Fashion designer Bhavyaa Prasad debuted her first collection at New York Fashion Week last February with Flying Solo, the largest high-fashion independent designer collective in the U.S. Bhavyaa is a recent Parson’s graduate from India whose work is inspired by her maternal role models in India. As someone who has experienced harassment, some of the pieces in her latest collection serve as self-defense tools.
In the Spring/Summer 2020 Season, many designers like Schiaparelli, Valentino, and Giambattista Valli sent looks down their runways featuring vivid facial jewelry or decorations. The question arose—as many Eastern countries have a meaningful history of facial jewelry, when does the trend of facial jewelry become cultural appropriation? We asked Bhavyaa’s opinion and also talked to her about her Indian background, her latest collection, and how her work has been impacted by Covid-19.
What is the inspiration behind your latest collection?
Jewelry is passed on from mother to daughter, it is a right of passage, a form of inheritance for many. Traditionally, jewelry was also called “stri dhan” which translates to “woman’s wealth.” In Indian culture, historically when women could not own property or wealth, jewelry gave them a sense of financial security. Suppose a lady was in urgent need of money—she had the right to sell her jewelry. Similarly, I wanted my jewelry to help women regenerate a sense of agency, to reclaim their independence, have the confidence to be their own “knight in shining armor.” If someone tries to assault me, I can easily stab them with my earrings. They send a message that I can fight back. I dislike the idea of pleading, then waiting for someone to help me.
Previously, I had designed and fabricated a free size (adjustable, one size fits all) cocktail ring that can serve as a self-defense weapon for women so that we can feel safer in the parking lot or after a night out with friends. The design is inspired by my personal experience. In middle school, I used to keep sharp pencils or a compass from my geometry box to poke away any men who tried to touch me inappropriately on my way back from school in Delhi Metro. Later, I expanded this idea and turned it into an entire jewelry collection.
What inspires your process of designing and making?
The shapes for my jewelry are inspired by the architecture of my maternal grandmother’s ancestral home in Allahabad (now renamed to Prayagraj). Growing up I always had many incredible women in my family to learn from and to look up to as role models. It was like a fortress or a sanctuary that protected me as a child and prepared me for the real world as a young adult.
I design jewelry using CAD software such as rhino and key shot and then 3D print my prototypes to test sizing and dimensions on the body. After finalizing, it is 3D printed again in resin, then cast in reclaimed metal, cleaned, polished, and plated by hand.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you grew up, and how you decided to come to NYC?
I grew up in New Delhi, India where I went to school before moving to New York for college. It was my teenage dream to study at Parsons, eat Murray’s bagels for breakfast, and buy supplies at mood fabrics. Project Runway played a big part in selling me on that dream.
New Delhi is a metropolitan city that exposed me to different and diverse cultural practices within my own country. I loved going to museums, art galleries, classical concerts, and street plays with my mother. One time there was a jewelry exhibition that my parents and I went to—it was the first time the jewelry from the royal family, Nizam of Hyderabad, was open to the public. I was about 3 years old and I remember my mother being in awe of it all. It was stunning, shiny, and sparkly and I told my mother to ask papa to buy it for her—not knowing that I was referring to the Jacob diamond which is 184.5 carats, making it the 5th largest polished diamond in the world. The Nizam used it as a paperweight in his study.
As many Eastern countries have a meaningful history of facial jewelry—when does the trend of facial jewelry become cultural appropriation in the West?
The older a culture is, it gets more and more complex to accurately dissect it and understand it, especially a culture such as mine, which not only dates far back but also has a lot of influence from other cultures that we later adopted as our own. In Northern India, women get their left nostril pierced and it is a very common practice, widely perceived as a coming-of-age rite of passage. An Ancient ayurvedic medicine belief is that it helps regulate the menstrual cycle and manage childbirth pain. Some sects believe that sex workers have their right nostril pierced. I had my friend from the U.S. visit India and she was approached by various men because of her piercing. At the same time, people from Southern India have many of their own subcultural and tribal practices—some wear left, some right and some even wear rings on both nostrils.
Facial jewelry is not exclusively a part of any culture, but it mostly gained popularity during the ’60s-’70s or the “hippie movement.” I personally see it as the West embracing something from the Eastern culture, but sometimes it has negative connotations attached to it.
Can you give me some examples of how you have either experienced cultural appropriation in the U.S. or when you felt discriminated against because of your stylistic choices?
