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Text by Ranjabati Das. With inputs from Akanksha Pandey
Their unisex designs and provocative campaigns break through the prescribed conventions of beauty and gender with the specific aim to generate fresh debate on fashion’s potential to influence self-expression and cultural opinions. Designers Shyma Shetty and Pranav Misra talk to Verve about selling the idea of individuality through the medium of clothing, redefining norms and encouraging creatives and consumers alike to speak up and let their personal philosophies inform their clothing choices
When Pranav Misra, 36, and Shyma Shetty, 35, first started Huemn in 2012, then both Delhi-based, the contemporary trends being presented to urban consumers (namely the well-heeled in Mumbai and the capital) were predominantly bridal and feminine Western occasion wear. Although Huemn had yet to settle into its niche, it was among the pioneers of making practical, everyday wear fashionable. The Indian industry’s vision had been too myopic to fully embrace this androgynous, “ordinary” aesthetic; the clothes were deemed a fad, and stylists scratched their heads about how to place them in magazine editorials. But today, Misra, who grew up in the relatively smaller town of Lucknow, and Shetty, a Bengalurean, are seen as a critical part of that cool clutch of creative mavens (alongside the likes of Amrita Khanna and Gursi Singh, Aneeth Arora, Ruchika Sachdev, and Suket Dhir) who rejected outdated ideals and laid the foundation for other free-thinking designers.
Collage By Swati Sinha
The conservative driving principles around which our fashion industry had previously moulded itself began shifting; the emerging landscape started to hold space for inclusive practices that became the ideal lens through which to understand the substantial cultural transformations occurring within the country.
Huemn found its voice circa 2015 when the NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) Bengaluru graduates dug deeper into their philosophy, which considers the relationships between fashion, politics and culture. They turned towards more experimental designs and brand communication, focusing on the youth – a segment that wasn’t a money-spinner back then. Misra and Shetty were drawn to minimalistic, gender-fluid luxe athleisure and cast the brand as the antithesis to trend-based fashion cycles and opaque business models, which the younger generation could connect with through multiple channels: ad campaigns, fashion week appearances, media coverage and transparent production processes. They began educating the relevant demographic on developing individualistic identities and were shaping communities, all the while tying up with like-minded individuals. A collaboration with stylist Kshitij Kankaria, the 2015 Fall/Winter campaign didn’t use models and depicted the bare bodies of “real” people holding up the clothes instead of wearing them – emphasising the need for diversity in representation, gender and size inclusivity, and ditching the norm. While demonstrating a keen instinct for the contemporary buyer’s mindset, it aptly challenged the narrow-minded messaging of society’s principal imagery that still glorified unrealistic standards of beauty and style.
Over time, they have conceptualised campaigns and initiatives that employ a powerful visual language and are an integral part of their brand’s story, becoming catalysts for the kind of large-scale change they hope to influence. At Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2017, Reflection by Huemn Project – a vertical centred on sustainability-driven initiatives – showcased in its inaugural edition an installation of human bodies wrapped in pieces of clothing and plastic bags, designed to bring up the mental image of a landfill. Misra and Shetty also sourced fashion waste from their peers to create 10 recycled pieces. Amplifying a political issue, Huemn’s Spring/Summer ’19 collection paid homage to Kashmir and the sharp contrasts of violence and beauty that continue to divide the territory. Busy motifs, including camouflage prints, symbolised the upheaval in Kashmir while models walked the ramp with covered-up faces and tied-up hands to portray the helplessness of Kashmiris. 2020 saw the News t-shirt collection, a non-gender t-shirt range that is a take on the biased and fake news we consume today. Addressing current global issues like blind consumerism, capitalism and yellow journalism, the product is meant to provoke a reaction and function as an extension of the wearer’s world view.
Having launched its e-commerce site last year, Huemn has come a long way with its non-conformist approach and rebelliously undefinable aesthetic. Now, with an international presence and loyal fan base, the brand takes on causes that resonate with the founders, continuing to propel clothing beyond the conventional parameters of fashion and into socio-personal spaces in an effort to counter binary thinking. While the issue of bridging the caste divide is still the elephant in the room when it comes to conversations on inclusivity and representation, designers like Misra and Shetty are setting an example for how fashion can function to critique the societal status quo and hopefully leading the way toward more wide-ranging shifts. Born out of an ethos that looks beyond one-dimensional interpretations of style, each “drop” pushes consumers to reconsider how they choose to live, from their habits at home to their political stances to the businesses they support. The Huemn experience isn’t about ascribing labels; rather, it is about breaking free from them and accepting the amorphous nature of personal journeys.
