On his own spaceship
Kallol Datta's inspiration
“I find shelter, in this way
Under cover, hide away ...
I still want to drown, whenever you leave
Please teach me gently, how to breathe ...” The XX
He wants to hide, run away, and smoke. He doesn't want to look them in the eye. He wishes for a non-interactive world, but then this is fashion fantasyland, and they want to get it – the foetuses, the bones, and the eccentricity of his shapes. Because Kallol Datta, in his abaya, and his granny sunglasses and an orange fan, is being hailed as “alternative, edgy, experimental, abstract” by the high and the mighty of the fashion world. They have called him the rule-breaker, the rebel, and even tagged him as “Lady Gaga” of Indian fashion, a reference he scoffs at.
“They just don't get me,” he says. “I don't have any design philosophy. I don't want to explain my work. I guard it. I keep it to myself. Else, it would be whoring it out.”
They must watch out for him. But he is elusive, reclusive. He wants to drown when they congregate around him – the fashion bloggers, the writers, everyone.
At the Wills Lifestyle Fashion Week that concluded in Delhi last week, Kallol , 28, conjured up the vision of the woman he had encountered while he sat smoking one September evening last year. He made her up in his mind. But she took a life of her own, wandering around, cutting up bodies, and being grotesque. In his latest collection called “Grotesque Nonsense”, she reappears. For a third time.
In the Nation of Suicide, among a bunch of women on the verge of doing something. There she was, as he saw her, sharpening knives, preparing tea in a ritual ceremony, almost in a trance.
And when they begin to do it, slicing their throats with the knives in a mass suicide gathering somewhere in Japan, the nameless woman watches. She stops. Then the apparition blurs, and he will have to wait till she reappears, and he will then know if cut herself up, or chose to live.
In the meantime, the models walked the ramp to the tune of The XX, a British band. Lyrics matter, and even before he started work on the collection, he had the song for the showcasing of it in his mind.
“I like lyrics. It has to be words,” he said.
They walk the “Kallol walk” - straight hands, measured steps, no swaying of hips, no smiles.
“Anger, give me anger,” he briefed them.
He introduced his collection with a hand-made insanity print – a man screaming.
“Losing my sanity was never part of the plan,” it says.
To the creator, the last few months were frustrating. He was chosen to do the grand finale at the Lakme Fashion Week, and he was angry with the negative vibes he got.
He got into fashion because he loved it.
“I didn't know I'd go psychotically crazy doing it,” he says. “There's a confort in depression and I believe it is important to create but I felt that comfort was getting snatched. This is why I have stopped doing press releases.”
After the show, two women came up to him. They cried as they saw the collection, and heard the lyrics.
“Why are you so sad? It all looked so sad,” they told him.
“I can understand why they cried. When I was watching Arjun Saluja's, I couldn't breathe. I was choking,” he says. “That is amazing. For clothes to elicit an emotional response.”
Eroguro, the Japanese concept that focuses on sexual corruption and decadence, and sexual acts devoid of romance, and has been used to refer to horror scenes and blood, is what inspired him. The literal translation of Eroguro would be “grotesque” which implies unnatural and malformed. But Kallol Datta is no stranger to such acts of daring. A collection that he called “Avant Garde Fuck” was inspired by the use of the term by designer fraternity, and a friend dared him to call his collection that. He did it. Never a conformist.
All he wants is to tell a story. Like every story, it has a million dimensions to it. He calls is “Grotesque Nonsense” to give a sense of security to those that find his work “malformed.”
“I also compliment my work but I lull them into believing that I see it as nonsense,” he says. “But there's more.”
Eroguro, which was an art movement in the early 19th century in Japan was lost in translation as it reached the west as all things. They interpreted it as gory and erotica and ritualistic suicide practice. In his personal work, he has felt that it has been lost in translation.
“Before they have even seen my collection, they would term it as morbid. I don't care anymore. I don't think my work is political but it is my reaction to what is happening around me in terms of gender notions, conformity, and state-waged wars,” he says.
He was angry, an anger that was not violent but stemmed from frustrations.
“Then I turned around and said, fuck you bitches,” he says. “I am going to continue with my story.”
The story of a woman isolated in her loneliness, performing autopsies on dead bodies. Because nobody came to claim her, because nobody would care enough about the bodies strewn around.
Because some of us don't love. Because some of us don't find love, or know of love, and are abandoned, or spared that emotion.
