October 2021
High-octane designs with explosions of colour, pattern and embellishment — Ashish is not a label for the weak of heart, and demands an appetite for adventure. Mickey Boardman traces the designer’s journey.

MB: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you go to school? Were you a good student?

A: I went to St Columba’s in Delhi — it’s an all-boys school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. I was a terrible student. After I finished school I thought, “Fuck this, I’ll study art and let’s see what happens.” I couldn’t get into a fashion school in India so I did a fine arts degree with a specialisation in commercial art. I did commercial art because I thought I could work in an advertising agency. The nice part was that it opened me up to lots of different creative fields. And I tried my hand at fashion, which was really fun. I realised that fashion was something I really wanted to do. I then decided to move to London for one year, and the fashion thing was either gonna happen or I was coming back.

MB: Did you start working right away or study more in London?

A: I had to study because I wasn’t allowed to work. So I studied fashion for a year because although I was interested in it, I didn’t know much about its technicalities. I thought I’d see if I was any good at it, and if things worked out I’d probably stay and do that, or I’d just go back and work in an advertising agency.

MB: Coming from an Indian family of doctors, how did you get interested in fashion?

A: Luckily for me, my mother was one of my biggest inspirations while growing up, because she was so interested in fashion. In fact, I think my first exposure to fashion was a Zandra Rhodes exhibition in Delhi. At the time, India was a closed economy, and we didn’t get western TV or anything; there was just Doordarshan. But there would always be fashion magazines in the house — old copies of Vogue and Elle that were out of date, but it was still very exciting.

One summer I interned for a fashion company where they designed sequinned clothes for big stores in America and Russia. My job was basically to go there and draw, and help translate it into beads and sequins. I must have been 15 or 16 years old. The weirdest thing about this story is that there was this floral embroidery that I designed, which they put into production, and then I completely forgot about it. Then three years ago (and almost 30 years after I had designed it), I found it in a vintage store in Texas. So I bought it and did it again, for my Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. [Big beaded psychedelic dahlia flowers on a jumpsuit.]

MB: Do you still have the outfit you bought in Texas?

A: Yes, I have it in my archives. It’s kind of like coming full circle. It’s amazing how somebody took such good care of that piece all these years.

MB: Even in my generation, coming from a small town, fashion felt like a scary achievement. You’re not sure if you’re gonna ever make money, but you know that it’s gonna make you happy. Your family is never really convinced of what you’re doing. What was this like for you?

A: Fashion was such a new career in India back in the late ’80s to early ’90s. It was quite scary. People kept saying to me, “Be very careful, this is not going to earn you a living”, “Why don’t you go to medical school?”, “Why don’t you do engineering or architecture?” But it’s easier to take risks when you’re young.

MB: Were you a good student in design school?

A: I think for a part of it, yes. But I pretty much got kicked out after my first year at St Martin’s. Louise Wilson, who sadly is no more with us, took me back on the course.

MB: Why were you chucked off in the first place?

A: I didn’t do much work for a couple of months and what I actually did was crap. I think I was too busy going clubbing and getting into trouble. We won’t get into details, but that was why.

MB: For how many years were you at St. Martins? Was it four years or two?

A: I think it was a year and a half. It was quick, but so intense.

MB: And you had to do a collection at the end, right?

A: Yeah, I did. It was inspired by Dorothy and the red ruby slippers, the bit where she’s in a hurricane and ends up in Oz. So it was these huge windswept, giant bows on dresses. Giant bows stabbing through tweed dresses. They were pretty amazing dresses. I still have a couple of them. Louise absolutely loved them. A part of me really wanted to continue down that road when I finished the MA, but I needed to think more commercially at that time. So I used that as a starting point and translated it into something commercial and the first bunch of things I did was basically tweed sweatshirts with beaded bows on them. It was a way of referencing what I’d done, but a much more luxe sportswear version. I just kind of started building on that, but I do go back to that collection sometimes. I still think it’s one of my most favourite things.

MB: Was it well recieved?

A: A: It was really well received. I was happy with how it turned out. Sadly, when I went back to college the next day and asked to see the video, I found out that they ran out of tape just as my bit was starting. So while my show was going on, they were changing the tape, so there’s no video evidence. All I have is some pictures. They’re nice, but they don’t do it much justice. So that was a shame.

MB: How did you go from spending all your time at clubs and almost getting kicked out to putting the work for this final collection?

