Artist, designer, dancer, actor: Every single one of these words describes the multitalented Alisha Desai, founder of the online streetwear label Desai Designs. And Brooklyn-based Desai weaves many of those disciplines together to create her vibrant, colorful pieces.
“I initially started my fashion line as a way to showcase my artwork and incorporate it into my professional life,” Desai tells SEEMA. “I use my paintings as the foundation for my textile prints. I have no formal training in fashion design, but now I have begun to develop my sewing and pattern making skills so I can experiment with new silhouettes and customized, bespoke pieces.”
And, Desai says, she wants her line to be accessible.
“I am inspired by culture, dance, and pop art. I like to give a South Asian twist to mainstream subject matter,” she says. “My clothing line is made up of statement art pieces, but they are practical, comfortable, and easy to wear. A lot of South Asian designers focus on event wear, which is gorgeous and eye-catching, but I wanted to make things people can wear every day.”
And that all is to say nothing of her professional dancing career: She’s accomplished in several Indian dance styles, including Bollywood, Bhangra, Bharatantyam, and Semi-Classical, and has worked with numerous dance companies in New York City. She’s a core member of Ajna Dance Company, AATMA Performing Arts, and performs with Surati for Performing Arts and Education, Sonalee, Vyas Dance Company, and Anil Diwakar.
Although she’s had her fashion line since 2018, Desai caught our eye recently on Instagram with her work “Resistance Sisters,” which incorporates the iconic resistance fist to showcase how everyone can stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“My goal was to create a piece that is timely for today’s cause but also has the longevity to relate to people even after this fight leaves the spotlight,” she explains. “We are stronger when we are unified and when our diversity is celebrated. I wanted to create something for the Black Lives Matters Movement, that was authentic to me and my perspective.”
SEEMA recently asked Desai about art, dance, and her latest pieces.
Tell us about your background, and any formative experiences that led to becoming an artist.
AD: I grew up in Michigan (elementary school) and Pittsburgh (5th-12th grade) Then I moved to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence College. I was born in Michigan and so was my Mom. She is White and Puerto Rican in heritage. My Dad immigrated from Gujarat, India to Detroit in the late 60’s, where he met my Mom. I grew up in very suburban areas that did not have much diversity. I was never really around people who I felt like were “like me.” I found the arts to be an outlet where I could express my inner self and embrace my individuality. I think I used the arts as a way to combat feeling like I didn’t really fit in.
Even after growing up, I still feel like I don’t necessarily know many people “like me.” However, I’ve learned to be comfortable in my uniqueness and love being in NYC where individuality is celebrated.
You're a dancer, actor, artist, and designer. Were you artistic as a child?
AD: From a very early age, I always loved the arts and anything creative! My favorite subject in school was always art class, and I was really into musical theater through high school. No one else in my family was very into the arts, so I don’t know where my passions came from, but my parents were incredibly supportive and always encouraged me to develop my talents.
What sparked your interest in dance? What does dancing mean to you today?
AD: Early on, I actually had a passion for music first and envisioned myself as a singer growing up. I did always like to dance and I felt naturally drawn to expressing myself physically. However, I did not think I was any good dancer! Probably because of a lack of training. So many others I knew had been intensively training in ballet and jazz since they were 3 years old. I did musical theater and actually knew nothing about Indian Dance as a kid.
While I was at Sarah Lawrence, I wanted to study abroad in India, mainly to just spend time there and connect with my roots. I had only been to Indiaone time before that. I was already studying performing arts at SLC, so I wanted to continue that in India, and decided to focus on Bharatanatyam, which I had only seen a few times.
I studied in Baroda, Gujarat at the Maharaja Sayajiroa University, where I trained in Bharatanatyam every day. I fell in love with it. That is how I got started in Indian dance. I never knew it would become a career of mine, but I am grateful it has. Dance has really been a way for me to connect with my culture and it means so much to be able to share it with different communities.
When did you first start painting? How did you develop your style as an artist?
I have been painting since I was a kid. I loved art class in school, and I took a visual arts course as SLC as well which was very influential. After college, I went several years without painting much at all. Why? I am not sure, but I missed it. Three years ago I was slowly getting back into it when I found out about this amazing weekly live painting event called CollageNYC. I began painting there and found it very motivating, painting alongside many talented artists in a supportive atmosphere. Since then I’ve been painting very regularly.
How do you combine your love for dance and your art with the fashion line?
AD: My designs reflect my passion for dance and culture. I love painting dance poses and trying to capture the essence of the different dance styles. I also love painting women, and I feel that dance postures celebrate the female form the best. I am all about Goddess Vibes.
My artwork and paintings are the foundation for my fashion line prints. I often showcase my original painting along with my clothing line. For my next fashion show, I also want to integrate dance along with the modeling. I want the fashion show to be more than a runway. I plan for it to be more of a complete performance and celebration of art.
How would you describe your style?
AD: I feel I definitely have a signature style. I love color and texture. I love outlined silhouettes. My work is typically very feminine, but still very accessible to men as well. I love folk textiles and fabrics and incorporate them into my designs. When I paint I used acrylics or oils on canvas, then I do the embellishments in puffy paint; I feel like that’s when the magic happens. I use this method often to make jewelry in my paintings pop.
What are some of your current favorite pieces?
AD: I love all of my pieces because I created them. Most popular designs have been my “Desi Wonder Women,” “Elephant X Crown,” and “Holi Hai Dancer.”
Did you have to pivot your business during the COVID pandemic? If so, how?
AD: I did not have to pivot too much as my business is mostly online. Of course, there were no events happening, and a fashion show which I was getting ready for had been postponed. Business, production time, and shipping time all slowed a bit.
What have been the biggest challenges and most rewarding moments of being an entrepreneur?
My biggest challenge now is getting enough people to see my collection, without a proper marketing budget. I rely on social media, shout outs, and word of mouth.
We love the artwork and totes you created to raise money for the NAACP Legal and Education Fund. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the piece?
AD: My latest piece, “Resistance Sisters,” was inspired by the Black Lives Matters Movement. I’ve always believed that art and social change go hand and hand, and this was the best way I knew how to show my support. The “resistance fist” is something we all recognize by now. I wanted to show my solidarity and also put my own spin on it. As a woman of color, I made this piece to stand in solidarity with our Black Brothers and Sisters, and I also wanted to show that the fight for racial justice needs to involve all of us; it is inclusive to all skin tones.
What advice would you give other artists who want to launch their own business?
AD: My advice to you is to just start. You don’t need to have it all figured out from the beginning. You will learn what works for you and your business as you go along because everyone’s path to success is different. Stay open-minded, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Your business will probably not grew the exact way you envisioned it, but you need to let it thrive in the way it wants to.