.
You’ve described yourself as a spiritual person in interviews, and have been focusing on staying centred throughout the pandemic, working with volunteer organizations to give back to the community. Would you care to share some insights into this period of self-reflection in 2020?
The lockdown of 2020 has made us question our existing priorities. This has been for the whole humanity to question the set norms. It was a period of self-reflection that has led me to de-clutter my mind and has in a way liberated me as well. This liberation brings more validation to your own belief and I have only tried to do what anyone with such opportunities would do.
“Whenever I have some free time or need a break from usual work routine I always resort to reading. Below are the names of a few books that I have read:
The Wonder That Was India by AL Basham: This book discusses the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent with a unique angle. It is refreshing to know how our culture has developed over a period of time, its influences on the world, and vice-versa. It's a mix of history and anthropology and was first published in the '50s. Since India has always been an inspiration for our work, the book has been a favourite and many facts have surprised me. It reminds me that there is so much we don't know about our history and culture.
Bhagwad Gita: This is a book that I have kept close to me since the last seven years. I learn something new every time I read it. This is what gave me the strength to take the plunge and start my brand six years ago. I don't see the book as a religious piece of work but a guide for life. We have grown up listening to many quotes by the Gita but reading it and finding these fit in our own life and circumstances is enlightening. It is a book I go back to every time I find myself in a difficult position.
Aghora, The left hand of God by Robert Svaboda: A perspective on Tantra and journey to explore the self or living with reality. It is also a great lesson in how one can live with the worldly duties and still work on looking inwards. The book throws light on tantra and pulls it away from the taboos that society has created around it. It's a book filled with miracles and facts that always leaves me in awe of these subtleties of the traditions.
A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami: I don't read a lot of fiction but if there was any fiction that I would love, it will be anything written by Murakami. His surreal narration is what I love about his books. The descriptions and storytelling are in such details, the slowness and intricacies of storytelling is beautiful.
Being Indian by Pawan K Verma: This was one of the first books that I read about India. It talks about the country and how it is unique from all angles ─ cultural, economic, and social. The insights are from a very modern perspective. Pawan Verma has written many books and another one of my favourites from him is the translation of the poetry by Gulzar.
You participated in Bangladesh Fashion Week at the beginning of this year. What was your experience like, and what are your thoughts on the role of regional cooperation in the field of fashion in the months ahead?
It was quite amazing to be in Bangladesh and interact with the fashion community.
We all know that regional cooperation serves many. The shared history and culture in itself plays a big role to pivot on. I believe we should have many more such collaborations among regional countries.