Facial piercings in the U.S. can be perceived as unprofessional, especially in the corporate culture, but for me—the piercing holds cultural value.
“As a woman of color, you do everything to fit in. For example, you take off your jewelry to come one step closer to where you need to be, but at some point, you realize it’s not just a piece of jewelry that you’re taking off, it’s a piece of your culture.”
For instance, I’d consider it cultural appropriation if the brand is selling a septum nose ring with a cultural motif, symbol, pattern, or even if it uses indigenous techniques, such as kundan (uncut, unpolished diamond).
Some of the most disturbing instances of cultural appropriation for me are: When Heidi Klum dressed as an Indian Goddess Kaali Ma for her Halloween party and when Gwen Stefany dressed in traditional Indian clothes for a gala.
Once, I visited a home décor store chain selling an elephant God statue and it made me feel uneasy because, for me, that’s Ganesh ji, a spiritual symbol and not just a home decor piece. Halloween and Diwali are pretty close to each other in dates, so twice I’ve been asked on Diwali if I’m culturally appropriating for Halloween “That’s my culture,” I responded.
Someone once asked me if I was copying Gwen Stefani when I wore an ethnic skirt on my laundry day. There have been multiple times I’ve received comments about my outfit after celebrating one of my holidays. Someone said “belly dance for me;” another guy yelled “Yo, chicken tikka masala!” and I was like “Yo, hamburger!” and my friends started yelling words like “Cheeseburger, hot dog!”
There’s a difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation. I think it was appreciation, for example, when Kim Kardashian wore a sari for the March 2018 cover photoshoot of Vogue India. There are some instances when wearing traditional wear shows appreciation for the culture, like if you’re visiting the embassy of that particular country.
On the other hand, Karl Lagerfeld commented “Indian women are so chic, even the poorest one will at least be wearing two bangles” after his Chanel Pre-Fall 2012 collection “Paris-Bombay Métiers d’Art.” But it’s not about us being chic—it’s part of our culture; our jewelry is kind of like our life insurance because we can sell it in case of emergency, and it’s an investment.
What was your experience like at Parsons, one of the best fashion colleges in the world?
When I started as a freshman at Parsons, I was quite intimidated by my peers as they had already interned with designers like Oscar Dela Renta, were covered by Vogue, and etc. It made me want to work harder and prove myself. Parsons School of Design is one of the best design schools in the world and Fashion Design is one of the most competitive programs. Parsons gave me a platform to connect, compete, and learn from the future leaders of the fashion world. Our professors also worked in the industry. My thesis advisor Muriel Favaro used to be one of the designers for Kate Spade back in the day when she started her brand. Another professor Caroline Simonelli was Donna Karan’s mentor, and she once said: “Fashion is the mirror image of time, and time right now is chaotic”. Techniques can be learned in many different places around the world, but Parsons taught me a way of thinking and finding inspiration. Why do we always need to reinvent the wheel? Sometimes it’s better to just change the approach. A professor once made me design over 100 logos for my brand and it was only after that is when I finally understood what it feels like to think outside the box.
What is your dream job?
My dream job keeps changing, but essentially I want to be in a position of power to bring about change for the better, make a positive impact, and create opportunities to help people. I really like Sofia Vergara’s company EBY—it’s an underwear subscription that uses part of its profits to microfinance loans for women all over the world. Another brand I really admire is Volta Atelier—the designer Fernanda Daudt trains and employs Haitian refugees in Brazil to sew bags made from leftover leather. I want my work to have a larger mission – to inspire and eventually enable people to make their own move towards financial independence.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work and what have you been up to during this time?
Now I refer to time as pre-COVID and post-COVID. Millions of people are stranded away from home and loved ones. I am using this time to ideate and design more, and then re-design and re-imagine that. People are doing virtual photoshoots and that’s amazing—how come we didn’t try that before? I am taking virtual tours of zoos and museums, and it is obviously not the same as seeing it in person, but inspiration can strike anytime. I have an entire folder filled with images and quotes that I found interesting and wanted to keep for the future just in case. I re-discovered a quote from the Amazon Prime show Mozart in The Jungle that I absolutely love:
“She was an artist. At a time when women were supposed to be muses, not artists.”
This is the time when our ability to think, imagine, write, create art or music is not hindered by lack of time. Pandemic or any global tragedy has a way to seep into art and literature—we create so much art from tragedy.
You can follow Bhavyaa on Instagram @bhavyaainy