A: Well, I realised that I’d invested so much in it, emotionally, mentally and creatively. I just thought, “I need to finish this. This is what I want to do with my life.” I was still going out, though. I went out all night to clubs and I was still at college the next day. So I kind of feel like I didn’t sleep for about six months — all I did was work and go out and drink lots of coffee.

MB: Have you ever felt that being brown wasn’t easy? What was your experience during that time? Did you ever wish you had gone back to India?

A: I think it was difficult because I didn’t have the same references. Having grown up in India and not having had the same cultural experiences as all those who were with me in fashion school in London was difficult.

Even on a personal level, someone at the university said, “You should get a haircut so that you look more European.” I was quite embarrassed. And I immediately went to get my hair cut. I am horrified when I think about this now, but at that time I didn’t think anything of it. I feel like there were loads of instances like that, even around my accent or my pronunciation of certain words, but I think times have changed now. People are a lot more sensitive around stuff like that.

It was actually very difficult because it was the first time I’d been away from home. Although the freedom that came along with that was completely exhilarating, there was also the fact that suddenly you were away from your friends and your family and people you’d grown up with.The whole culture was so different. And I was desperate to make it work. So it was really like throwing yourself in the deep end. It was a lot of pressure. That was my experience, anyway.

MB: Your work has been very Indian, whether it’s your show, cuts, your casting, every small detail. If you’re Indian, you can see where it’s coming from. When did you have the balls to say, “This is my reference and I’m going to run with it”?

A: I think it was a gradual realisation that comes from having grown up in a certain culture — for example I have a certain sensibility towards colour. I’m really inspired by street style in India and we have this love for colour and don’t shy away from it. You look at a street in India, you see shocking pink and neon green and highlighter orange in every freaking pattern.

I don’t think that there was a conscious moment when I thought, “I’m going to start referencing that.” But because I’ve grown up with it and it’s a part of me, of so much of my subconscious, I can’t help but reference it. I think my use of the hand-embroidery, the colour, the craft — it might not be obvious or literal but I think that the essence of it has always been there.

MB: When you were at school and at St. Martins, did they encourage you to explore and be yourself?

A: At St Martin’s we were very independent and were completely encouraged to do our own thing. I wanted to go off and do fun sparkly cocktail dresses. And I remember Louise actually screaming at me one time and saying, “Well, if you want to do the fucking fairy fabrics, go and do the fairy fabrics. What are you thinking about?” I don’t think anybody pushed me in any direction; if anything, it was more like “No, actually this is what I really want to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a sparkly cocktail dress.”

MB: How has your work been received in India? My experience has been that Indians who have success around the world have less success in India.

A: I still don’t sell in India now. I’ve never had a retailer in India. I’ve never really done stuff for Bollywood films although that would have been a fun thing to do. I think for the first few years, nobody knew who I was in India, or what I did. I think now people are aware of my work in fashion circles. But I mean, it has been 20 years.

MB: How do you describe yourself? Are you a London designer or an Indian designer based in London?

A: I actually have the same dilemma. I never know how to describe myself. I’ve lived in London for as long as I’ve lived in India. So I guess I’m an Indian designer based in London. I have really strong links with India obviously, because everything I do is made in India and I spend lots of time there — although I haven’t in the last year because of the pandemic.

MB: That brings me to another question. How has your approach to business changed from when you started to now?

A: My approach has always been pretty much the same, which is that if I can do what I love and make enough money to survive, then I’m okay. I’ve been ambitious in one way, but I don’t want or need to be in every store — that has never really interested me. It’s an easy thing to say, but very difficult to genuinely just be happy with where you are. I got to a certain point in my business where I thought, it will be quite nice to just sustain this and just be in these 10 fabulous shops and have these people wearing my clothes. But even that’s quite difficult to sustain. I think being on the back-burner is a good thing, you can take your time and develop if you’re not in the spotlight all the time. I don’t think I have ever been “in fashion”, I just want to make beautiful clothes.

MB: Any words of wisdom? Something you would have loved to know when you started your career in fashion?

A: I would just say, enjoy it. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be brave. DREAM. Only do it if you love it because it’s a tough life, and it doesn’t get any easier.

MB: Over time it becomes a strength, right? But you have to hold your ground.

A: I think one of the good things happening with the way things are changing is that people from all parts of the world are now getting visibility. It wasn’t as easy to get because there was no social media. There was no common platform where people could share things. Now you can be in any part of the world and still have that visibility. In contrast, when I graduated, I literally remember trying to set up a fucking MySpace page or whatever that was called.

