(Issue 14) Fashion Feature: Rupal Bakul Banerjee

Interview and Photography by Anisha Patil

In this interview, designer and founder Rupal Banerjee of ‘Ru by Rupal’ tells Fashion Editor and photographer Anisha Patil about her journey of self-expression through fashion, graphic design and business. From her early days influenced by her Desi parents’ business to her later days at Parsons, and more recently NYFW ’22, she’s turning heads, on and off the runway. Worn by the likes of Tinashe, Kehlani, Russ, and Chinese Kitty, she’s all about designing street wear for the people. Focusing on unisex designs and cuts, drawing heavily from the prints and textiles of her culture, she’s reclaiming her Desi American identity through fashion, undoubtedly creating her own lane in an industry where her community has rarely been able to occupy space.

Anisha: Tell me about your earliest experiences with fashion. Do you remember your earliest designs?

Rupal:

Some of my earliest experiences with fashion were with Kim Kardashian. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old and I was like “Oh this is how a woman looks- really curvy- so I used to draw figure forms in my fashion drawings really curvy, and this was before she blew up as a fashion icon. For me, I was always a really chubby kid and so I was like, ‘Wait, a model can be 5’2′” and curvy? Wow, so there is space for me in this industry somewhere.” I was so interested in fashion and this visual landscape and I knew this from a really young age, so I kept drawing and my dad taught me how to sew. I just kept drawing and diving deeper into this space.

Some of my earliest designs were very couture. I was on some ballgown bullshit- as I grew older, I realized I wanted to make clothes that people can wear every day. Girls are taught to draw dresses so that’s why I did dresses at first, even for my Barbie dolls. I was never into making Indian clothes; I always held inspiration though. Embroidery is present, bright colors are present and that’s where my Indian interest came from. It was never in Indian clothes itself, really.

FASHION DRAWING BY RUPAL BANERJEE

Tell me about your story in America and your family’s. Where did you grow up and how has your experience as the child of immigrants shaped your identity and, therefore, your work and your style?

The story of my life is a big part of all of this. I was explaining to you the other day that this has not been an easy process- we have these difficulties with our families and that’s always the story with all of us as Indian creatives. Our parents don’t want us to be in that space, so most Indian people aren’t in that space. You and I are discussing where we exist here- I don’t know anyone else that’s like us, you know what I mean? And that’s a big part of the story. Obviously, my parents are immigrants; they moved here in 2001 right after 9/11 and that was not easy.

9/11 created an event for the racialization of Brown people and in particular, Muslims, and the two go hand in hand for American discrimination against Desi’s. The way that has manifested on a global scale…

My mom was telling my dad to shave his beard- “Don’t look scary.” My parents even told us to not even make finger guns or whatever- just always stay safe. Because we were immigrants, we were afraid. My parents were trying to get a work visa at the same time. We were new to the country and trying to settle in. It’s crazy that our parents have worked below minimum wage jobs for years and years just for us to be able to stay in this country and after all of that, that’s where their fears of us being in this career space come from.

The lack of stability.

Yeah! It’s really a mess sometimes but I have this belief that everything is always going to be okay anyways, and so I always find a way to make money in the artistic space. I never do anything that’s not in the art space because that’s just not of interest to me, I don’t enjoy doing it. And because my parents were trying to instill practicality in me, I learned so many things about business and also, of course, everything about the creative side of things. That’s part of my immigrant hustle, that’s part of me understanding that things can go sideways sometimes. I became prepared for anything and that’s what’s allowed me to grow my business independently to the point that I’m at right now. Also, what makes me extremely independent is that my family didn’t support me for so long so I had to figure out how to do it on my own. It was very much so me working in silence even though I’m not a silent person! It surprised them because it was like, “Oh shit! She did that,” and it was like, “Yes I fucking did that!” It’s about focus and guiding that direction and that’s who I am today and that’s part of my immigrant struggle.

I take a lot of inspiration from my parents running a business. I don’t think enough young people are fearless enough to start their own businesses. It’s really fucking scary and most people aren’t running a business, most people are working for someone. Nobody knows where to start- you just have to do it on your own and start and you move from one step to another. This whole thing is a leadership role and you’re your own employee. It’s really fucking hard.

You first launched a line when you were pretty young. Tell me about its progression since then.