Because only stories live on in the memory. You can copy everything, but you can't replicate the stories that someone made up in their heads. Because they belong to him.
It was evening, and he was about to begin work on his Autumn/Winter collection.
She was small, and had bad teeth.
“You know the kind where you have pain because you have cavities, and it is a state requiring a root canal,” he says.
Much of her is an abstract idea. She is 55, and when he first encountered her in his mind, she was wearing an ivory-colored kaftan and doing those autopsies.
An ex-naxal, she is dark, and has white-grey hair.
In the collection called X O X O that he showcased at Berlin, which took his deconstruction to a new level by putting hoodies in front of the dress, and took a stern take at “love” by rejecting the Valentine's Day heart shape for a biological shape. Here, he presented her to the world. Loveless, and forlorn. In fact, a small heart kicks a bigger heart as part of the prints. He said he got a lot of texts with the sign offs 'XOXO' and he was irritated. Most irritants find their way into his designs.
“Did you love?”
“Who wouldn't? I'd be a machine if I didn't,” he says. “But my creations are more like statements on politics, gender, society.”
Where most designers are trying to show the global Indian confident woman, a shining beacon as an inspiration, Kallol says he is inspired by the dark and the mysterious, the madness of life in general. In fact, his twitter account description used to read “breath of fresh darkness.” Subversive, and he takes his chances. He deconstructs, and creates with an imagination that is fertile with dreams, and in his memory, he retains games he played as a child, lyrics of songs, images at the airport toilets, and emotions.
It is all about relativity, he says. What appears to be the dark and morbid to the world could be perfectly normal to him, he explains.
Now, he changed the description to “heaviest Indian designer.”
“Because I am quite heavy,” he says.
While Indian fashion is still to graduate to fashion houses, and structure and form, he is one of the very few designers that are going against what they were taught in design schools like fashion forecast, which he hated. He thought it was an attempt to commercialise fashion, force people to wear certain kinds of clothes in order to look make them attain the “fashionista” tag.
He controls the scene because there is a story, and it needs to be told. Whether those who sit in the front rows get it, he wouldn't be bothered. Interpretations interest him. He would use oxfords or brouges but when he sees women wearing heels with his clothes, he is amused.
The woman who is roaming around, and emerges in different situations, is an abstract idea, a tag associated with him. He wouldn't name her. Not now. Let her be a mystery, and let her reveal herself when she does.
“I am building the plot,” he says. “Let's see. At the Lakme Fashion Week, where I made the models wear silver-grey hair, I taking the story forward. An austere gritty hard look, introducing this woman as the character.”
He took his potshots at the plastic looks that everyone seems to be going for. His creations are a reaction to photoshopped looks where the women look from another world, with perfect skin, and unusual heights and weights, and strutting around like swans.
Hence, the deconstruction bit.
This time around, he went for much longer and leaner forms. In the retail rack everybody was doing drape, and he was trying to do proportions so the clothes could fit anyone.
Perhaps one day he would write a book, he says. When he first started out with his work, he knew it would be criticized, gawked at, and not considered “cool.” He hates the terms “androgynous” although many have referred to his creations as such. But then, women have been wearing men's clothes forever now, he says.
He still gets surprised when women wear his clothes.
“Fuck the body. The body is a given,” he said. “I work with proportions.”
He was showing me the collections from his X O X O and Lakme Fashion Week's commissioned collection, which he didn't name at his house in Kolkata in Salt Lake neighborhood. He lives alone. There's a housekeeper to cook his meals and a driver. For days, he said, he could stay home, distanced from the vagaries of the world, and create, and let the emotions take over, and not be dissolved or corrupted. He reads, and drinks
And dreams. He hangs on to those. But they disappear. They are amorphous. But one had stayed. That dream put him on the map of the fashion world. Then, he was at Central St. Martin's in London.
He tells me the dream from memory.
The man, a classical pianist, was at the peak of his career, performing all over the world. One night, his body was modified, and he ended with a hump at the back, and an arm became much larger than the other. He couldn't perform, and he ended up in a circus where people came to get amused by his tragedy. A circus freak.
“You know like how we had in old times – the bearded lady, the three-breasted woman, and other circus freaks,” he says.
The dream refused to leave him. The pianist stayed put and manifested his mutant body in his collection.