MB: Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you go to school? Were you a good student?

A: I went to St Columba’s in Delhi — it’s an all-boys school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. I was a terrible student. After I finished school I thought, “Fuck this, I’ll study art and let’s see what happens.” I couldn’t get into a fashion school in India so I did a fine arts degree with a specialisation in commercial art. I did commercial art because I thought I could work in an advertising agency. The nice part was that it opened me up to lots of different creative fields. And I tried my hand at fashion, which was really fun. I realised that fashion was something I really wanted to do. I then decided to move to London for one year, and the fashion thing was either gonna happen or I was coming back.

MB: Did you start working right away or study more in London?

A: I had to study because I wasn’t allowed to work. So I studied fashion for a year because although I was interested in it, I didn’t know much about its technicalities. I thought I’d see if I was any good at it, and if things worked out I’d probably stay and do that, or I’d just go back and work in an advertising agency.

MB: Coming from an Indian family of doctors, how did you get interested in fashion?

A: Luckily for me, my mother was one of my biggest inspirations while growing up, because she was so interested in fashion. In fact, I think my first exposure to fashion was a Zandra Rhodes exhibition in Delhi. At the time, India was a closed economy, and we didn’t get western TV or anything; there was just Doordarshan.
But there would always be fashion magazines in the house — old copies of Vogue and Elle that were out of date, but it was still very exciting.

One summer I interned for a fashion company where they designed sequinned clothes for big stores in America and Russia. My job was basically to go there and draw, and help translate it into beads and sequins. I must have been 15 or 16 years old. The weirdest thing about this story is that there was this floral embroidery that I designed, which they put into production, and then I completely forgot about it. Then three years ago (and almost 30 years after I had designed it), I found it in a vintage store in Texas. So I bought it and did it again, for my Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. [Big beaded psychedelic dahlia flowers on a jumpsuit.]

MB: Do you still have the outfit you bought in Texas?

A: Yes, I have it in my archives. It’s kind of like coming full circle. It’s amazing how somebody took such good care of that piece all these years.

MB: Even in my generation, coming from a small town, fashion felt like a scary achievement. You’re not sure if you’re gonna ever make money, but you know that it’s gonna make you happy. Your family is never really convinced of what you’re doing. What was this like for you?

A: Fashion was such a new career in India back in the late ’80s to early ’90s. It was quite scary. People kept saying to me, “Be very careful, this is not going to earn you a living”, “Why don’t you go to medical school?”, “Why don’t you do engineering or architecture?” But it’s easier to take risks when you’re young.

MB: Were you a good student in design school?

A: I think for a part of it, yes. But I pretty much got kicked out after my first year at St Martin’s. Louise Wilson, who sadly is no more with us, took me back on the course.

MB: Why were you chucked off in the first place?

A: I didn’t do much work for a couple of months and what I actually did was crap. I think I was too busy going clubbing and getting into trouble. We won’t get into details, but that was why.

MB: For how many years were you at St. Martins? Was it four years or two?

A: I think it was a year and a half. It was quick, but so intense.

MB: And you had to do a collection at the end, right?

A: Yeah, I did. It was inspired by Dorothy and the red ruby slippers, the bit where she’s in a hurricane and ends up in Oz. So it was these huge windswept, giant bows on dresses. Giant bows stabbing through tweed dresses. They were pretty amazing dresses. I still have a couple of them. Louise absolutely loved them. A part of me really wanted to continue down that road when I finished the MA, but I needed to think more commercially at that time. So I used that as a starting point and translated it into something commercial and the first bunch of things I did was basically tweed sweatshirts with beaded bows on them. It was a way of referencing what I’d done, but a much more luxe sportswear version. I just kind of started building on that, but I do go back to that collection sometimes. I still think it’s one of my most favourite things.

MB: Was it well received?

A: It was really well received. I was happy with how it turned out. Sadly, when I went back to college the next day and asked to see the video, I found out that they ran out of tape just as my bit was starting. So while my show was going on, they were changing the tape, so there’s no video evidence. All I have is some pictures. They’re nice, but they don’t do it much justice. So that was a shame.

MB: How did you go from spending all your time at clubs and almost getting kicked out to putting the work for this final collection?

