Written and photographed by Lais Lacher.
INTERVIEW WITH SHAIL UPADHYA
I first saw Shail Upadhya in Bill Cunningham’s documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview him both at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week NY Fall 2012 and again on the phone. I learned that there is a surprising amount of depth to the man that wears colorful polka dot suits. We spoke about his personal style, his past as a United Nations diplomat and his connection to Bill Cunningham.
Several other stars from the documentary including Iris Apfel, Patrick McDonald, and of course Bill Cunningham were at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.
What is your role is in fashion right now?
I am not a designer per se I’m more of a fashion forecaster. I see the trends and I can forecast what colors will be in and what prints and what kinds of clothes are going to be in. I am usually five to tens years ahead of the times so all of my clothes are very fashion forward. A lot of times people don’t really understand what I am trying to say and five years later they come to me and say “Listen I’m sorry I didn’t understand what you were trying to do five years ago, but now I do because everybody else is picking up on it.” I really set trends for fashion.
Tell us about your designs.
I only do men’s wear, but I do very creative men’s wear. I have a patternmaker who makes the patterns for me and then I have somebody who sews them for me. The outfit I am wearing today is an example of my work. I haven’t marketed my designs yet because I am trying to build a brand. I want the fashion world to understand what I am trying to do and once I’ve established my brand I will start a line. When ready, I would like to show my designs in an art gallery or a museum instead of on a runway because my clothes are more a work of art than an item of clothing.
Tell us about your fashion week experiences.
This is my tenth year at fashion week in New York and I like the atmosphere here. For me the whole fashion week and Lincoln center is a runway to me. In effect I am putting on a show that goes for a whole week as opposed to a show that goes on for twenty minutes within the confines of four walls and a catwalk. I don’t want to show my clothes in such a confining way and that’s why I go to fashion week to show off my clothes and to gage the reaction of the people to what I am wearing. I am going by their comments to create a line that corresponds to the wishes or meets with the approval of the common man. This is because it is the common man who is going to buy my clothes to go to a club or a night out on the town. It is definitely not for bankers or insurance salesmen, my clothes are for active people who have a life and they want to live it fully. So each day of fashion week is full of anticipation for me and anxiety because I don’t know how people are going to react to it but so far ninety percent of the time I have gotten very good reactions to my clothes.
Do you consider yourself a fashion icon?
Yes, that would be a better description. More then a fashion designer and more than a fashion stylist, which I am by profession, I am more of a trendsetter. And don’t ever call me a fashionista or a fashion victim; I just create fashion that is futuristic.
Speaking of other fashion icons, were you friends with any of the other people featured in the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York?
Everybody in Bill’s documentary are fashion icons in themselves such as Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St Laurent. The whole documentary was full of fashion icons. I was flattered that I was included to be a part of it although I am not in the same league as some of them. But I was happy to be a part the movie with Bill Cunningham who is an icon himself. But other than Bill I don’t know anybody, except for Patrick McDonald who is not a designer per se himself but he is a fashion icon in that he is a dandy.
Tell us about your life before fashion?
I was a diplomat with the United Nations and it was a totally different lifestyle. As a diplomat I was involved in world issues and my work took me to a lot of troubled spots all over the world. I was like a troubleshooter for the UN. When I left the UN I decided that I needed a creative outlet so I decided to turn to designing clothes.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Men shouldn’t be afraid of wearing creative clothes because men are not the same today as they were 50 years ago. My grandfather would never go out wearing one of my creations. They would stick to the clothes that were handed down by their parents, which were conservative. A dark suit preferably double breasted with the proper bowtie and a bowler hat. The clothes that they were wearing are vintage to us now and but I don’t get my inspiration from vintage clothing because I want to look forward and not backwards. I don’t care to wear clothes from the last century because that’s history and I want to make future history if there is such a thing as future history.