Fashion

Kaleekal’s design maxims

Alan Alexander Kaleekal on the runway   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

Alan Alexander Kaleekal is the showstopper in town. He is perhaps the only person from Kerala to make it to the Forbes India 30 Under 30 list. Credited with creating his signature design language, Alan studied fashion design at Studio Berçot, Paris. After training with the big names in fashion in Paris, he returned to India in 2015 and launched his eponymous label, KALEEKAL, and made his debut at Lakmé Fashion Week in March, 2015.

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

He has been a trailblazer on the fashion scene with his emphasis on minimalism. In an email interview, the 29-year-old designer talks about his design sensibilities, his vision and why it is important for us to promote our weavers and handlooms.

Edited excerpts...

What did your parents say when you decided to switch from engineering to fashion design? What is their reaction now?

I come from a business background. Both sides of my family have been in business the past few generations. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be in a creative field of work but having been brought up in the city, far away from anything even remotely related to the contemporary fashion scene, fashion was never consciously in my mind as a career option. So, when I wanted to study fashion design, my parents were hesitant about my decision. Not only did I want to switch careers but also move to a country where I barely knew the language. Looking back, I now understand their concern considering the uncertainty looming large over such a drastic decision. I stuck to my guns and persisted. 

Now, they have come to appreciate that I am extremely passionate about what I do. The Forbes 30 under 30 was the perfect start to 2018. To be nominated by your peers, evaluated and deemed worthy of making the list is not just a great recognition but one that is a validation of all the hard work that has been put in! My parents do understand that and are happy for me.

How did the Paris stint shape the designer in you?

Paris was an immersive experience. A city of museums, art galleries and libraries, Paris is one of the best places to be for a design student. The fashion school I went to is notorious for their rigorous training and intense course structure. Throughout the course of my studies, I was sent out to work for various fashion houses to better learn my craft.

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

I always say Paris made me fall in love with India all over again. I left India because I found the fashion scene stale and stunted. The over-designed, over-embroidered garments in popular Indian media were tiring, stuck in a rut. Five years in Paris let me grow into myself. It gave me an outsider’s point of view and a fresh perspective on the things I grew up around. I learned that the better you get at designing, the less loud your designs need to be.

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

Even the slightest design diversion from the norm can bring about a huge difference in the end product. Each garment I design is based on contemporary wardrobe staples, the design process involves transmuting each of these staples to an elevated version of the original through minimal manipulation.

Gender neutral fashion is a design signature of yours. Any reason for that choice?

Design cannot be separate from the self. Everything that is encompassed in my design language is essentially a translation of who I am as a person. Creating my own brand was a means to tell my story and express myself through that narration. I showcased my debut collection ‘The Age of Consent’ at Lakmé Fashion Week in March, 2015 as an exploration of adolescent sexuality and the gender binary, finding alternate ways to re-interpret conventional clothing and tailoring techniques. This conversation pertaining to gender, identity and sexuality is a part of our ongoing design dialogue but I don’t think it was ever a conscious decision. As much as my design process involves non-gendering of garments, there are no fixed themes or driving trends. Fixating on a single idea can be creatively very limiting. Each detail that goes into a collection has to blend in organically and enhance the whole. Trend-driven collections have a very short life span.

How do you think artisanal weaves and textiles can be made a part of everyday wear for today’s generation?

There is a common misconception that handloom fabrics cannot be modern or stylish. KALEEKAL began in 2015 as an attempt at giving a contemporary voice to our handlooms, to retell the stories of Indian weaves and artisanal crafts. Each garment that we create is treated like a piece of art, employing cutting edge pattern drafting techniques and custom made handwoven fabrics. Investing in handwoven garments promotes and sustains the local artisans and their age-old crafts that are an integral part of our heritage. Switching to handloom fabrics is not just a fashion choice but one that should be driven by the need for sustainability in our life choices.

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

Fashion industry is the second biggest polluter in the world. At every stage of garment production and consumption huge amounts of pollutants are released into our ecosystem. Opting for ethical, eco-friendly production practices and promoting slow fashion is a big step in the right direction. We do not have a planet B. The earth is all we have got. And making smart choices for a better future and a better tomorrow is only common sense.

What has been your experience while working with weavers in Balaramapuram? How can they be helped to sustain their traditional skills?

Despite a rich weaving tradition and textile history, we often look to the West for inspiration. The history of our fabrics and garments can only be retold through revival and patronage and for that to happen, both design and consumption need to be updated and made responsible to the society. For decades, European designers and Western retail giants, including Carrefour and IKEA, have been working closely with weavers from north Kerala, keeping our crafts alive. Poor working conditions, bare minimum wages and a lack of appreciation locally has alienated our artisans and resulted in the slow demise of their craft.  

Supporting fair trade and fair wages, updating and adapting design to the needs of a modern society and making conscious consumer choices are necessary. The past few seasons, I have been working with different handloom societies and grassroots-level artisan clusters across Kerala in an attempt to revive our weaves; to not only support the local artisans but also provide continued sustenance to our crafts.

There are attempts to revive and promote handlooms from different designers. Locally we have Weavers Village, a social enterprise that promotes pit-loom products that once used to be our wardrobe staple. We have to understand that revival has to be a collective attempt and it goes hand in hand with continued patronage or else it will be an exercise in futility.

How would you define your fashion sensibilities or philosophy?

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

My design sensibilities are a reflection of my Kerala roots. While the rest of India is known for their riot of colours and embroideries, Kerala stands apart in the fact that our traditional garments feature simple off-white cottons and plain gold zari borders. This minimalism is largely reflected in my design aesthetics and the strictly functional detailing of my clothes. I tend to shy away from unnecessary surface ornamentation and usually favour white and black over loud colours.

