The Anti-Designer

Kallol Datta’s creations are mad, dark, uncool and full of disdain for the standard conventions of fashion design
Rebel
A RECLUSE AT A GALA: Kallol Datta at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week held in Delhi, which concluded on 10 October(Photo: ASHISH SHARMA)
Outfits from Datta’s ‘Remission’...
..and ‘Verbal Autopsy’ lines
Datta shows off his tattoos (an assortment from his collections) (Photo: RONNY SEN)
MEN MAKE IT From Datta’s first menswear collection, which featured as a part of the ‘Grotesque Nonsense’ line showcased at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week

He wants a world without interaction but they want to get it—the foetuses, the bones, the eccentricity of his shapes. They call him the rule-breaker, the rebel, even the ‘Lady Gaga’ of Indian fashion. Kallol Datta, in his abaya, his granny sunglasses and an orange fan, is “alternative, edgy, experimental, abstract” for the Indian fashion world. But he wants to hide, run away—and smoke.

“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.”

At the Wills Lifestyle Fashion Week that concluded in Delhi on 10 October, Kallol, 28, conjured the vision of the woman he had encountered while he sat smoking one September evening last year. He made her up. But she took on a life of her own, wandering around, cutting up bodies and being grotesque. In his latest collection called ‘Grotesque Nonsense’, she reappears.

The models walk the ramp to the tune of ‘I find shelter, in this way… Please teach me gently, how to breathe... ’ by British band The XX. 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.

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 [designer] Arjun Saluja’s, I couldn’t breathe. I was choking,” he says. “That is amazing. For clothes to elicit an emotional response.”

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. His Twitter account description used to read ‘breath of fresh darkness.’ Now, he has changed it to ‘heaviest Indian designer.’

He is one of the very few Indian designers who are going against what they were taught in design schools. Like ‘fashion forecasts’. He just couldn’t stand this term. He thought it was an attempt to commercialise fashion, force people to wear certain kinds of clothes so they could qualify for the ‘fashionista’ tag.

Kallol says his creations are a reaction to photoshopped notions of beauty where women look like they are from another world, with perfect skin and unusual heights and weights, strutting around like swans.

At the Fashion Week, in the retail rack, everybody was doing drape,  and he was trying to do proportions, so the clothes could fit anyone.

When he started out, he knew his work would be criticised, gawked at, not considered cool. He hates the term ‘androgynous,’ which many have used to refer to his creations. Women have been wearing men’s clothes forever, he says. But he still gets surprised when women wear his clothes.

“Fuck the body. The body is a given,” he says. “I work with proportions.” At his house in Salt Lake, Kolkata, he was showing me the collections from his X O X O line and Lakme Fashion Week’s commissioned collection, which he did not name. He lives alone. There is a housekeeper to cook his meals and a driver. He says he could stay home for days together, at a remove from the world, and create. He reads and drinks. And dreams. And hangs on to them. They are amorphous and mostly disappear. But one stayed. That dream put him on the world fashion map.  

In his dream, there was a man, a classical pianist who was at the peak of his career and would perform all over the world. One night, his body began to change. He got a hump on the back and one arm became larger than the other. He could not perform, and he ended up in a circus where people came to see the freak

and get amused by his tragedy. The dream refused to leave Kallol, and the mutant body  of the pianist became a part of his collection.

“Initially, the first two years, people were thinking: ‘What spaceship is this guy on?’ They thought I was doing this to get attention,” he says, as he smokes outside the venue of the Wills India Fashion Week. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking the madness is put on.  

“I know that for every one person who loves my work,  ten people hate it,” he says, “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.”

More than anything, he sees himself as a pattern-cutter, and mostly works with circles, and sews them. For his first collection, he did all the cutting and sewing himself. Sometimes when the tailors are unable to translate his vision, he takes over, sits down at the machine and sews away.

“Proportions are always set. They still form 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 ruching and pleating. I am a great believer in not showing skin. Wraps make me feel secure. This bit is personal.”