“Initially, for the first two years, people were thinking what spaceship is this guy on. They thought I was doing to get attention,” he says, as he puffs away outside at the Wills India Fashion Week. “I know as of now that for every one person that loves my work, 10 people hate it. I think my clothes are far from being cool. Even when I see other designers, I feel they are so well-groomed. I wouldn't be bothered about what I am wearing.”
To those that have seen his work, the clothes appear to be malformed, and deconstructed. But more than anything, he views himself as a pattern-cutter, and mostly works with circles, and sews them. His first collection he cut and sewed himself. Sometimes when the tailors are unable to translate his vision, he takes over, sits down on the machine and starts sewing.
“Proportions are always set. They still forming a woman's body irrespective of her size. All my garments can be translated into XXS and US Size 20,” he says. “I wear them. I started wearing my creations in London because it empowered me. I don't do rouching and pleating. I am a great believer in not showing skin. Wraps make me feel secure. This bit is personal.”
Everything with him is personal.
“The big problem in fashion is when you bring about gender norms. They don't work in fashion. Half the men are wearing skinny jeans. Gender conformity doesn't work for me in fashion,” he says.
His world, his art is tattooed on his arms. There are three stars. One imperfect, but then those are concessions allowed to the human hand that does the marking with a vibrating needle. He says his body reacts to pain well. That he can sit through the sessions without the needle making him twitch his face.
“The moment I turned 21, I got my first tattoo - a Celtic sign for courage. I think at that point of time, I was living that kind of life. Courage was needed for what I chosen to do,” he says.
Or how he had chosen to live.
“I love being alone,” he says.
Out of the 12 that he has engraved on his arms, there are six from his collections – remission, X O X O, etc. There are sperms, there are the amputated legs and arms of male and female forms, his own reaction to gender conformity in society. Amputation is the result of landmines.
“The shoe print on your dress is based on roadkill,” he says.
When I had first bought the dress with bulging fronts, and shoe print, I didn't know what it meant. It intrigued me. When I managed to find him, I asked him.
“An 80-year old woman is the inspiration. She has sagging boobs. This is how she would look like,” he says.
“But the motifs?”
Sometimes, the motifs tell a parallel story, or at times they integrate with the story. Indians understand prints, and they don't get the structure, or the shape, he says.
Datta, whose label Kallol Datta 1955 has made people sit up and take notice of the bulging silhouettes and the madness of his motifs, was once a preppy young kid who wore Pierre Cardin pajamas that were monogrammed with his initials, and wore a side parting, and dressed in buttoned down shirts, dress pants and cardigans. Then began his tryst with sports. Oversized t-shirts took over, but the real drama started in high school where he said he didn't know how to deal with clothes. He'd cut the sleeves, or chop off the length, and that's where his own experiments with fashion began. He grew up in the Middle East and vacationed in Europe where his grandparents lived. He was in between two sisters, and because his elder sister studied classics, he would read from her list, and was a loner. When children his age would make jokes, and sneer, and laughed, he would sit in a corner and observe them trying to figure what made them laugh.
He was into sports. But more than anything, he would play games on his own. When everyone else was buying Ninja Turtles, he would go for magic games, and mull over the plots trying to figure who killed, and how.
“When I was in high school, I was the school prefect. I would get caught most number of times in not being in uniform. Those were the days of friendships and I had like 40 bands wrapped around my wrist. I'd color my hair purple, and only in high school, I started to figure I couldn't deal with clothes. I wanted to deal with them in my way so I'd cut them,” he says. “My parents were quite liberal as long as i didn't do anything that was harming my health.”
His mother used to do voice overs, and he would listen to her as she did the dubbings. He wanted to be a television anchor but he cursed so much he was afraid “fuck” would find its way on auto cue and he'd be a disaster on national television. So, he chose fashion. But almost missed his NIFT entrance examination in Bombay.
“I was horrible at drawing,” he says. “I walked into the examination hall with a ballpoint pen. No drawing pencils, nothing. Had to borrow from others.”
He made it. At the last checkpoint where they wanted him to do an installation with his initials, he said he had gum all over his hands, and while he walked out, he saw what he had made fall. Deconstruction.
At NIFT Calcutta, which he chose over NIFT Delhi, he was a rebel, who got into arguments, and hated going to the libraries and fashion forecasts. He would not conform to the rules of the world of fashion. First semester, he said, he managed somehow. Then he bunked classes except for those that a teacher – a frail, young woman – taught. She taught him pattern-cutting. She'd eventually become a friend and “handled his tantrums.” He would sit and vent out his frustrations, and she'd listen as he would smoke, and talk. He got suspended before he was to showcase his project at the end of the course.
