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Making South Asian Fashion Global

Sep/10/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Shipra Sharma is giving an international platform to desi designers

South Asian woman in an outdoor urban setting in a green dress
Shipra Sharma. Photo Credit: Hetal Patel

Entrepreneur Shipra Sharma is a trendsetter in the world of South Asian haute couture. She and her business partner, Hetal Patel, established the annual South Asian New York Fashion Week (SANYFW) in 2022. SANYFW is the first New York City event providing a distinct space for presenting the historic roots and relevance of South Asian design during New York Fashion Week. Global designers, up-and-comers, fashionistas, and business moguls will all be in attendance this year from September 9–13.

This year’s headliner runway show at SANYFW is on September 10, showcasing the brand Raas World. The event will conclude with a multi-designer runway show.

SEEMA caught up with Sharma recently, and she shared some insights on her love for fashion, working with Hetal Patel, and the story behind SANYFW. 

You were raised in New Jersey, aka the Garden State. What was your childhood like there? 

As a born and bred Jersey girl, it was not hard to be engulfed in elements of South Asian culture while growing up. While I had a typical all-American girl upbringing, I enjoyed living in an Indian Punjabi home. But that came to a sudden halt post-9/11, when being anything but American was not welcomed, especially in New Jersey.

It was difficult to be my authentic self, because the aspects of South Asian culture that I loved became things I hid from my friends, such as the fact that I was trained in kathak, bharatnatyam, and bhangra, or that I love gol gappe and Indian outfits. It was not until later in high school that I could start embracing aspects of my culture in my day-to-day life.

I finally began showing up as my most authentic, multi-hyphenated self, and that was my favorite stage of childhood. I brought my high school friends to garba and taught them how to dance to bhangra on my sixteenth birthday.

Do you have an inherent love for fashion, or was it something that grew over time?

I definitely do have an inherent love for fashion, and I have my dad and mom to thank for that. From as long as I could remember, both my parents shared a common love for exploring the latest trends. My dad was a theater actor in India, so his appreciation for the arts transcended into fashion. He loved learning about designers and textiles, so by proxy, I was always exposed to this world.

At the age of 10 or 11, I was able to look at garments and determine what fabric they were made of. While my dad introduced me to the history of fashion and the names of some of the most iconic designers, my mom taught me everything I know about South Asian fashion. I would see her design all her outfits, from picking up the fabrics to outlining the silhouettes. For as long as I can remember, I felt the most confident and happy when I was dressed up in outfits I put together and styled.

As I grew older, that part of my childhood grew with me. I started educating myself about both eastern and western fashion, which led me to realize that the eastern world has dictated many fashion trends across the globe. That inherent love for fashion has now brought me to a position where I am standing at the intersection of both eastern and western fashion at one of the Big 4 global fashion weeks.

Walk us through your career path.

 The path to pursue fashion entrepreneurship was not an easy one. Although my parents never discouraged me from following my passions, I felt like I would be a failure if I didn’t pursue a career that was from the South Asian holy trifecta of careers—medicine, law, or engineering. So I chose to study biomedical engineering.

While I was in college, I began fashion blogging and freelance writing. Immersing myself in the world of fashion and writing kept me sane. By cultivating my passion for fashion through blogging and writing, I was introduced to New York Fashion Week, which is nothing like what New York Fashion Week is now. After I graduated, I went on to nine-to-five job related to my degree, but I never felt fulfilled.

How did you and Hetal meet, and how was the concept of SANYFW born? The two of you worked for a while on the project before it took off. Please tell us a bit about that. 

Hetal and I met while we wrote a fashion column together for a South Asian publication. The connection was instant. We both looked at fashion in the same way and loved the same things about it. I first thought about the idea of SANYFW in 2013 when I attended a New York Fashion Week show.

A lot of the designs that were on the runway were taken from South Asian silhouettes. Co-ord sets were gaining popularity, but no one was acknowledging the fact that this was just a lehenga. I wanted to teach the fashion world the origins of these designs and textiles, and that is when the idea of SANYFW came to be. I shared my goals for SANYFW with Hetal, and she was instantly on board to build this with me. I strongly believe this partnership has been the pivotal point for the SANYFW journey. Together, we have been able to take an idea and create this global platform. We went from being told this was a project not worth our time for years to being recognized as pioneers in the South Asian fashion community.

Where did SANYFW run into difficulties, and how did you get beyond them?

The creative fields are not so easily accepted in the South Asian community. While we were building this for our community to be celebrated globally, the need for a platform like this within the community was not very welcome. Many times, it was hard to continue investing in a community that did not want to invest in itself. At many junctures of this SANYFW journey, we were told to stop pursuing this as a career because fashion won’t bring us success. What people don’t realize is that Asia manufactures over 50% of the world’s clothing, and a majority of that occurs in South Asian countries. Our craftsmanship has been the inspiration for art and design across the globe for centuries.

The biggest difficulty has been for our community to see the value in the fashion industry. Although it will take time to re-wire our collective stance on the value of the arts, we can start educating our community about it now. With all our designer and sponsor calls, we take that as an opportunity to educate our community on the impact that fashion has on our everyday lives. This has helped us not get as much pushback. For this to be a sustainable venture, our community needs to be open to investing in the arts.

How do you curate the best South Asian designers, and what do you look for in a designer?

It takes a lot of research to search for the best South Asian designers. Social media has been a great tool for this research. Together with our South Asian Fashion Council, we are able to leverage our network to reach designers doing innovative work. Our top requirements for the designs we showcase are that they are innovative, original, and ethically manufactured. We love to see designers who push the envelope with their designs. Bonus points if you’re mission-driven and sustainable.

Last year, you showcased streetwear, bridal wear, traditional garb, and Indo-western designs. What type of apparel can your audiences expect from your shows this year?

We are showcasing all that and more! We still have styles that range from traditional to street style, but this year we have added more accessory designers to the lineup.

What have been some of your most memorable moments as co-founder of SANYFW?

As co-founder of SANYFW, I have had two key memorable moments. The first was while sitting for Mayyur Girotra’s opening show at the inaugural year of SANYFW. I remember looking across the runway at Hetal with tears in my eyes, mouthing, “We did it”. That show was absolute magic. The second most memorable moment was our first board of advisors meeting, set up at the Paramount Office by our advisor, Sean Gupta. Sharing the idea of SANYFW with our advisors and receiving their support and guidance has really pushed us forward in the right direction.

What’s next for SANYFW?

SANYFW is a global movement. For us to grow year by year, we need to continue working with designers all across the globe. The reason South Asian fashion hasn’t been celebrated as much is because the proverbial bridge between the eastern and western fashion worlds still has many gaps. Our organization wants to continue working on educating the western world on the history of South Asian fashion, all while providing the resources and mentorship for South Asian designers to claim their space as fashion extraordinaires in the global fashion world.

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