Harikrishnan explores the artistic capacities of the body

The London-based designer speaks on the future of visual media, artisan bead-making, and Jean-Paul Goude

Harikrishnan’s trousers are sometimes striped, sometimes solid. They vary chromatically, from orange, to red, to olive, pure white, forest green. The common denominators are their impossible, bulging curves and their distinctive material: polished latex, aerated to the seams.

The budding designer cites his little dog, Kai, as the inspiration behind the garment, which ignited social media upon its runway debut. Harikrishnan imagined how his pug might perceive his body as they walked around London—how he might end up distorted, from so far above. There was also the work of French photographer Jean-Paul Goude: employer of photomontage, distorter of images, who worked to create an idealized picture of the human body. Goude called this technique the ‘French Correction.’ Harikrishnan has a penchant for its disproportions; he doesn’t, however, share its striving toward perfection—worse yet, visual uniformity.

The trousers were just one component of Harikrishnan’s three-part collection—the final presentation for the Kerala-born, London-based designer’s master’s in fashion design. The models also wore cropped suit jackets, masterfully tailored. Intricately-beaded sets, constructed in collaboration with Indian artisans. Harikrishnan spoke to Document about his work in its entirety, revealing a complex ethos, and an uncommon approach to creativity.

Morgan Becker: Tell me about your introduction to fashion.

Harikrishnan: My introduction to fashion was accidental, actually. I grew up in a place called Kerala, in the south of India. We have nothing to do with fashion. In fact, we don’t have much in terms of clothing. There was nothing to inspire; we all wore white—white shorts and white sarongs.

My dad used to be an artist. He used to do commercial artworks for local organizations—hand-painted and handwritten things. When I was five or four years old, I started helping him, assisting him with cleaning brushes and things like that. Back then we used to do the sketches with charcoal. When he was finished with his work, there would be some leftover, and I used to paint with it. I started sketching at a really young age; that’s what [led] me to art.

I hate science, I hate math. [Design] was the only option. I [began to study] art just to escape my place, my hometown—which was the worst decision, because at that point in time, I didn’t have any intentions to study art. My initial fear was that fashion was really difficult. Towards the end, I finally got my bachelor’s in fashion design. That’s when I really started liking it.

I don’t have a fashion hero, or a fashion moment. I don’t have any of those things. In my head, it’s more cultural. I think it has to do with a lot of my memories—going back, thinking back to things… I don’t have any attraction to clothing at all. I see the body as a canvas, and I create something around it.

Morgan: How did you initially feel about the virality of those inflatable trousers?

Harikrishnan: The virality of the inflatable trousers! I was uncomfortable with it. Trust me, I mean—I haven’t done anything like this before in my life. This is the first time I’m doing something which makes me really uncomfortable.

It was unexpected, and very hard to manage, because I wasn’t prepared.On one hand, it was a lot of press and interviews. On the other hand, I had this huge reaction going on with social media, on the internet. Some of [the comments] were really mean. For post-graduate [collections], you’ve done this work, and then there’s a big push. You’re exhausted. You don’t have money at all. And what you see are these mean comments on social media—which taught me a lot, which made me stronger… But yeah, it was up and down. Good things, but at the same time there are others putting you down. Putting you up, putting you down.

Morgan: The construction of the trousers made me wonder—do you have any background in sculpture?

Harikrishnan: When I was ten years old, my dad gifted me a book on human anatomy. That really [interested] me—the nude sketches, the nude studies. I would sketch a lot of nudes myself, when I was ten years old.

Sculpture-wise, no. But I grew up in a temple town; there used to be a lot of sculptures around me. They’re in my mind all the time—not directly in my work. But those structures and those exaggerated proportions, they are always in the back of my head.

Morgan: What’s it like to be designing on your own, compared to operating in an educational setting?

Harikrishnan: You go to a cliff, and then you just jump off the cliff [Laughs]. That’s the feeling, you know? I’m going through that now. It’s a very intense phase of my life—a very critical time for me. Especially coming from one country to another, and setting up my own thing here—it’s the biggest challenge I’ve ever taken on.

When you do postgraduate [work], you wake up in the early morning-time, you go to the studio, you do your work, and you come back. That’s it. There’s nothing to worry about.

Currently, I have multiple aspects to take care of. There’s the creative identity part; I need to build my creative identity as a designer. There’s sustainability and financial sustainability; you need to bring in more products, more cash flow for the brand. And there’s [the question of] how to diversify the brand in terms of products. A lot of these aspects are going through my head; it’s a mixed thing. I’m working on my own at the moment, so it’s a bit hard. I hope I’ll figure it out soon.

Morgan: Why menswear? Do you think your latex designs would be received differently—in terms of experimentality, or sexuality—had they been adapted to a female silhouette?

Harikrishnan: To an extent, I believe so. But like I said, I don’t have any [normative] exposure to fashion. I perceive it not in the way [most] people do—it’s very different for me.

For me, [fashion] is a body. That’s it. No male, no female. I still don’t think there should be ‘menswear’ and ‘womenswear’ [categories]. Like—commercially, it makes sense. But in terms of design education, fashion education… No, no.

On that point, I can’t make a judgement. [The show’s reception] could have been different because it was menswear. That’s something which added to its virality. Could be!

Morgan: Can you speak about the process of constructing your beaded sets?