Any design, to be deemed successful, needs to be intelligent enough to initiate a dialogue between the designer and the consumer/audience. I like designs that incite a reaction, pose a question or narrate a story. Fashion, like any other design discipline, should be perceptible to the changes and undercurrents of our society and needs to be a necessary reaction to those changes or else it fails to stay relevant.

Is there a muse or idol you look up to in the fashion world?

No muses or idols to be honest; I find it to be a very limiting concept. If I absolutely had to pick a person I would say I am my own muse. Design has to be an extension and expression of the self. The thought of an artist or a designer projecting themselves on to a ‘muse’ and designing/creating based on their interpretation of the said ‘muse’ feels very second-hand and counterproductive. That being said, in the current scene, Hari Nef, as a trans-model, actor and a spokesperson for the non-binary narrative, is someone I find significantly eloquent.

You have been famously quoted as finding “perfection in imperfection”. Would you please elaborate on that?

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL

Garments designed by Alan Alexander Kaleekal under his eponymous label KALEEKAL   | Photo Credit: The House of Pixels

We all have pre-conceived notions of what and how everything is supposed to be. Questioning those notions and the social conditioning responsible for the same, expands our way of thinking and how we perceive things around us. As humans, we tend towards the pretty and the perfect. What I try to portray is that beauty does not have to be defined by either. Take handwoven fabrics for instance; as opposed to the smooth flawless finish of a power-loom fabric, there are many visible mistakes and knots in a handloom fabric. However, the mistakes in handloom fabrics are what make it distinct and lend it character and surface texture, the inherent errors a proof that it was lovingly crafted by human hands, thus demanding a higher price in comparison.

When I was in fashion school, one of my professors used to assign us project where we had to work with mediums, whether it be colours, fabrics or silhouettes, we do not usually gravitate towards. The reasoning behind this insistence being you learn more about yourself working with mediums that you are unfamiliar with or those that make you uncomfortable. What it does is, it essentially forces you to step out of your comfort zone and test your boundaries thus expanding the scope of your work.

What, in your opinion, is the biggest flaw in the average Indian’s wardrobe?

There aren’t any flaws as such. Much of what we wear is traditional and geo specific, dictated by the needs of our tropical climate. However, we have a tendency to compromise on quality for quantity. Skilled tailoring is still a new concept to India; poorly tailored and badly finished clothing abounds even at designer outlets. Of recent, I have seen a lot of mass produced garments in the market that are pieced together in different parts of the country without any unifying design guidelines. The resulting garments are a cacophony of influences from across the country and barely makes any sense locally.

As a society, we are hesitant to experiment with our clothing. This is where the internal conflict of whether or not we are betraying our culture comes into play. We have to realise that culture is not a constant, it is perpetually evolving. Even though I have been quite vocal about sensitive subjects through my work, I am aware that there are boundaries that are tough to push in a society as volatile as ours. We have to be mindful of the fact that things take time, you cannot expect a grassroots level shift overnight. I am happy that there are many designers tirelessly pushing these boundaries.

If you had one advice for fashion conscious youngsters, what would it be?

Be yourself. Rather than focussing on trends, figure out what makes you unique. That is what fashion is all about: identity. Fashion is one of the very few creative domains that you live on a daily basis, it is not just art but the art of living. Clothes, whether you follow fashion or not is a primary medium of self-expression. It affects the everyday and dictates how you present yourself to the world.

What has been your takeaway from the Lakmé Fashion Week?

Lakmé Fashion backed by IMG Reliance is easily the best platform in India for young designers. Apart from the immense amount of publicity and recognition from your peers, it gives you the opportunity to widely expand the scope of your work. Not only is the LFW team committed to nurturing and supporting young talent but they are also actively involved in offering you new and exciting opportunities within the industry. They have been very supportive of what I do and were instrumental in facilitating my collaborations with Godrej India Culture Lab, Verve Magazine, Raymond, special drives for the Ministry of Textiles, the Textiles India 2017 show etc.

In 2017, through LFW I was selected to represent India at the International Fashion Showcase in London organized as part of the London Fashion Week and curated by the British Fashion Council. The event that took place at the Somerset House saw participants from 29 different countries from across the world. We won the prestigious Best Design Country Award among all the participating countries.

Is there a star or a movie you would have liked to design for considering how much cinema influences our sense of fashion in India?

Alan Alexander Kaleekal

Alan Alexander Kaleekal   | Photo Credit: Pooja Dash

There have been a lot of requests and interest from stylists and agents to dress some of the top stars in the country but I haven’t really committed to any till now. I am aware that movies are a powerful medium and an integral part of our daily life in India. However if I do commit to a movie, I would like to design the costumes for an entire movie, like Sabyasachi did for the movie Black, where my involvement is an integral part of the visual narration.

A few years down the lane, I would love to branch out and direct videos and movies similar to the visually stunning Nocturnal Animals and A Single Man both directed by Tom Ford, the ace fashion designer.

What does your mother think of your brand of clothes?

(Laughs) Well I hope she likes it. My mother has always had a keen eye for fashion and fabrics. She is eager to learn more about what I do and definitely appreciates the work I do with the handloom weavers and artisans. She is slowly opening up to the more avant-garde silhouettes I design and the concepts I work with. More than anything I feel she is happy knowing that I put my heart and soul into what I do.

You are planning a creative space in Thiruvananthapuram....

Yes! The immediate plan is to open a concept store in the city near the Napier Museum, tucked away in a quiet nook, removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. An experiential space housing multiple design domains, the project will be one of a kind in its scope and ambition. We will be housing a fashion and design studio, an art gallery and also a space for art installations, a library and an adjoining reading room, home décor and interior design solutions and an experimental lab kitchen with a garden café. We are aiming for a soft launch in April around the time of Vishu and adding more services and experiences to the space along the way.


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