Meet the Southeast Asian Designers Redefining Traditional Fashion

Suket Dhir, Tom Trandt, and No Borders’ Kanika Karvinkop are just a few artists who are part of a new wave of creatives in the region.

by Meera Navlakha

Georgina for No Borders.

At any mention of South Asian fashion, images of heavily embroidered sarees or even bridalwear may come to mind—and indeed, these are the pieces synonymous with the region. But what may not be such an immediate association are brocade trench coats or distressed, block-print hoodies. These new styles—a blend of past and present, of East and West—are currently drawing in fashion mavericks globally, and are just a few of the designs from labels that make up No Borders, an India-based concept store and brainchild of stylist Kanika Karvinkop.

Karvinkop, who founded the shop in 2017, works with designers like Suket Dhir (an Indian designer who bagged the International Woolmark Prize in 2016), Amesh Wijesekera (a London-based Sri Lankan creative director), and more; she visits their factories, absorbing their individual goals, and ultimately bringing them to her sprawling network of diverse artists. The store is built upon this idea: bringing niche, redefined fashion to a global platform, while simultaneously breaking stereotypical notions of certain cultures.

“Growing up in India has been deeply inspiring for me,” Karvinkop, 33, says. “The country is incredibly diverse within itself—you can see completely new practices, languages, and traditions while traveling just 100 miles in any direction. There is so much more to Indian fashion that is unknown to the rest of the world. The designers I have come to meet and who are now on the roster of [the store] paint a different story with their craftsmanship and aesthetics.”

In these designers, Karvinkop has discovered people looking to break the mold: intertwining gold-plated jewelry with office wear, Mughal-era prints with minimalist silhouettes, and utilising authentic, home-grown fabrics. No Border is home to brands like Rastah, a Pakistani streetwear label, and designers like Negine Jasmine—an Afghanistani artist who specializes in embroidery. The artists she features in her shop also exemplify a larger movement happening within Southeast Asian fashions, as the styles traditionally associated with the region gain new life, reimagined by a wave of young creatives.

Divya Jadhav for No Borders.

Every designer Karvinkop collaborates with—their locations ranging from Peru to Nigeria and Bangladesh—draws inspiration from their heritage and aesthetic traditions. But even while utilizing traditional methods and techniques to create these wares, they make contemporary pieces that tell a story. One such artist is Taha Yousef, founder and creative director of Love Closely. Worn by the likes of French Montana and Riz Ahmed, the luxury streetwear brand weaves together the rich culturalwear of Pakistan and the Middle East, often using Arabic calligraphy as a medium. (The brand’s latest collection, for instance, was inspired by a Persian poem that draws on ideas of peace and fulfillment.) The clothes themselves are upcycled and sustainable, with everything from bucket hats to high-end joggers created with patchwork fabrics and eclipsed by lines of poetry written in Arabic. “I want our clothing to embody a message but also to change the narrative associated with that region of the world. Muslim-speaking nations already have a connotation in the media,” Yousef, 29, says. “I want the beauty and the art of our culture to be exposed to the masses through the medium of fashion, and for our calligraphy to be representative without any sort of baggage associated with it.”

Their clothes speak to two key demographics, he says: those who belong to the Muslim diaspora, and the folks who have never been exposed to the culture. “We want to create ideas that resonate with all people, but make sure our community feels empowered through this too, by seeing people wear what belongs to them. South Asians and Middle Easterners everywhere deserve that representation by their own people.”

This idea of representation is vital. Yousef says growing up, he never saw clothes that reflected his community; and this hole in the market ended up sparking the conception of a holistic, representative, creative space.

Then there’s Tom Trandt, founder and designer of Môi Điên, whose label has redefined what it means to adopt Vietnamese modes of dressing. Trandt’s revolution lives in his clients’ very particular sartorial desires: the designer says they want “fashion that upsets their parents.” It’s an intimate observation, but one that acts as an influence to Trandt and his team.

Seema for No Borders.

“Since our target audience is young and fun and daring, textbook traditional fashion probably never works for them to begin with, and it’s definitely not something they want from us,” Trandt says. “The kind of fashion that upset their parents seems to be more of a natural, mutual understanding between us.”

The Parsons graduate moved home to Saigon, Vietnam following his stint in New York, to start the Môi Điên label. In his clothes, the energies of the two cities are synthesized. Through his education in the West and the skills he acquired during his undergraduate years, Trandt knew he could “make a difference” in the Vietnamese fashion scene. But his aesthetic is, at its heart, extracted from his native country, and the characters he encountered back home. “At every corner [in Saigon], you can always find someone with a larger-than-life personality—whether it’s a street vendor lady with her arms fully covered in gold bracelets or a guy full of tattoos who wears next to nothing,” Trandt says.

These images may serve as foundations for Môi Điên, but they’re prefaced by the founder’s greater purpose—representing the vigor and vastness of Vietnamese youth culture. Trandt’s target audience is young, unapologetic, willing to embrace chaos, and ready to wear clothes that are reflective of these culturally newfound values. But Trandt’s creations do not signify a divorce between tradition and modernity. He and his team have opted for hybridity. Take the brand’s latest collection: the clothing—ombré-hued pants with purposefully placed holes, boxy black jackets with multitudes of pockets, and magenta-toned silk bralettes held together by chains—was inspired by ancient storytelling and Southern Vietnamese folklore. (And Trandt had the accompanying images for his look book shot on location in the region.)

PERO studio hand embroidery.

Trandt’s goals mirror those of Karvinkop and Yousef’s. Their clothes are a remix of sorts, made for those who are seeking a sense of both freedom and fusion. Their art comes in the form of wearable history. Both the designers and the rising demand from consumers exemplifies a burgeoning market for this sort of fashion—the kind that nods toward history while also emancipating itself from tradition.

“People now want to wear something that carries a message and carries the beauty of their cultures,” Yousef, the designer of Love Closely, says. “It’s beyond just fashion.”

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