In scarce moments of sunlight on a rainy London morning, politically punchy dance-hall maestro Maya Arulpragasam - better known by her moniker, M.I.A - struts the construction-prone East End streets in hyper-colour sequins and stilettos, attracting catcalls at every turn. Pouting and shimmying, even performing impromptu pole dancing on street-posts, the girl’s every bit as razzle-dazzle as her bold and brash fashion style.
Catching up with long-time friend and fashion inspiration Ashish Gupta, the renowned London-based designer whose outfits she’s sporting on her current world tour, M.I.A settles down for a chat - while happily rifling through bags of the designer's bright, bold and heavily-embellished creations. Talking PlayStation, Bollywood, hologram leggings and other weird and wonderful obsessions, the fun and feisty M.I.A and fashion-forward Ashish get to know each other all over again. Indigo Clarke
(photographs by Will Sanders, Art Direction by Indigo Clarke, all clothing Ashish)
M.I.A: Ashish! I haven’t talked to you for so long, it’s been ages! How’s it going? What have you been doing?
Ashish: I know! It’s so great to see you. For me right now things are good, it’s same old same old… just designing the new Autumn/Winter collection.
M.I.A: I can’t wait to see it, I always love your clothing!
Ashish: So you’ve just come back from New York, how’s your tour going?
M.I.A: The tour’s going so well… America was just amazing this time. Chicago was really good; I played like five or six shows there. I rocked the black and silver sequin jacket you gave me years ago at my Vegas show - that jacket is so Vegas!
Ashish: I saw a clip of your ‘Terminal Fight’ concert on Youtube, and you’re wearing the aqua dress of mine – you looked so cool! How’s the reaction been to your new album? It seems to be doing really well…
M.I.A: The new album definitely works better live than the last one, which was more DJ-friendly. Audiences have just been going crazy – ‘Paper Planes’ seems to be the big song at the shows. I’ve fused so many influences into this album – it’s really vast… it’s twice as complex as the last. I think it’s a time will tell kind of thing with this album – all my concerts have sold out, so I know my fans like it. My fans are smart, and they know that I don’t go down the usual routes – I work on a grass roots level, that’s the way I am a an artist. I’m choosing to be more like The Pixies than Justin Timberlake… I want my music to be listened to in ten years time, not just forgotten.
Ashish: Yeah, you just have to be happy with what you create on a personal level at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing as an artist.
M.I.A: yeah, and I’m approached very differently in the UK and the US – in the UK people just don’t get where I’m coming from, but in the US they get it. It’s becoming more common in America to be aware of the rest of the world and to force world news and issues – and I’ve always fused different cultures and important issues into my music.
Ashish: You know how you’ve done that remix of the Indian song ‘Jimmy’? I love it! It’s from an old Bollywood film called “Disco Dancer”. I used to be totally obsessed with it when I was a child in India.
M.I.A: Yeah totally, it’s a great track.
Ashish: It takes me back to childhood – to my background in India. It’s so nice to bring that song into another context.
M.I.A: Oh Completely – I think it’s great to re-contextualise influences. In hip-hop when a 70s track is sampled everyone gets it – but people don’t always recognise music from our backgrounds…
Ashish: Maybe that’s quite cool though if not everyone understands it, it’s more intriguing that way. So what have you been obsessed with lately?
M.I.A: My obsession is ‘Guitar Hero’ the PlayStation game! It totally divided my American tour – my crew were going crazy over it. I’m also obsessed with thinking about having time off finally in February and March – I can’t wait!
Ashish: I heard you were setting up your own record label, you must be really busy…
M.I.A: Yes I’m going to commit to that, but as an artist these days it gets so hard when you divide yourself between so many projects. At the moment I’m really keen to set up a proper base for myself. Since 2005 I’ve been living on planes! Just travelling everywhere all the time… I feel like I don’t have a home.
Ashish: I know what that feels like, it can be exhausting travelling that much. I have to travel loads for work, especially between London and Delhi because I have a studio in India.
M.I.A: do you have your own place in Delhi?
Ashish: yeah I have a studio and a home there, I just visit so frequently I need to have my own place.