Excerpts from Senior Fashion Editor Akanksha Pandey’s conversation with the two creative minds…
On Huemn’s evolution.
Pranav Misra (PM): Huemn is a “progressive sceptic” brand. Over the past few years, we have collaborated with artists across genres, like photographers, architects, a barber, painter and now a prosthetics artist. For any project to have soul, both the brand and the artists have to believe in the idea and work towards it with full dedication. Evolution cannot exist in isolation; for anything or anyone to evolve, there must be a change in the surrounding environment as well. Personally, my life has seen several such strong undulations in the past few years. Society has gone through so much change too, and our evolution is a result of that. At Huemn, we are storytellers, and we are creating an archive of our times through our work. When people look back at it a century from now, it will offer a clear understanding of the times we currently live in.
When I started out in this industry, I had zero acquaintances, and it is through our label that we have had the opportunity to meet and work with some brilliant minds. I consider it my responsibility to provide a platform to artists who have an honest voice and a passion for their craft and are not scared to dream.
Collage By Swati Sinha
On the brand’s specific visual language.
Shyma Shetty (SS): Our visual language stems from our boredom as consumers. We want to see new imagery and keep playing with the tools we have at our disposal. It’s non-conformist because we are non-conformist. It’s what comes effortlessly to us.
It’s the golden age of social media. Today, if you have an audience, it is your responsibility to be socially conscious in your words and actions. There is always someone looking up to you, and speaking a language they understand is key. Marketing strategies only work if they mirror an authenticity in thought; otherwise, they’re very short-lived and are not sustainable enough to click with a larger audience.
We always had a resilient story and powerful visuals that the media and image-makers resonated with. We won a bunch of awards that catapulted brand recognition, and we collaborated with creative individuals and big brands like Puma, Reebok, Budweiser, Swarovski, Pepsi, etc. It was a challenging journey, but we were very bullheaded about it.
On creating better representation and inclusivity through their imagery.
(SS): Fashion has a powerful role to play in amplifying and challenging the thoughts of the society we live in and leading it towards constant betterment. Communication today reaches more people than it ever has, and these people are all as different as they come. Inclusive fashion is about much more than just sizing; it is work that alters how we think about each other and ourselves.
For far too long, fashion imagery has propagated an idea of “beauty” that makes people feel like they aren’t beautiful, like they don’t fit in. This is a lie, and unlearning all these biases of shape, texture, gender, size and race is key to the change in perception that can be brought about by designers, media and image-makers. Fashion should be for everyone to find joy in, and seeing people who look like you and are being empowered by the fashion industry is the first step.
Ideas of inclusivity form the foundation of Huemn. Some of our campaigns picked up a lot of circulation just because they represented conversations that were gaining mainstream momentum, but we’ve been pushing to highlight the diversity in our communities for a long time. And we’ve done much more than just campaign imagery. Our communication has been centred around being comfortable in one’s body and our fits enable inclusive sizing. We have constantly cast non-binary models, and our verticals Huemn Project and Huemn Stories [started in 2016 and 2017 respectively] have enabled worldwide projects around the themes of gender and identity.
In terms of feedback, I’m a strong believer that any form of art should provoke discomfort. It has to inspire thought, arouse a reaction and initiate conversation.
On the process behind the above image from the 2021 campaign, Love Like It Is Your Last Time.
PM: At a concept stage, it is always hard for me to identify a campaign clearly. It is just driven by a certain mood. Sometimes, when you’re art directing and trying to create something new or push boundaries, the whole process can feel quite weird at the beginning. But my contribution at this stage is to provide a clarity of vision and encourage my team to try 10 different ways to get there.
The way I saw our 2021 campaign, Love Like It Is Your Last Time, in my head, I knew that I wanted the lighting to be soft. With my previous experiences with image direction, I knew that the same set of images could be more provocative with more contrast and strong flash and lighting. But making a change in the lighting was extremely important in order for us to do justice to the emotions we wanted to portray here. Pulkit Mishra, the photographer, did a brilliant job at that, and I would give that credit to him for understanding the vision and taking it one step further.
