Designer Ujjawal Dubey decided to make clothes that work for him, and ended up changing the way we look at menswear, with his anti-fit aesthetic. The designer delves into his process, taking risks, and the future he envisions

Fashion designer Ujjawal Dubey is a man of few words, but his work speaks loud enough for everyone to hear one thing — he’s not here to adhere. He launched his label, AntarAgni seven years ago, doing what no one really thinks of doing in menswear, which is break out of occasion wear. Dubey changed the idea that your casual, everyday clothing should be thoughtlessly purchased, that your shirts need to show your shape, or your pants can only be A-line. With drapes and gender fluid, flowy silhouettes, Dubey made it possible for men and women to dig into each other’s wardrobes, thus uplifting the androgynous movement that was rearing its head in the country.

Brought up in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Dubey initially applied to architecture courses, owing to his interest in architecture and design. Eventually, he studied textile design in NIFT, graduated in 2010, and his first stint was with celebrated designers Shantanu & Nikhil. In 2014, Dubey decided to trust his instincts and go out on his own, and applied to the Gen Next program of Lakme Fashion Week, for which he worked on his menswear collection with a womenswear tailor. When he got through, he recognised that his biggest strength lies in his urge to merge everything he loves — fashion, architecture, design — into his clothes, and that’s what made people sit up and take notice, one fashion week at a time.

Antar-Agni played a big role in making anti-fit cool, and Ujjawal Dubey is all for breaking more moulds. Over to the designer.

Tell me one thing that wasn’t a part of your fashion aesthetic when you started out, but now is.

While you can see a certain genre or certain signature in my work, I don’t restrict myself in that sense. I would say I was a part of an evolution. In the seven years that I’ve been around, there has been a consistent addition of new techniques, new ways of doing things. But we have always focused on keeping our basics constant. We dig into the roots, rather than going away from it. But yes, I love futuristic aspects too.

What nudged you towards menswear?

I think it was all because of me, myself. I was working, and I was trying my hands on different things, but I stuck to clothing and menswear because I realised that there was a huge gap. I’ve said this many times, I feel men do not have many choices. The kind of clothing that I started to like for myself for some time before starting to work, I could not find it anywhere. I had to make it myself. That was the gap that I wanted to bridge because I wanted to make everyday style something that is more transitional, yet impactful. We were inclined towards creating clothes that aren’t intimidating to the wearer, but rather, confidence boosting, and have a subtle and a calm approach to it. Understated, you can say.

Right from the word go, your menswear collections were not traditional. Was that a conscious choice, breaking the mould of designer menswear just being occasionwear?

100 per cent. Why would it not be conscious? When I said that I started doing this for myself, I said it because it was easy for me also. Easy because I could try everything on myself, I could break it on myself, I could easily see it. All factors were pointing towards one direction, and that is how it took shape.

Delving into androgynous clothing when you set up — was that a risk, or did you know that it will work?

Risk and fear will come only to the ones who know about it being risky. I knew nothing about it. I wanted to make something interesting. I knew nothing about the commercials either. I just knew that what I make should not intimidate the person, and it should not be too avant-garde. We know the kind of population we have, the kind of shopping men do, and the kind of expenditure they have. So we went with what we know, and there was no fear about if it was going to work or not.

You’ve also ventured into footwear, and while you’ve created shoes for your shows before, you’re making it commercially available now. What does your footwear line bring to the market that isn’t already there?

This footwear line is really centric to our kind of clothing. At the same time, it’s versatile too, because it is quite understated. It takes the textures and the details from existing textiles that we create. I think footwear was always something we were asked about, but we never found a good hand who can manufacture footwear for us, or sit with us and work on it. We tried for a long time, and it finally happened. We want to make it bigger. Also, what we offer with our shoes is that most of the shoes that we do, have fabric that is used to make the garments.

Designer wear for men is always somehow boxed into wedding wear. Are we taking luxury leisurewear for men seriously enough yet?

Yes. Especially in the past few years, because when I started, it was definitely not there. Occasion wear was restricted to traditional wear mostly, and formal wear was also quite restricted. But I have seen a lot of change in both. Men are going lighter, and thinking about comfort and ease too, rather than just the look and feel of it, because of which a lot of designers have also branched into luxury leisure wear. It is interesting to see how men go for clothes that are elegant, stylish, appealing, and not too bothered about standing out.

A lot of celebrities took to your clothes quite early on in your career. What’s your take on the relationship between celebrity and fashion, and the showstopper culture?

After the first show, we got associated with promotions and Bollywood, films, etc. From my point of view, I don’t see anything as right or wrong. India has an aspirational crowd, we always try to look up to something or someone. That’s how we motivate ourselves, and that happens internationally too. It is not wrong to take an outfit that I want somebody to wear, and put it where somebody can see. However, we are choosy about who syncs with our clothes, whose personality or body of work aligns with our brand. Keeping those factors in mind, whoever we like or are excited about, we try to get them.

Talking about the show stopper culture, we have never had a celebrity showstopper in a menswear show. We have definitely done it for publications. At some point later, if we find someone who really syncs or we find someone whose work we really adore, or we are also syncing with their thought process, then we definitely will get them on board. So far, I haven’t found the right person for the ramp — the kind of mood we set, the kind of dressing that we do, etc. But the day I find someone like that, why would I stop? So just find your solution, and give it a purpose. It should be syncing with the whole composition that you are trying to set, from the beginning of the collection, to the end of it.

In today’s climate, we have seen how collections can be seasonless, reducing carbon footprint at the same time. What’s your take on fashion weeks and the number of those that happen?

Till the time creators will create, there will always be a place to exhibit. Or you can say that there will always be a place required to exhibit. You need fashion shows for clothing. It depends on you how you choose to showcase your clothes. It is up to you how understated, how lavish, or how glittery or non-glittery you want it to be. Curation is important. So many shows are happening because there are so many participants, applicants, designers, and there are so many bodies that are doing fashion now. Overdoing anything will lead to some dilution of the overall designing industry. They should be more selective. When I got through Gen Next, it was about two to three screenings that were happening at that time. Now, the bodies that do it have increased, the number of people who want to do it has also increased, so, of course, curation will make it better.

The pandemic has changed what we wear, how much we buy, and how much we wear it. If you had to predict a fashion forecast for 2021-2022, what do you think it looks like?

Super street. What you have mentioned right now, how we’ve changed, what we wear, what we speak, I am still to see that. I have definitely seen less buying, I have seen repetition, but the changes, I have not seen as many. But the desperation of going out will give a good opportunity to streetwear or high street. Occasions are not going to stop in our country, they will keep happening of course. But probably a larger opportunity will be given to streetwear.

What’s next for you?

The past one and a half years have scared all of us. It also liberated us. So, I feel very liberated after the last wave. Even more after the second one. What keeps me going is creating. We have been working on smaller projects instead of bigger ones that we will launch. I am also inclined towards trying my hands around more street, more athleisure. Even though a part of us already is there when you see the clothes. And my personal inclination towards sports also drives me, so I want to do something about it.

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