They complained he was smoking and drinking. But what was the big deal about it. Everyone else was, too, he says. Maybe he did it while he was at work, downing a vodka shot, and smoking near the window discreetly. But then, it was an intense time, and this was when he experimented with pattern-cutting.
After graduating from NIFT, he went to Central St. Martin's in London where with a small portfolio of drawings, he made it to the list of those that had been selected to do a women's wear line. This was his “dream” project, humped backs, and bulging arms.
He returned to India, and went back to the familiar streets of Kolkata. This is where he would eventually set up his workshop.
He wanted to be away from the politics of fashion, isolate himself from the Delhi and Bombay fashion brigade, and immerse himself in his work. Because exile is important to create.
He was fascinated with his mother's taste in clothes. In fact, even his grandmothers. They'd wear kaftans they bought in Indonesia, and his mother would get uncut stones from all over, and string them into interesting jewelry. He would watch with awe, and later, the abaya appeared in his work. Anti-fashion, they'd call him. But anti-Christ too had its place in imagination and mythology.
He emerged from the rehearsals, hair tied in a tight bun, looking hassled. The show was about to begin, and he was using heels combined with oxfords for the first time. Besides, he was also showcasing his men's wear collection – a series of lose jackets, and pants with motifs. Everything white and black. Anger, seen in black and white. Red would have been an easy way out. So, he worked himself up in a frenzy, and worked with images of fetuses, bones, and skeletons, trying to project his state of mind.
“Give me white light,” he says.
“The walk is too strong,” the choreographer screams.
A male model rushed to the makeup artist who tried to get the look right. Kallol walked up to the mirror, then turned towards me, and did a swirl.
“Go to the show. I want you there,” he says.
And then it begins – an indulgence in anger, in grotesque. He emerges only for a few seconds, never walks up to where the paparazzi is stationed, or the fashion editors are measuring up the collections with their mascara'ed eyes, and disappears backstage.
At his stall, which he had refused to decorate like all others, people walk up to him to congratulate him on yet another stunning, intriguing collection. Because it in only when you don't understand, curiosity fills the being. They want to work with him, and he smiles.
A woman says she loved his motifs of mating snails that he did last season as part of Lakme's commissioned line where Kareena Kapoor walked as his showstopper.
Not that he wants to dress Bollywood. But a few celebrities are wearing his designs – Sonam Kapoor, Neha Dhupia, and Sameera Reddy.
“It is good if they are supporting a young designer,” he says. “Fern Mallis, the former director of the New York Fashion Week, wore one of my jackets to the White House. Can you believe that? Sometimes, I wonder why would people want to wear my clothes.”
There is no muse except for the woman or his attraction with everything dark. Because happiness can't exist in a void, it needs the dark, the mad to be emerge. So, he provides that.
There's a certain fascination with the number “55”. Because he is very close to his mother Meenakshi, he has tattooed her birth year on his arms.
His father, a banker, named him Kallol, which means sound of waves. At least, that's what he grew up believing, he says.
Within a month, he will start thinking of his next collection. For sometime, he wants to do installations because they are non-interactive in a way.
“At the end of the day, it is all about relativity. I have been asked the strangest questions. Like in this press conference, where a reporter asked me what was the chemistry between me and Rimzim Dadu because we have always shown together,” he says.
It is like the song he made his models walk to. The XX's Shelter.
“Because there's always that parallel line. While wanting something, you turn the other way. You keep walking,” he says.
With more than 50 fans he has collected over the years, and his kohl-lined eyes, and abayas that he wears, mocking everything, creating for the sake of art, and not for the sake of commercial success, he is walking the road less traveled.
“I was never the cool one. Nobody said they were dying to hang out with me. I guess if you keep doing what you are doing, then people realize it is cool that he is sticking to what he believes in,” he says.
“There is no perfection. Extravangant is pornography. That's what I said for one of my collections. Another one, in my early years said 'I am a budding celebrity - immaculate conception'. I probably thought then that I was on the brink of doing something great. I was like 'Oh, I am gonna rock it,” he says. “I know i am not saving lives but India is being shaped aesthetically and I am playing a part.”
In the meantime, he will continue with his story. The woman - he is waiting for her to come to him.