M.I.A:I think Delhi is such an inspiring city. Anything can inspire you there – the people, dresses, outfits, bicycles, colour…
Ashish: It’s like I have the best of both world’s being between London and Delhi, I get excited when I go back home now which is really cool. So what else have you been up to?
M.I.A: (laughs) well, I got offered a movie! I turned it down though because it’s being shot in January and I don’t have time. It’s going to be a ‘Total Recall’ kind of vibe, but I don’t think I’m ready for that! I need to build a home… that’s what I really want to do. And I’m excited about doing this Oyster shoot with you and wearing your clothes!
Ashish: Yes I’m excited too – I’m so glad you’re wearing my stuff in concert.
M.I.A: I’m so loving your clothing – they just work on me so well. I couldn’t have asked for anything better…
Ashish: I remember when you came to my first show… how did you find out about me?
M.I.A: (laughs) On the internet! I fell out of my seat when I say your stuff I was screaming “Oh my god!” I told everyone, “We have to find him” so that I could wear Ashish! I was so attracted to your stuff because my music is futuristic third-world – and that’s what your first collection looked like… it was like I was a new person in music and you were new in fashion and we were on the same page.
Ashish: I always get loads of calls whenever you wear my stuff! It looks great on you.
M.I.A: I loved your clothing from the second I saw it – it was amazing.
Ashish: It was really fun and exciting for me when I met you – I love your energy and vibe, and we work really well together.
M.I.A: You were the first to do the stuff you do with sequins and print, and now it’s everywhere… you know the silver and black jacket you gave me, I still wear it every day…
Ashish: Oh really? Wow that’s so cool. I love how you style yourself…
M.I.A: yeah I just put on whatever falls out of my suitcase! I love doing all kinds of weird combinations…
Ashish: Effortless… that’s what makes you so distinctive.
M.I.A: No one really experiments anymore…
Ashish: no not at all, and that’s why you stand out. It’s great when people have a strong personality and attitude and it’s reflected in what they wear, that’s what inspires me.
M.I.A: I see you as a designer that stands out this decade – but I think in the UK we have the same problem, where we get slightly overlooked. I feel like I’m further on from being this, “I’m Asian and I want to be a singer’ vibe. I don’t want to be in that game – as artists and designers it’s what we bring to the table that matters not our backgrounds. The NME offered me an “Anti-Racism’ cover and I turned it down, I take it as an insult. I’ve done so many things before other people like Lily Allen and Klaxons, they’re doing stuff like I did but two years later. I got a bit overlooked – as though because I’m Asian I wasn’t up to date.
Ashish: Like you have to be twice as good to get noticed half as much. People have told me I should focus more on my culture – and I’m like “Why should I be seen as ‘Ethnic’”? I don’t think my background should be a factor in determining how relevant my work is.
M.I.A: Japan totally embraced me – everyone totally understood my art, aesthetic, politics, they picked it apart and understood it. Australia was great too. I wore your African art inspired tracksuit a lot in Japan… I think that outfit really defines my aesthetic.
Ashish: That’s so sweet. Do you think what you wear puts you in a certain mindset?
M.I.A: yes definitely. I always wear one jacket I got at a thrift-store that reminds me of my mum. I love to layer up Ashish stuff with weird thrift-store spandex bits and pieces – I love holographic spandex. I have a kid who custom-makes holographic spandex leggings for me – those and my Ashish pieces are my favourite things.
Ashish: What’s the designer’s name? Some kid emailed me…
M.I.A: His name’s Brian Lichtenberg.
Ashish: Oh my god! He emailed me saying he loved the dresses of mine you wear, how weird! I really like his hologram leggings…
M.I.A: they go so well with sequins.
Ashish: It’s going to be so fun working out looks and colours for your UK shows!
M.I.A: Well I can’t contribute anything to that – you’re so amazing with colours and your designs are timeless. What you do is just perfect –I can’t quite put my finger on it – but I think it’s amazing and I’ll love your clothing forever! I’m your fan; I’m your groupie!
Ashish: Well I’m your fan too, it’s so cool that we found each other…
M.I.A: I found you! I tracked you down and saw your very first fashion show…
Ashish: Yes I love that! It’s such a compliment.