Harikrishnan: The process of constructing the beaded sets was the most challenging part of the whole collection. I was staying in that place in the village with the artisans for 30 days, and [we were working] from scratch. That craft cluster is somewhere in the south of India. It’s a very old cluster—they have been practicing that art, the art of bead-making, for nearly 200 years now. It’s a very primitive thing; it’s completely done by hand, for making jewelry.

I had to train the artisans there to make textiles out of beads. I taught them how to do things: how to visualize, how to [form] patterns. The patterns were my main challenge. I was there for 30 days, and the pieces were made in the last five, actually. Until that point, it was just trial and error, trial and error. Sometimes, we’d make an entire thing and then the patterns weren’t right—we’d have to [start over] and take all the beads out. It’s not like you can cut it and have it come off—it’s knotted every step. It was challenging.

It’s completely different. I had tailoring going on in my collection, I had the inflatables, and then this one, [craft]—three completely different things. The tailoring was completely in my hands. The inflatables—working with latex, dealing with latex—was something completely [new]. The beaded sets were challenging because there were more people involved. It wasn’t just me. I was responsible for a bigger team.

Morgan: What’s been inspiring you lately?

Harikrishnan: The collection itself, the reaction to it, was inspiring for me. I don’t know—there’s nothing much going on, because now I’m just figuring out how to…. you know, how to create. I’m trying to figure out setting up the label, getting a studio, and trying to get back to the cutting table. But the collection itself—the previous collection—was very inspiring. I want to start from there: make a continuation of the same collection, probably.

There was a lot of research behind my previous collection—a lot of research, extensive research on that. Contextual studies, Jean-Paul Goude, Tim Walker, the whole perception thing—art perception. There was a lot of artwork studied for that collection. There is enough, in terms of inspiration; there’s a lot on my plate at the moment. It might be a different interpretation of the same references.

Morgan: Can you speak about your major artistic influences?

Harikrishnan: Jean-Paul Goude was a major reference. [British fashion photographer] Tim Walker was a major reference. And sculpture from the paleolithic age was a major reference. The whole collection was about perception—about how we perceive the human body, the human form, but from multiple perspectives. The dog was just a starting point; then, we had to go to the artistry, to see how different artists perceive the human body, and how that has changed over time. From, let’s say, B.C. to the 21st century. From the early humans to people from the [current] moment.

Morgan: When you come up with ideas, how do they emerge? Do you have moments of big inspiration?

Harikrishnan: No, there was no moment of inspiration at all. It was constant. It was more study, actually. It was academic, I would say. It wasn’t fun [Laughs]. It was never fun!

I was doing my M.A. It was more academic, more writing, more analysis. The B.A. was more visual—collecting visuals, and visuals, and visuals. For my M.A., I was just going through, ‘Where is this inspiration coming from?’ Tim Walker’s shoot, or Jean-Paul Goude’s illustration: ‘Who is he referring to? Where is this coming from? What is his reference?’ Fashion students are used to doing visual referencing. But this time, it was more data than visuals, comparatively.

Morgan: You’ve spoken about a desire to resist neutrality—particularly in regards to standard proportions and images in fashion. In a perfect world, how would visual media differ?

Harikrishnan: There are two things to visual media: visual media as [it’s consumed by] a viewer, and visual media as a medium, with a subject. Both are completely different things. The reality is different: The viewer might be seeing something from a completely different [perspective]. The viewer’s reality is different from the subject’s reality.

When people view something, I want them to think a little more through it—to stop for some time. [Modern] media—the new visual media, the new imageries—they don’t let you do that. They just pass. It’s [the same] with a lot of things. Because of Instagram, I think, and social media in general. It’s very hard to have a moment now. Everything is just for days, for hours—that’s it. It’s very hard to create something which is remember-able.

When you see an image, I want you to sit and think: What is making you see that image in a particular way? At least the artists, the coming generation of designers, should have that kind of attitude—mindset, actually. To sit, and think, and dissect, and analyze what makes it.

[Visual media] is designed, in a way, for you to see it as a whole. I don’t see things as a whole. If you ask a photographer, he sees shadows and light. Light and shadow, that’s what he sees. If you ask a dentist, the first thing he’d notice is a set of teeth. My sister is a dentist; she told me the first thing she notices is teeth. As a designer, I am conditioned to see clothing first. I mean, I see the details. I want people to not see things as a whole. You know?

Morgan: It’s not something that everybody learns, without an education in the arts. That requires some time, I imagine?

Harikrishnan: It doesn’t require time. It’s just connecting things—connecting back. Now, when I see my trousers, I know that they come from that memory of me seeing a sculpture of a Hindu goddess from the temple—because it’s so exaggerated. People need to make that connection, and see it.

Morgan: What do you hope to accomplish, over the course of your design career?

Harikrishnan: I did this collection, so I need something which is better. I know how much work I put in, so I need that consistent flow of creativity. That’s what I’m aiming for, at the moment. It’s very hard to create that identity of yours. And then, as an emerging, young designer, I am forced to take a product direction. Always, you are forced to take a product direction. You are forced to do business.

Creating that creative identity… I don’t know, it’s like blowing against the wind [Laughs]. I’m trying to build a sustainable identity for myself, with a lot of references that I can always keep using. It’s a lot of going to the library. A lot of reading. That’s what I’m trying to build up—a universe of mine—rather than putting [my energy] into products, products, products, new collections. I’m not thinking of a new collection. Rather, I’m thinking, ‘How can I expand as a person?’ That’s my thing, as a designer.