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His world, his art, is tattooed on his arms. He says his body reacts to pain well, that he can sit through the tattoo sessions without the needle making him contort his face.

“I got my first tattoo—a Celtic sign for courage—when I turned 21. At that point, I was living that kind of life. Courage was needed for what I had chosen to do,” he says.

Out of the 12 tattoos he has on his arms, six represent his designerwear collections—X O X O, remission, etcetera. There are sperms, and there are the amputated legs and arms of male and female forms.

“The shoe print on your dress is based on roadkill,” he says. When I bought the dress with the bulging fronts and shoe print, I didn’t know what it meant. It intrigued me. When I managed to find him, I asked. “An 80-year old woman is the inspiration. She has sagging boobs. This is how she’d look,” he says.

“But the motifs?” Sometimes, the motifs tell a parallel story, or at times they integrate with the story. Indians understand prints, but they don’t get the structure, or the shape, he says.

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Datta, whose label Kallol Datta 1955 has made people sit up and take notice of the bulging silhouettes and madness of his motifs, was once a preppy young kid who wore Pierre Cardin pajamas that were monogrammed with his initials. He wore a side parting and dressed in buttoned-down shirts, dress pants and cardigans. Then began the influence of sports. In high school, where he says he did not know how to deal with clothes, he would cut the sleeves or chop off the length, and that is where his own experiments with fashion began. He grew up in the Middle East and vacationed in Europe where his grandparents lived. He was a loner.

“When I was in high school, I was the school prefect. I would often get caught for not being in uniform. I’d colour my hair purple, and only in high school, I started to figure I couldn’t deal with clothes. I wanted to deal with them 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 voiceovers, 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 National Institute of Fashion Technology (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.

At NIFT Calcutta, which he chose over NIFT Delhi, he got into arguments, and hated going to fashion forecasts, even libraries. He somehow managed to get through the first semester. Then he bunked classes except those taken by one teacher—a frail, young woman. She taught him pattern-cutting. She would eventually become a friend who could “handle my tantrums.” He would sit and vent his frustrations, and she would listen as he smoked and talked. He got suspended before he was to showcase his project at the end of the course. They complained he was smoking and drinking. “What was the big deal? Everyone else was too,” he says. Maybe he did it while he was at work, downing a vodka shot, and smoking discreetly near the window.

But then it was an intense period. 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 selected to do a women’s wear line. He returned to India, and went back to the familiar streets of Calcutta. This is where he would eventually set up his workshop.

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At the Wills Lifestyle Fashion Week, he emerges from the rehearsals, hair tied in a tight bun, looking hassled, backstage. The show is about to begin, and he is using heels in combination with Oxfords for the first time. Besides, he is also showcasing his men’s wear collection—a series of loose 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 into a frenzy, and worked with images of foetuses, 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 rushes to the makeup artist, who tries to get the look right. Kallol walks up to the mirror, turns towards me, and does a swirl.

“Go to the show. I want you there,” he says.

And then it begins—an indulgence in anger, in the grotesque. He emerges only for a few seconds, never walks up to where the paparazzi are stationed, or where the fashion editors stand measuring up the collections with their mascara’ed eyes, and disappears backstage.

At his stall, which he had refused to decorate, people walk up to him to  congratulate him on yet another stunning, intriguing collection. They want to work with him, and he smiles. A woman says she loved his motifs of mating snails that he’d done last season as part of Lakme’s commissioned line, where Kareena Kapoor walked as his showstopper. He does not wish to dress Bollywood, but a few film celebrities do wear his designs—Sonam Kapoor, Neha Dhupia and Sameera Reddy among them.

“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 people want to wear my clothes.”

There is no muse except the mystery woman or his attraction with everything dark. There is also a certain fascination with the number ‘55’. Because he is very close to his mother Meenakshi, he has tattooed her year of birth on his arms.

Within a month, he will start thinking of his next collection. For some time, he wants to do installations because “they are non-interactive in a way”.

 “There is no perfection. Extravagant 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.”