Nostalgia is often painful. Nostalgia is demanding – it is exhaustive, imaginative, and can even be achingly silent at times. In a catastrophic hour such as this one, when there are not many things that one can do to explore, escape or find respite from the deserts of our own minds…memories are one of, if not the only asset that we can refer to, in regards to archiving nostalgia.
We had the opportunity to interview a young, talented, Paris-based fashion designer – Kanika Agarwal, on a mid-march Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago. Migration, memories, and ‘an abstract beyond’ are some of the subjects Kanika approaches through her minimal, yet eloquent designs.
We are seated next to the fireplace in her white antique apartment, on the third floor of a gentle and elegant residential building in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I ask her if it’s real, the fireplace. She politely declines and tells me that it must have been, a long time ago… proceeding to denote it as nothing more than a fire hazard now. The room is small and well lit, with comfortable amounts of natural light, 2 lamps, wooden parquet floor, a huge contemporary painting hanging just over her bed and one square, simple mirror lined with a bouquet of fresh flowers. Parisian, in its purest form; with a touch of Kanika’s native (Indian) influence glimpsed through ethnic rugs, certain foods, and miniature souvenirs. She tells me that she recently did the painting herself.
I notice the many books on her wall, wondering if she is a diligent collector. She is quiet, but never unnoticeable, wearing minimal makeup, a puffy lime green dress, and vintage Gucci boots to complete her unanimous look. We begin speaking a bit about her early life, and I quickly realize that Kanika’s unorthodox story is just as striking as her triumphant body of work.
Showcased here is a small excerpt of our conversation from an early spring afternoon at the beginning of this year. We wish you enjoy the explanative feature, coupled with an editorial, put together exclusively by Daedalus.
D: I want to start a little bit earlier in your career, knowing that your collection is heavily influenced by the notion of what has passed. Can you share your background, upbringing, and when you decided to grab a pencil and paper to pave your way into the fashion industry?
KA: I think I was very young. You always know. I have a strong memory from when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old that I wanted to do this. I didn’t even know what ‘this’ was. It was just a feeling. I had a small notebook where I would keep swatches of leftover fabrics from my mother’s old clothes, and scribble imaginary designs next to it. I remember thinking “This is so much fun. I want to do this forever.” And that was how it started. I asked my mom to show me how to sew and I made a recycled bubble wrap dress for a project in middle school. At 13 years old, all my teachers and my friends knew that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I would organize dress-up fashion shows with my girlfriends at sleepovers. It all sounds a bit cliché, but that really was the dream – and to have had the privilege to pursue it this far has been a dream inside a dream, like Inception, haha.
D: Why did you pick the word ‘Cinq’ as the name of your collection, which directly translates to the number ‘Five’, from French to English?
KA: ‘Cinq’ is indeed named, after the number ‘5.’ I think it’s my lucky number. My brother’s birthday is April 25, my Dad’s is November 15, and mine is May 5. The 5 is the constant – so it felt right. Especially since it’s inspired so much by them and the memories that we have together.
D: You emphasize a lot about nostalgia and your experience with migration in your research, why is that?
KA: When I left India in 2015, I was 17. I was very young at the time and had never lived away from home. What I experienced is hard to describe, but I suffered a lot. I try to go back to that feeling of nostalgia to portray it through my clothes because, in retrospect, it was a very beautiful time…it was the beginning of a kind of metamorphosis. However, it’s also a way for me to process how things happened. I remember I was quite sick freshman year of college and was visiting the on-campus nurse at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. They had brochures there for all kinds of different symptoms and feelings international students experience as a result of cultural shock…and it is a very real thing, one that we need to talk about more. I didn’t realize for a long time that I was very homesick. At a different point in my life now, I find solace in recalling these memories through different collections as a fundamental starting point, for trying to explain many complex feelings. Writing and philosophy also aid me in navigating the same. Living in France now, I find a lot of comfort in the language here and how it translates into English. It’s so gentle and has been so useful in describing certain sentiments. I hope that makes sense.
D: Can you please walk us through the creative development process of your collection, from start to finish? From concept exploration, research, production, until the final stage?
