Men in sequins with false eye-lashes and rainbow-coloured shoe laces. A shy young drifter in Shillong in a torn, tangerine hand-me-down jersey. A hip shoe designer who teams his dhoti with a jacket from London, Zara hat and his grandfather's walking stick. An old lady in chappals briskly walking down the road in a sari coloured Hollywood Cerise.
Photographer Manou's talent goes far beyond spotting interesting people in interesting clothes. His blog Wearabout (http://wearabout.wordpress.com/), which documents street fashion, is an unnervingly egalitarian study of the people who surround us. There are models, hipsters and stylists — sure. But he also studies drifters, tramps and beggars. People who exist in those shadowy dimensions that the middle class tends to blank out uncomfortably. People for whom fashion is so unnecessary that ironically they develop their own unique style — completely free of its dictates.
This is why designers around the world are inspired by the streets. And why Wearabout proves that although fashion can be dismissed as frivolous, often it's an essential language — an organic means of expression.
Twenty-seven year old Manou's unconventional career path began with NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) in Bengaluru from where he graduated. His first job of creating catalogues for high street brands put him off the nine-to-five grind for life. “I decided to move to Auroville and stay in the forest forever,” he says, in a phone interview from Mumbai. “NIFT was a sort of a fluke. I was not sure what I wanted to do.” He ended up teaching children music at a village school in the outskirts of Auroville. “I stayed there, slept on the floor and earned Rs. 2,000 a month.”
People and their stories
Meanwhile, he took photographs, of everything. “I shot sunsets every second day in Bangalore, then gradually moved on to people. I was interested in their stories.” Disillusioned with his attempt at escaping the modern grind, he decided to plunge right back in, heading to Mumbai. Eventually, the restlessness set in again, and he headed to Dharamshala, to teach monks English. “I was volunteering at a centre, teaching from 12 to 5. After that I'd go on the street and photograph people.” He concentrated on details: “It could be anything — a nice tattoo, a T-shirt print, shoes… That's when I started thinking of blogging.”
Wearabout's subjects aren't just stylish people — they're people with a definite attitude. He explains what draws him to a subject. “People who have a particular style maybe slightly idiosyncratic. I feel some sort of a connection, which gets confirmed when I talk to them.” Their stories, he maintains, are what make them interesting, which is why he runs little interviews with the pictures. “If I was reading a magazine I would want to know about the model: their inspiration, habits, even something as frivolous as what they eat for breakfast,” he says, confessing with a chuckle.
This defiant individuality is what makes Wearabout so charming. Since Manou makes his own rules, each category has unexpected surprises. A small-town watch seller displaying his gaudy gold watches in a row, dangling from his shirt pocket, unwittingly mirrors the models flaunting multiple time pieces at Paris Fashion Week. An auto in vivid red, yellow and green is juxtaposed with a model in Zara's April 2011 look book wearing exactly the same shades and combination. “I didn't even have to go looking for that one,” he says, “I just woke up and saw that auto pass by my kitchen window.”
Being one of India's first fashion bloggers is not easy. “Initially I would get 300 hits on days I made a blog post,” he says, adding, “Now it's 700-800 a day. Which is nothing to be proud of, honestly. Fashion bloggers in the U.S. get 20,000 hits.” He adds, “But of course less than 10 per cent of India's population are Internet users.”
Since the blog doesn't make any money, Manou supports himself by doing photography projects — the latest of which was for Madura Garments. “They asked me to go to four small towns — Aurangabad, Salem, Asansol and Bareilly — to understand why people wear what they wear and what affects fashion. Salem threw up “lots of Madras checks. I really liked the colours on lungis. Men were mostly in white and white, with lots of gold watches and jewellery.” Discussing his most distinctive subjects, he says, “I feel the poorest are the best dressed. There's irreverence in their style. They're oblivious to the world of fashion. It's aesthetically appealing and holds your attention. Unlike mall clothing, which is all the same.”