Representing the creative future

RCA’s Supriya Lele: lo-fi luxury and the female form

When I first met Supriya in December, we were both clad in black, just as we were when I met her once again last week. But walk into her space, nestled in the heart of the fashion studios at the Royal College of Art and you enter a candy dream: where hues of pink and gold are layered amongst imagery of the female form. The glint of a gold bulldog clip catches my eyes, which quickly pour over the mounds of washi and gaffer tape. It so often seems that we associate the colour pink with a cutesy, sweet image of girlhood, which is arguably why so many of us go to the old fashioned, and seemingly ‘chic’, standby of dressing in black.

Supriya’s collection An Intimate Distance, which will showcase at the RCA MA show in just a few months time, is an exploration of the female form wherein established notions of femininity are subverted and challenged through an unconventional use of ‘tacky’ materials, rendered luxurious. The intention: to liberate and empower the wearer who looks good for herself, drawing upon Supriya’s interpretation of femininity in 2016, “for women to feel good about their bodies, and not give a shit about what other people think.”

Like many creatives, Supriya reflects that her work is an extension of herself and consequently the design process becomes personal. With this in mind, she began the year by thinking about her own heritage and the interplay between Indian and British cultural identities. The female to female connections between the rituals of dressing and wrapping the body, can be considered as the origin of her interest in the feminine form and how women hold themselves. The significance of gold throughout, quickly becomes apparent when Supriya shows me a photograph of her mother on her wedding day. She recalls explaining to her tutors that “as a child I felt so overwhelmed by all the gold that appears in Indian dress — from jewellery to embellishment. I completely avoided dressing that way.” Just as her work subverts tradition, Supriya’s venture into the world of fashion came from a place of “wanting to do something entirely different from my parents,” as she comes from an almost entirely medical family. “Pretty much everyone is a doctor,” and though both her parents had a strong sense of style and placed importance on fashion, she grinningly states that “my entire career has been born out of a rebellious streak!”

Before coming to the RCA, Supriya graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2010.  “I wanted to experience as much of the industry as possible and I started from the bottom, interning for a magazine, a stylist in New York, and then at a couple of labels in London. After this series of internships, I then worked as a studio assistant, and then as a design assistant.” She worked with labels such as Roksanda and Nichole Farhi. “It was vital to have this experience. I learned so much — not just about the design process — from day to day studio management in a smaller company, production, fabrics. It really opened my eyes to how labels function, and how designers function within a team.” When I ask what her plans for after the MA are, she iterates that it would be good to get more experience before perhaps building her own brand: “it was never something I considered before starting this MA, but now I feel increasingly tempted.” She tells me that even working within a collective could be a fun way to evoke the communal, supportive atmosphere of the college, all the while tackling the financial pressures of beginning a business.

Much of Supriya’s dynamic work comes from a place of experimentation and development. “Sampling is so much fun. Once you create one thing you find exciting, your mind ends up racing and you naturally build your own library of experimentation. It’s really important to keep the spontaneous flow of the design process,” she says, and it seems that at the RCA that students have total liberty to set their imaginations wild. When asked what’s the best thing about studying at the institution, it is, as I often hear, the tutors and technicians. “Zowie has been very much making the process fluid and open, helping us with what we want to achieve. It’s less of a structured syllabus and more catered to the individual.”

The access to resources and encouragement of self-created research has proved to generate unusual and exploratory garments. The idea of lo-fi luxury is intrinsic to An Intimate Distance as Supriya redefines modernity through her employment of materials such as gaffer tape, wood, vinyl and foil. “What could be considered classic elements in cut, have been merged with these fabrications: balancing out a modern silhouette and look,” Supriya explains. It’s very much about “taking something which is essentially a purposeful material, or object and transforming it into something special. What does gold even mean? Can it be special when it’s not real?” This idea is best illustrated through large golden boards Supriya developed in the earlier stage of her process. They serve the function of both reflecting negative space in relation to the body, whilst being a “weird kind of accessory.” Transcending lo-fi, punkish elements as the boards appear gold and yet are totally lightweight and wearable as the MDF is coated in liquid metal veneer. Equally fun is the presence of gold hair curlers, which will “feed into closures and fastenings as unusual elements,” realised in a ‘lipstick’ palette of pinks.

Supriya, however ‘drowning in tape’ she may be, has tapped into something which will certainly capture the imagination of many. It is a ‘taped together femininity’ which presents luxury through an affordable material. A modern idea that you can evoke and exude opulence even if you can’t afford it — in fact it’s all the more aesthetically pleasing and empowering if you can’t.