Over a cold winter in Delhi, I had the great joy in meeting and chatting with Canadian - Punjabi - Hyderabadi designers Amrit and Mriga at NORBLACK NORWHITE HQ. Up on the third floor of an unassuming apartment block in Sharpur Jat rests their humble but delicately curated studio where the team create art. I spent a hot hour with Amrit (catching Mriga over the phone) to find out their thoughts on everything from colonialism, cultural appropriation, living and working as NRI’s in India ad of course, fashion!
Mriga, who was born in India and returned regularly to Hyderabad, spoke about her “desi-life-moment” that took place during an exchange programme to Lisbon. It was here, confronted with people insisting “You’re Indian!”, that she realised she was neither from one place or the other. She recalls it as the first she asked herself the question “Who am I?”. This question stuck with her during her time at a white-dominated university, and led her, she believes, to find belonging in a community of South Asians in downtown Toronto. It was here that chemical bonds formed between her and Amrit. When Mriga announced her intention to take a break from the scene and relocate to Mumbai, Amrit (and Mriga’s brother) felt called to follow her. They settled in Bandra and let the magic begin.
NBNW emerged from a series of relationships that Amrit and Mriga had built with artisans and communities engaged in disappearing Indian craft. It was, in their own words, “born out of a desire to re-interpret these ancient practices of textile design”. Indigenous textile production were wiped as the British enforced cotton production across the country in pursuit of goods they could trade back in Europe.
In this sense, NBNW’s mission stems from a decolonising practice that attempts to not bring back what was once lost, but to reinvent it for an age where the “Indian brand” has been globalised.
As holders of both British and Canadian passports, we discuss the privilege that is connected to living as diaspora from a former colonising country.
“By paying attention to the fact that we have a choice to live here, that our predominant language is English and that everyday items for communities here are being inflated in price so they can be sold to richer, westernised communities whether it’s yoga, ayurveda, goji berries or TURMERIC LATTE’S!”.
I asked Amrit about how she navigates the scale of their work when moving from two or three local artisans to finding their designs in Vogue India or images of Sonam Kapoor at Cannes. NBNW are clear from their very first collaboration with MasterJi (who continues to work in their Delhi studio) that an intentional, deep relationships with their artisans is a central principle to the way they work.
“It's about the way one moves, how you communicate and navigate what's around you. For me, my number one priority is ensuring that whoever I connect with and wherever I am, that the movements are real and respectful. That's my responsibility”.
As designers their responsibility is in their trade, to challenge the expectations of an industry steeped in capitalist and colonial mindset.
“When we work with artisans, they’re not organised in corporate structures, so for our buyers we want to extract this idea of 'efficiency' and 'acceptability' and for them to understand the nature of the fabrics we are working with. Whilst colonialism is so deeply rooted in everyday life, decolonising is happening in many communities around the world. The reclamation is 100% underway!”
The beauty of NBNW is their ability to reimagine their roots, and what feels central to their work is the principle of sincerity. After a few collections they recognised the need to slow their pace, putting more time to building the necessary relationships and infrastructure with the artisans rather than parachuting in and out for the sake of completing another collection. They committed taking a more organic approach to their work, making the necessary effort to remain faithful to those they worked with. Mriga reflected on the final outcome.
“There are images of India that are prolific; the elephants, tigers, snake charmers. Of course one of our intentions is to smash the perception of what “Indian” is, what can be produced here and what is “Indian” in style”.
Without a questioning where certain stereotypes arise from, we risk perpetuating a comedic ad potentially dangerous vision of what Indian culture and style represents. The pair both recognised the challenge that diaspora communities have in accessing “the real India”, both in terms of its culture and also its geography. They reflect on the need for everyone to have to go through their own journey of “knowing”, whilst it’s hard not to judge those that come with pre-misconceptions.
“Being here really brings out a part of me I just never knew existed. I want to work what this means for myself”.
Linked to this idea of challenging perceptions is the notion of hidden identities. You’ll notice in their photoshoots, NBNW use a diversity of faces and places to promote their collections. “Anti-blackness in the South Asian community is a massive deal” says Mriga “and it’s something we try to attend to, not in a contrived way, but just in the way we present our work”.
As a South Indian growing up in a multicultural community, Mriga found herself attracted to the West Indian community, growing up among Trinidadians, Jamaicans and Guyanese friends. She recalls the barriers put up by the predominantly Punjabi girls in Toronto, and how she now sees this as a form of shadism within the Indian community. Take a look at any presentation on NBNW’s webpage and you’ll be able to feel the mesh of dancehall, reggae, hip hop and RnB mixed into the clothing and fabrics that make up their collections.
Added to this are the different shapes and faces that represent what it means to be Indian, in particular for Mriga and Amrit, faces of their friends from the North East who have so often been invisible. This mixing of cultures ensures the diaspora experience can be used to challenges the lingering impacts of colonialism, which for me is what makes it so politically exciting.
There have been many opportunities for personal growth as part of this journey. NBNW tried out trade shows in the early days, which soon stopped when they continued to be confronted by unapologetic racists insisting fair-skinned/white models would make their work sell faster.
A few years back the team found themselves amid a cultural appropriation quagmire after a show London that featured gifted material from Mizoram in North East India. The pieces came from a traditional dress, recreated in the signature streetwear of NBNW. Whilst many celebrated having their culture displayed on the international stage, some in the Mizoram community responded less favourably.
“Yes, cultural appropriation is hard, you know. We learnt a lot from that experience and the fact you have to really respect the purpose of every item that comes your way, even if it’s a gift”.
It feels like NBNW are on the forefront of what it means to represent, and I sense this more and more as I hear them speak about the community who have helped them establish themselves. Their most recent project “A woman was harassed here” has just been launched with Bombay Underground and the awe inspiring Dharavi Art Room.
“We think the scene is thriving with fresh, independent designers who are experimenting with different contemporary aesthetics and silhouettes such as Lovebirds, Runaway Bicycle. Then there are designers who are using rich Indian textiles to make some incredibly beautiful high-end pieces such as Raw Mango, Eka and Pero. We deeply admire all these designers, but are trying to create our own path to blend our love for handcrafted textiles, as well as the streetwear culture that we’ve grown up being a part of. We’re constantly experimenting and trying to create from a place of love and intention”
There’s maybe some way to go before we see the same level of skill and insightfulness that is integral to NBNW’s work, but the scene feels like one worth keeping an eye on.