I started my brand when I was nineteen. Nobody I was working with in my family was respecting me and there was something in my soul saying to do it on my own. It was really scary and ruined my relationship with my family for quite a few months and then I just figured it out. My biggest thing at the beginning of my business was working with the Ace family. It was a crazy experience and I’m really big on manifestation and there was something in my soul that told me I was going to work with them. Throughout the process I started crying and my boyfriend started crying because I was like, “Oh my god my mom is finally going to be proud of me.” That was my first groundbreaking moment at the beginning of my brand and then suddenly people started dming me after that and so I was like okay there’s traction and interest here so I started selling clothes. But my first year I really was doing the commander pants etc. and I just really wanted to create a product that was basic enough to sell to a lot of people it’s a basic color, but I wanted to add an extra touch because I’m not a minimalist. Those kept selling and then we got on Lil Nas X on them and then Becky G and it kept growing and then I was like, “Okay, people like the pants, now let me just do what I really want to do.” and then I did all of the prints and I really started to incorporate my culture into everything and I was like, “Okay, we have traction. Let’s just run with it.” and now, recently, I’ve worked with Tinashe, Russ, Kehlani, etc. Tinashe is an independent artist so she does everything on her own and it’s so cool, I respect that on a whole new level. I really respect hard work and will support that till the end of time.

You studied at Parsons in New York- tell me about that era. What were some of the most important things you learned during your time there?

Parsons was an interesting time. The people there really sucked, but I got in for fashion design and I switched my major as soon as I got there because I was like, “I need a marketing and branding background because if I’m going to have a business, I need to learn business!” I would say that their marketing and branding program is pretty good, but what I learned from the most was living in New York, that’s what helped me the most. I learned how to have a great personal style and I was dressing my new body -I was a chubby girl before that- and I felt that I could push it because I was now in a fashion space. The biggest thing that was helping me was that I worked all the internships and I started in fashion PR, doing pulls and returns and styling some racks; then I did product development, helping people build their own fashion brands. Someone handed me the opportunity to work independently, so I worked with manufacturers, overseas shipping, learned where to buy the right fabrics, the right trims, how much certain things should cost, wholesale vs retail, etc. That was one of the best experiences for me. It was amazing and I had to do that. I still use the contacts and connections I made when I was eighteen.

Talk to me about your work as a graphic designer and its intersection with fashion. I think it’s a perfect example of multidimensionality as an artist because I think we’re often associated with one art form and we’re boxed into that, when in reality, having multiple perspectives allows us to produce something really original since we notice different details that are important in each respective discipline.

I got into school for fashion design and I switched to branding and marketing, which is one form of what I do; another form is graphic design, fashion design, and building other people’s brands. I’m really into agency styled things- doing everything. For me, I need to know how to do everything because, again, I can’t pay everyone to do everything for me. I need to know how to do it on my own. Also, as a creative, how do I even explain to other people how I want something if I don’t know how to do it? I think everyone should learn graphic design because you can do so much. You can create marketing materials, logos, change your website, and you can know, visually, know what consumers want. Their mindset is based on rationality, it’s not even based on the value you put into your work or how much work you did. They’re looking at something in thirty seconds and then deciding if they’re going to buy it or not. These are technical aspects of business and visual design. Design smart, not hard. I needed to know graphic design for that and it opened up a whole world of possibilities for me and I think people see that through my work.

How did it feel to be a part of NYFW 2022? What did this collection mean to you and what was the creative process like while making it? What were some of your favorite events that you’ve been a part of?

I just did a ton of loans for Coachella. Stylists requested pulls for some pretty big people and we’re going to fucking kill it! I’m pretty excited about it- this is my first one.

Recently, I just did NYFW and that’s probably been my favorite event. I think runways are always really hard. There’s way too many moving pieces and I realize, as we speak, I’m going to need help in the next few months. We’ll see, but I’m realizing I’m okay with delegation soon because I’ve been doing so much by myself lately. Fashion week was amazing and I had one of my very good friends be my showstopper. She’s Indian too and she’s such a bad bitch, I’m obsessed with her. Her name is Tara (@tara.raani). I was really lucky to have such cool people involved. Many of the people walking the runway for me were my really good model friends from back in New York. It was so special and a full circle moment to be back in New York doing my first runway. I also had Chinese Kitty walking in my runway, which is so crazy because it was my first one! The runway was in partnership with Muffeater Magazine, and they’re amazing. It’s a Black owned, women run organization and they organized for Chinese Kitty to walk in my runway; they were so great to work with. I love going back to New York for work.

Which designers/brands have you been following most closely as of late?

I love Murder Bravado, I’ve always loved them. I love that it’s a man and woman that are definitely in a relationship. I love a male and female dynamic. It changes your whole design process in so many ways. I love to study men’s fashion and incorporate that into my designs.

Another brand is Priya Ahluwalia. She’s in the UK and does men’s streetwear. She’s half Nigerian and Indian, and the way she incorporates both of her cultures, I’m beyond inspired by. Shout out to her because she’s really giving me what I need. I want to look up to more women in the fashion industry that are like me and she’s like me.

When you’re designing clothing that both men and women can wear, what are some key elements that are at the forefront of your mind- whether that’s in the actual shapes, patterns, look book visual direction, etc?