A: Well, I realised that I’d invested so much in it, emotionally, mentally and creatively. I just thought, “I need to finish this. This is what I want to do with my life.” I was still going out, though. I went out all night to clubs and I was still at college the next day. So I kind of feel like I didn’t sleep for about six months — all I did was work and go out and drink lots of coffee.

MB: Have you ever felt that being brown wasn’t easy? What was your experience during that time? Did you ever wish you had gone back to India?

A: I think it was difficult because I didn’t have the same references. Having grown up in India and not having had the same cultural experiences as all those who were with me in fashion school in London was difficult.

Even on a personal level, someone at the university said, “You should get a haircut so that you look more European.” I was quite embarrassed. And I immediately went to get my hair cut. I am horrified when I think about this now, but at that time I didn’t think anything of it. I feel like there were loads of instances like that, even around my accent or my pronunciation of certain words, but I think times have changed now. People are a lot more sensitive around stuff like that.

It was actually very difficult because it was the first time I’d been away from home. Although the freedom that came along with that was completely exhilarating, there was also the fact that suddenly you were away from your friends and your family and people you’d grown up with.The whole culture was so different. And I was desperate to make it work. So it was really like throwing yourself in the deep end. It was a lot of pressure. That was my experience, anyway.

MB: Your work has been very Indian, whether it’s your show, cuts, your casting, every small detail. If you’re Indian, you can see where it’s coming from. When did you have the balls to say, “This is my reference and I’m going to run with it”?

A: I think it was a gradual realisation that comes from having grown up in a certain culture — for example I have a certain sensibility towards colour. I’m really inspired by street style in India and we have this love for colour and don’t shy away from it. You look at a street in India, you see shocking pink and neon green and highlighter orange in every freaking pattern.

I don’t think that there was a conscious moment when I thought, “I’m going to start referencing that.” But because I’ve grown up with it and it’s a part of me, of so much of my subconscious, I can’t help but reference it. I think my use of the hand-embroidery, the colour, the craft — it might not be obvious or literal but I think that the essence of it has always been there.

MB: When you were at school and at St. Martins, did they encourage you to explore and be yourself?

A: At St Martin’s we were very independent and were completely encouraged to do our own thing. I wanted to go off and do fun sparkly cocktail dresses. And I remember Louise actually screaming at me one time and saying, “Well, if you want to do the fucking fairy fabrics, go and do the fairy fabrics. What are you thinking about?” I don’t think anybody pushed me in any direction; if anything, it was more like “No, actually this is what I really want to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing a sparkly cocktail dress.”

MB: How has your work been received in India? My experience has been that Indians who have success around the world have less success in India.

A: I still don’t sell in India now. I’ve never had a retailer in India. I’ve never really done stuff for Bollywood films although that would have been a fun thing to do. I think for the first few years, nobody knew who I was in India, or what I did. I think now people are aware of my work in fashion circles. But I mean, it has been 20 years.

MB: How do you describe yourself? Are you a London designer or an Indian designer based in London?

A: I actually have the same dilemma. I never know how to describe myself. I’ve lived in London for as long as I’ve lived in India. So I guess I’m an Indian designer based in London. I have really strong links with India obviously, because everything I do is made in India and I spend lots of time there — although I haven’t in the last year because of the pandemic.

MB: That brings me to another question. How has your approach to business changed from when you started to now?

A: My approach has always been pretty much the same, which is that if I can do what I love and make enough money to survive, then I’m okay. I’ve been ambitious in one way, but I don’t want or need to be in every store — that has never really interested me. It’s an easy thing to say, but very difficult to genuinely just be happy with where you are.

I got to a certain point in my business where I thought, it will be quite nice to just sustain this and just be in these 10 fabulous shops and have these people wearing my clothes. But even that’s quite difficult to sustain. I think being on the back-burner is a good thing, you can take your time and develop if you’re not in the spotlight all the time. I don’t think I have ever been “in fashion”, I just want to make beautiful clothes.

MB: Any words of wisdom? Something you would have loved to know when you started your career in fashion?

A: I would just say, enjoy it. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be brave. DREAM. Only do it if you love it because it’s a tough life, and it doesn’t get any easier.

MB: Over time it becomes a strength, right? But you have to hold your ground.

A: I think one of the good things happening with the way things are changing is that people from all parts of the world are now getting visibility. It wasn’t as easy to get because there was no social media.

There was no common platform where people could share things. Now you can be in any part of the world and still have that visibility. In contrast, when I graduated, I literally remember trying to set up a fucking MySpace page or whatever that was called.