Raji Aujla left a crater at 2012 Fashion Arts & Toronto. Her collection, a series of extraordinary designs evoking cultural imperialism and tensions between turn-of-the-century India and the British Raj, began with "Time To Say Goodbye" and ended with rapper Humble The Poet taking the stage. The show drew a standing ovation, and the loudest reaction of the whole week.
A journalist and documentarian, Aujla is one of the most exciting and interesting designers working in the field today. Her pieces will be available for purchase in a few months, but currently are fairly exclusive. Proceeds from her pieces go to continue to develop the collection, but a portion goes to helping Sikahya School in northern India.
We caught up with Aujla to discuss her latest collection, her incredible show at FAT, and the state of menswear.
BALLnROLL: So what's happening on the fashion front?
It's literally just doing its own thing right now, because it was always a part time thing. We're pulling for a lot of magazines, we're doing a lookbook that's going to be shot at the end of July, and that's being sent to Vogue in Italy and India, and Spain, and a few other publications. We're going to be showing in a few places, but nothing's confirmed.
What has the response been like?
It's been surprisingly great. We've only gotten positive reviews, and been on Top Ten Designers To Watch, dressing a lot of people, selling a lot; it's been quite good.
How did you start putting together the collection; what's the origin story?
I went to India to shoot a documentary about educating the girl child in the slums, in northern India, and it was a really depressing experience, but it was good. I had sketches that I had made while I was travelling throughout the summer, and I had the sketchbook with me, and if I was to buy textiles, they'd be from India; I would never get textiles from anywhere else in the world.
So I went textile shopping and found a bunch of stuff that I loved, loved, loved, met a bunch of great people, and then I went back and got everything made. I worked with a pattern maker who's, like, this really old guy, and he makes a lot of patterns for a lot of designers in India. I went to boutique stores to check out the quality and I was like, "This guy's perfect." He and I worked on getting the actual drawings done. and then they went into production.
What sparked the project?
I always wanted to do it. I was going to do it sooner or later, so I might as well do it while I'm young, so I can make a whole bunch of mistakes. It was influenced by a political affair that I was researching quite a bit at the time. As an NRI, somebody born outside of India, and then going back, I had a very colonial take on it, and I couldn't help it. It's how we're raised, it's what we're used to.
How did that vantage point change the way you experienced India?
It was the first time that I went to India by myself, and it's a world of a difference. When you're being supervised by your parents, they do all the hard stuff, deal with the hard people. So I went by myself and I understood right away that I shouldn't speak the language, so I can understand why they're saying, but they don't think I speak it. It was advantageous, because I would know people were ripping me off, because they'd think I didn't know the language. So I'd be like, "Yeah, I want a hundred yards of something", and kind of act like a foreigner--not like a ditz, but a foreigner who's unaware--so when I'd hear them mark up the price, like, two, three hundred percent, I'd be like, "Is that your final offer?" and they'd say, "Yeah", and then I'd say, "Okay, all right, so this is what I'm going to give you." And then they'd be shocked and probably too embarrassed, and they'd say yes to me, so that was good.
So there was the political statement with this piece--the cultural imperialism. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
There was a little sepoy back in 1858, and that was the first time that the Indian subjects had an insurgency against the colonial rule. And so that, in my eyes, was the first clash, literal and figurative, where it was a cultural exchange, whereby the subjects were, Okay, we see there is a power imbalance in the cultural relations, so from a visual culture perspective, they started overlapping. So in many respects, it was an art exchange, a cultural, political, social and economic exchange.
How did you incorporate that into the designs?
Because it was just a sepoy, it wasn't an actual freedom liberating movement, and so there are more hits of an English bourgeois taste and aesthetic and cut.
They have a tailcoat, which was prominent at that time, and it should be, even now--I wish it was--but I have the back shaped like an erect cobra, which was very Indian, snake charmers and all. And then there were those little hits of Indianess--I made a trouser that looked like breeches, which is very English, but it was draped, so it looked like a Nehru trouser, which is like a loincloth that an Indian would wear. It wraps around and then comes up through the legs, and so it creates this drape-y effect. I made that into a trouser, which has been the most popular selling item--I think I'm sold out of it.
What were you doing with the scarves? There's a lot of scarfwork.
I love scarves. [The collection] was somewhat utilitarian as well, in that you can do so much with [scarves]. Women usually have the option to do more with their clothing than men do. Like, you have a shirt, and it's hard to really play up or play down. With a scarf, it's a great opportunity to either have it draping down or dancing around or something. You can have it wrapped around you if you're cold, or if you want some volume; you can play it with it if you want. I made one into a cummerbund, so I wrapped it behind, and then I brought it around the waist, and cinched it. So there are so many things you can do with it.