I do everything for the brand: clothing design, creative direction, styling, art direction for the shoots, etc. With the design process, I’m studying both markets wildly to make my pieces unisex and I’m also studying stylists like crazy. I’m always out here looking at stylists like, “What are you putting on your people?” because I need to make things that they’re going to put on their people. At the end of the day, fashion is for the people. I isolate the whole thing into designing for people.

Because it makes it accessible to the people that you’d actually want wearing it.

And if you have a few celebrities in mind and you want the pulls to happen, you can design a few looks they’d wear, and then they will. There’s a science to everything.

On another note, I think our diaspora experiences a certain type of oppression and discrimination. Have you experienced this within the fashion industry and how have you dealt with this? What’s your advice for other Brown women pursuing a career in fashion?

I don’t think there’s been space for a person like me in the fashion space, in America at least. I don’t think it was because someone was trying to hinder me, I think it was just that in America people aren’t really covering Brown people. There’s no coverage, so I took it upon myself to have this explosive personality and I refused to not be heard. I started being explosive with my art and created things that people want to wear. Again, working smart in this industry- influencer, stylist relationships, email and reach out. Ask for what you want, don’t assume it’s a no. Just ask for what you want and see what happens. If you assume someone says no they’ll say no; assume someone is going to say yes and they’ll say yes. That’s what allows me to be confident in this industry, and I want more Indian women to be confident in this industry, and any industry for that matter. People are so concerned with what people think. There’s so much fear in the Indian community.

I think that it’s an inherent part of being Desi- to be agreeable; to make yourself smaller so you don’t draw attention from other people so you assimilate. I think that’s minority and immigration trauma. I think it’s valid and I understand where it comes from, but also, how are you going to transcend that experience, you know?

Yeah, your parents sacrificed so much for you to grow up here so let’s see what else you can do. Be uncomfortable. I did it, so can you. I’ve been doing it from a young age, and I’m not that old. It’s possible.

If you’re trying to go into fashion and you’re Desi, dm me. I’m always open to talking to people, I like when people ask me questions. Sometimes I’m a little too busy but I love giving career advice. I’m starting a thread on reels really soon too where I’m going to talk about fashion business, advice, fashion design and how to design smart, etc. Check it out, it will be on my personal reels.

I love that you’re so open to giving that advice, people gatekeep a lot of information in creative fields and I think it’s out of fear that it’ll detract from you.

Yeah, I think it’s so fucked up. If your people need your support, support them. It doesn’t detract from me- if you’re confident in your own art and craft and abilities, then nobody can bring you down. You can help, it’s not a problem.

Ups and downs of the industry?

I do want to be more of a host or podcast type or just a personality that’s willing to speak about the ins and outs of the industry. I’ve learned a lot in my younger years and I have a lot to say already. Some of my ups and downs is that you learn from trial and error. You have to work really smart and think through everything. I always have a Plan B, not needing to use it, but I need to make sure I have an alternative route and exit plan being in the industry because people are shitty. It’s about trial and error on that. Part of the downs would be that sometimes a stylist will have you make an entire custom and then not put it on the celebrity and they aren’t paying me to make it! A big part of my craft is having to invest money into making the clothes that I give to someone for free for publicity. Not all artforms are like that but mine is because I’m creating a physical product. People also going ghost on you after you make them an entire product. People don’t value fashion because they don’t understand what goes into making clothes and fast fashion. Not understanding what goes into it crumbles my entire being. I’ve also met some really amazing people in this industry and I love when an influencer will tag me because it really matters for my brand exposure! And I’m really grateful for the people who wear the clothes more than once because it shows a lot about who the influencer is as a person and their interest in your work overall is real.

I think one of the most beautiful things about being an artist is that your work is a direct extension of who you are. It’s like documenting that version of yourself in something that is immortalized. Do you feel that fashion has taught you things about yourself?

Fashion has taught me patience more than anything. I think it’s really taught me to keep going. Just take your time also, there is no point of rushing art- it won’t be good at the end of the day. Take your time and provide the best work for the rest of the world. Give creatives the time to do their work. Also, I can take a lot more than I thought I could take. My advice to any creative out there is that if you’re upset, you’re going to be okay too.

What can we keep an eye out for in terms of this next year, personally and for your brand? What are you most excited for in 2022?

I might be appearing on something quite soon. I’ll also be designing a little summer capsule collection coming out soon in mid-June. It’ll be some swimwear, some beautiful content, some cute shit; men’s wear, unisex looks, swimsuit, and a dress as well. Something for the ladies to rock over the summer, to keep you guys interested.

Connect with Rupal: @rup.al.b and ‘Ru by Rupal’: @rupal.official

Buy from www.rupalbrand.com/shop

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