The other important thing for this campaign was the cast. I had a few people in mind since I had been thinking about these images for months and, fortunately, they came on board. They are different from each other and yet they fit together; without losing our individuality, we can be part of a community.
This particular campaign image is influenced by one from photographer Weegee’s cinema hall series from 1940s’ Manhattan – my friend Mark Hanauer had introduced me to his work. It was shot with infrared film and filtered flashbulbs, and I took that as my reference. This image has such tenderness; the posture and the body language are soft and of a nature unseen in fashion photography. That quality is exactly what I wanted to blend in. The realness of the emotion could only be captured if I did my referencing from outside of the fashion space.
On the high price point.
SS: The Huemn collections are founded on the idea of slow fashion, employing local artisans and handcraft skills. They are made piece by piece instead of in a factory setting. Comparison points to fast-fashion brands are a wrong price yardstick and aren’t representative of inclusivity in any way. Products made responsibly, through an ethical production process and supply chain don’t aim to beat the fast-fashion price points. The customer is very self-aware and understands what goes into the making of the product in their wardrobe. The pricing of our handcrafted pieces enables us to bring them this craftsmanship in techniques that are time-heavy and quality that is long-lasting.
Last year, to be more reachable to our younger customers, we successfully worked on creating affordable lines with Huemn prints and craft techniques in smaller production capsules, and we are grateful for the love and trust of our consumers who keep coming back for the new products we launch.
On challenging their privileged perspective.
PM: Over time, I’ve realised that we are in a position of privilege just to be able to fight against injustice, to be able to speak up for equal rights, to be in a non-negotiable position to demand a better life. Even to be able to think rationally is a privilege one enjoys. The challenge is to remain aware of your privilege at all times, and to check oneself at every turn, so that we don’t abuse our privilege.
On finding inspiration.
PM: No creative person can ever accurately illuminate their inspiration. Your product is an extension of your ethos and simultaneously reflective of your evolution as an artist. You are inspired by everything that you are exposed to, and this filters into your creative process. Women who have come into my life have inspired me. Women who I have fallen in love with have inspired me – their affection, their motivation, their love, their expectations – the separations have inspired me as well. When my father was alive, he would inspire me with his words, and now even after he is dead, he continues to inspire me with his thoughts.
As [Rainer Maria] Rilke says in his book, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, while talking about inspiration, “…one must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others…. One must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window….”
In a nutshell, I think time is the greatest inspiration.
SS: A long-time inspiration is the human story. People are so unique, and it’s such a joy to interact with those who think differently from you. Opening up my mind to a conflicting point of view interests me and feeds my process. I am also inspired by futurism and fresh mammoth ideas still to be comprehended, with a focus on new tech. Another strong influence is graphic visuals. I love typography and how lines move – both natural and man-made visuals.
On defining Huemn’s brand personality.
SS: Huemn has evolved into a cultural provocateur – progressive in thought, fearless in approach, with its heart in the right place. Collections are informed by the contemporary political, social and cultural landscapes, and this keeps them relevant to the consumer.
However, are we the same Huemn of 2012? With the same foundation, we’ve added many floors, I think. We are constantly innovating to push the boundaries of our understanding of material and shapes. With our foray into direct retail, there is so much we have learnt about our consumers that is central to our design development now. There is a love for home-grown craft that has seeped into our newer lines. If there is no evolution, there is stagnation, and we like to keep the brand dynamic. Our collections are lines of separates that can be styled easily while holding their own as strong, conversational individual pieces in any wardrobe. At the same time, we don’t name our collections because it limits the product once it’s ready. The end product should be strong enough to evoke a response from the consumer even if that response is different from what is intended. And that’s the beauty of any art form.
On the significance of the consumer’s psychology.
SS: Our consumers identify with our thought process and take pride in wearing our work, making it their own through unique styling. We’ve added many consumers this year who are not traditionally luxury consumers, and that’s very exciting to me. These are buyers who make a careful consideration of investment versus return and then choose to add Huemn to their wardrobe. It is about trust, and I’m grateful for it. We keep the wearer central to our design development process and listen carefully to what they’re saying. Many of our buyers invest in the high-priced handcrafted pieces because they trust the brand and respect our process and know that they can wear them over and over.