KA: Normally I start by looking at images. Generally in my daily life, I try to be conscious of the visual content I consume. It’s no secret that there is a lot out there right now. I save images in a folder on my desktop titled ‘ongoing research,’ which refers to the concepts I’m currently exploring. Following this image research, I look at written words and try linking them back to culture, of course. What do I want to add to this curation of ideas? I look at what I want to say with that particular collection. I collect primary resources. I love to read in order to develop my thoughts, and I love studying history. I also find a lot of calm in visiting exhibitions – fashion or unrelated. Before COVID, Paris had so many compelling expositions. The last one I visited was Christo at Centre Pompidou last July. I think I was almost in tears … everything was so beautiful. I did a collection on Christo in 2017, during my time at Central Saint Martins in London. Inspired by his drapery of monuments worldwide, most particularly The Reichstag in Berlin, I studied and experimented with fabric folds, while also producing drawings through the acquired method of ‘blind contours,’ to construct spontaneous work, both in 2-D and 3-D. It was great fun.
D: Do you have a brainstorming team or specific people you go to for advice, or to help you explore certain concepts?
KA: Of course! My friends. It’s always nice to bounce ideas around, and having creative friends is a huge blessing. In Paris, I believe we are a family. There are so many of us in the same circle, you know? All doing different things. I’m really lucky to have some very talented friends – photographers, designers, stylists, models, architects… all who have helped me refine my ideas so much. Another person I always speak to before doing anything is my best friend and soon to be sister-in-law, Blanca. She is a designer as well and is very knowledgeable. I almost never do anything without speaking to her first. During my time in New York, I was also very lucky to be mentored by Ms. Susan Cianciolo. She is somebody who I have always looked up to, whose influence has shaped me into the designer that I am today. I am very grateful.
D: I want to talk to you about your decision to up-cycle materials. Tell me more about the process… from choosing the materials/fabric until the final product. But before, I want to know what made you decide to choose this method, does it stem from an ethical responsibility, or is it something else?
KA: I think it just came from a place of environmental responsibility. We all have to pay more attention. Fast fashion is not only a relevant concept in our society but also a threatening one – to all designers, producers, workers, consumers, and manufacturers alike. I think we all know this. Even my personal wardrobe is mostly vintage or up-cycled. It’s more rare and intimate that way. In my collection – the rib-knit jersey used is required for making polo collars, a game first brought to India by the rule of the British during the colonization period. Through this process, I re-used one material for the purpose of another. There was a deconstruction of the already deconstructed. Through re-cycling discarded collars to make a new garment, I was able to sustain in my path of purposeful production by reusing and reinterpreting fabric in an alternative manner, showing a way of creation that didn’t require waste. It eliminated the need for mass fabric production in the demand cycle, and instead focused my vision on using my imagination to make use of what I already had, up to its maximum potential. Another garment that I worked on was the hand-beaded pearl set, made over the course of 8 months. It is unisex in nature and accommodating in terms of wearability. I also made my patterns out of waste cardboard and recycled paper. It can be argued that the foundation of this collection stems from my belief towards a more sustainable fashion industry, with a much more deliberate approach to garment consumption, and much less focus on ‘trends’ and ‘looks.’ Pieces need to be dual, as well as durable. Our zeitgeist demands it.
D: Do you have any plan to own a studio in the future?
KA: I hope! I have no concrete plans right now but I do hope so, very much. D: What do you do on your laid-back day?
KA: Generally I sleep. I love to sleep. My friends had a running joke in college that if I’m not at Sunday brunch, it’s because I’m asleep. But I also like to hang out, stroll in a garden, do yoga. I mostly just have lazy days with my friends, and we like to cook together or watch movies. One of my best friends, Antoinette, and I cook a lot together. She makes the best chai too. When we have some downtime, we normally just have sleepovers and paint our nails or something. She is very, very good at it.
D: Do you enjoy reading? What kind of films do you watch?
KA: Yes, so much. I am a voracious reader. My favorite author is Khaled Hosseini. He has been since I was 15. It never changes. I always come back to him. His words endure a timeless charm and transport me to another universe entirely. I love his work so much. A Thousand Splendid Suns is my favorite book. Another author I admire deeply is Roland Barthes. A dear friend introduced me to A Lover’s Discourse during the first quarantine last year, and I was instantly in love. For my graduate collection, I researched a lot of Pasolini for films. I was interested in his view of the oriental world. Visually, I think his work is stunning. I was also recently recommended Taste of Cherry by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, and it blew my mind. It was so good. Some other all-time favorites are À bout de souffle by Jean-Luc Godard, Forgotten by Jang Hang-jun and In The Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai.
D: Do you have any insights or advice for people who want to step into the fashion industry?
KA: I feel I have much progress to make myself, but I do think hard work is the best advice. It will never fail you. Fashion can look glamorous, but it is the most deceiving truth about our industry. It’s a lot of work and passion, and it changes very quickly. So to keep up is very important. My alma mater has a good quote – “Be true to your work, and your work will be true to you.” I totally believe in that. Karma.
Wearing : Kanika