PM: The label inside a product from Huemn says, “Wear your opinion on your sleeve, so you can be identified by your clothes”. People who have been closely following the unfolding gender politics of recent times will get the reference. I hope our audience finds the work meaningful and sees the importance of clothing in general via the sentiment of that statement.
On the Indian market.
SS: India has always been a price-sensitive market that invests in occasion wear, so the space for prêt lines had to be created. The multi-brand stores that stocked ready-to-wear worked via a system of consignment and wouldn’t invest in your product, unlike international fashion houses. They also had long credit periods for payments. This made creating lines for domestic distribution very investment-heavy; international markets would only open if you were able to convince agents to take a bet on you and you had the funds to support it. Fashion schools didn’t prepare you for the business side of working in fashion, so the tools you were armed with as a young designer were lacking.
We winged it a lot earlier, taking bets on partners and decisions, learning on the job, cutting our losses early. I remember how we were so stoked about opening doors to our flagship store very early in our journey, but the market wasn’t ready and we couldn’t sustain it. We shut shop and poured ourselves into the tasks ahead – investing in back-to-back runway showcases, reaching out to clients and media, creating lines in tandem with stores, building a team of young people that had the same conviction and picking up many new skills along the way.
On putting out a sustainable product.
SS: The business model is sustainable, community-growth-oriented and focused on impact. We are a responsible, home-grown label that invests in local artisans and material and places sustainable practices at the centre of all our decisions, big and small. In 2016, we introduced Huemn Project [with LFW], which was a collection made entirely of fabric and trim wastes from the studios of our designer peers. Our PepsiXHuemn line comprised a denim range that was made from recycled ocean plastics, and our shirting range was made from organic fabrics. However, these are smaller cogs in the wheel that is Huemn. From our work ethic to our practices, we try to be ecologically responsible and mindful of our footprint. We have a clean and transparent supply chain; we directly invest in artist communities; our campaign communications are centred around awareness; and we propagate the idea of slow fashion.
On Shyma’s move to Bangkok.
SS: It wasn’t a plan, really. I was travelling to Vietnam to be with my husband, who works in Southeast Asia, and the pandemic lockdowns started. By then, most of our team was working remotely, so we re-strategised a working system, keeping in mind that we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while. In January this year, I moved to Bangkok, where we have a home. I decided to set up an office so that we could streamline our systems. It’s been an interesting development that has given me a fresh perspective.
On gaining international momentum.
SS: I remember the first time we showcased at Pitti Uomo, in Florence – the Mecca of menswear. We were the only Indian-origin designers among the 1,700 brands there. Buyers were very appreciative of our craftsmanship but weren’t sure if we would be able to deliver or continue in the same vein in the next season. They would hesitate to invest and wanted to see if we could sustain for a few more seasons and gain trust as a brand. I think the biggest challenge is the lack of representation of Indian fashion on a global scale.
As Pranav says, “We’ve always been the country who exports potatoes and imports potato chips.” To the younger generation I’d say, “It’s time to make your own chips”.
On the next generation.
PM: The world is at a transformative stage right now, and words like “sustainability” have gained momentum. In the past few years, there has been an immense change globally due to the certain rise of majoritarian political movements in society. Simultaneously, we have seen a rise in sentiments of nationalism in different parts of the world. What I hope to see are creative thinkers actively participating in political dialogues through their work.
Fashion remains a very strong tool of communication. It can also be used to bridge the differences and inequalities prevailing in our society. What is more important to me is not what the next generation will bring to the table but what we will leave for them as a starting point.
On the future of Huemn.
SS: With fashion weeks moving towards a digital schedule, we decided to focus on e-commerce in mid 2020. The Indian online market has grown massively, especially from the point of view of the new shoppers from tier-2 and tier-3 cities. This gives us a real chance to build trust because now we have the eyes of an extensive online network of individuals who consume the communication from the brand. Direct retail has been an exciting space that has helped bring us closer to our audience and taught us so much about our consumer. There is huge R & D that we are doing, creating meaningful seasonless products, new categories and back-to-back product drops.
We’re proud that we have been able to retain everyone on the team through the pandemic. We were able to adapt quickly, retaining all our partnerships and employees, unlearning and recalibrating as to how to move forward. Physical and mental health are still a top priority for 2021. We want to take care of our families and communities.
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