It is seemingly impossible to spot a brand logo in Neesha Tulsi Champaneria’s work but that’s not the only thing that makes her so special.
Yorkshire born but a London based stylist, Neesha’s clientele includes monstrous names such as Vivienne Westwood, Adidas, Gentle Monster and other such exemplary brands. Her work has been published in Vogue Italia, CRACK (featuring the very cool and talented Lava La Rue) and, King Kong to name a few.
A few weeks ago, Neesha took the time out to FaceTime me as I ambushed her with loads and loads of questions about her creative process. As soon as she picked up the call, I was greeted with a lovely lady with two professional hairdresser clips sitting on each side and a cup of coffee (a minor assumption, awaiting confirmation) in hand. For every question I had, I was asked a question in return and not only was it exciting to be speaking to such a powerhouse it was in return extremely comforting to be in her company (virtually of course).
Before Neesha found her place as a stylist, her academic background resided in Fine Art, “I suppose I did a Fine Arts degree. So in some ways, it's probably the most unpractical trickery you could ever do for any kind of job. But it was a really good grounding in critical theory and understanding visual language in a more abstract way.”
When she’s not working with high-end brands styling well-known faces in the industry, she’s a guest lecturer at Rochester UCA’s MA and BA Fashion Photography programme. I asked her what was something she wished she learned in university, she responded -
“I think that the only experience I feel is valuable to relate is mostly industry experience or having industry vices. Most of the time, you end up getting pulled into jobs by default and making mistakes. You end up trying something and it doesn't quite work out and you realise what you don't want. In that process, you start to discover what you do enjoy. So instead of it being quite a prescribed way of being like – ‘Okay, so now this is what you need to do. You need to write the CV, make this portfolio and then speak to this person about this.’ It needs to be something that feels more realistic and a bit more abstract open to everyone's minds. You don't have to go down this very specific path. It's just being a bit more realistic with your goals. So now if I have students who are really interested in a certain thing, I'd be more inclined to be say, ‘maybe don't do this way. Why don't you try something else? Or, like go and speak to this person?’”
Do you think that the pandemic hindered that perspective or made you realise something you didn’t really ever expect to think about?
“For a lot of people it feels like a moment of introspection that I think everyone has needed. I'm saying that from a point of privilege to be able to have the time to have that introspection because a lot of people are still working and having a hard time just getting through this. London is a place where everything, it's kind of like an accolade to be busy to be filling every minute of your time and to be producing in a way where everyone needs to have this output and to be making stuff all the time to appear successful. In a neo-liberalist sense, it feels like you have some control, and you feel that sense of achievement is there. I started to realise that this is a false sense of security where you think that you're doing really well because you're outputting so much when in reality you have no time to introspect and no time to evaluate.
For me, because I've been doing a lot of things with different brands, just now I'm thinking, oh, but what do they want from me? Or are they taking more from me than what they are giving to me? Is this an equal exchange? Do I want to align myself with these kinds organizations? What is the message that I want to put out with my work?’ Especially in London, and recently, there's been this shift to connect with communities and societies and use those little things as a brand collaboration. Some people do it really well. But ever so often, I'm not sure whether it's simply exoticism being tapped into?”
Champaneria’s work, at least to me, is a delicate homage to home. When I look at editorials in Vogue or GQ, I see beautiful places across America and Europe. When I look at some of Champaneria’s work, I see the streets of Mumbai (or similar), I see the beaches in Goa and I see beautiful melanin rich models I so eagerly have been seeking in magazines. While I’m aware that Champaneria isn’t the only one breaking the grounds for South Asian representation, her work is a beautiful little concoction of the best of both worlds - the East and West.
“One of my grandfather's Yvonne was born in India, the rest in Kenya. I've always felt this weird thing where in England, I've always lived in a Kenyan Indian diaspora in Bradford, Yorkshire. We all kind of have this idea of what we think it is to be Indian, but none of us has no idea we've got no clue because we've never lived there for generations. I'm really, really interested in the idea of misinterpretation of things and how observing my kind of culture growing up. I guess this happens in a lot of Diasporas where they have this idea of India and it's usually very old school and it's never changed. It's the idea that, when they came to the country, they're still holding on to those traditions and ideas. And they keep that with them. So whenever my parents or grandparents end up going back to India, they say, ‘wow, everyone is so modern!’ And I always respond with, well, of course, they are! You left like 50 years ago, you’ve got that idea of India in your head!
I feel very Indian in England, but when I'm in India, I feel very English and foreign. It's just an interesting switching from two places. I know some people find it distressing because they don't feel like they belong in any way but I think we've created this other weird identity, it's this new identity that's popped up that doesn't fit in any place. I find that fascinating, the crossovers. For example, going to my grandma's house you'll have some things that are English and some things that are proper Indian and I like how those things are squished together, and it becomes really nonsensical and a bit junky, and that's what I love. I love those bits of culture that have become these new, obscure moments. Saying that, I kind of like using those elements in my work.”
Do you think that your cultural identity or background plays a massive role in the kind of clothes and the brands you select? Is that a conscious decision or is it just something that just kind of happens on its own?
“When I grew up, we always had secondhand clothes and hand me downs. So it was always about trying to find stuff within a bunch of things that you never choose in the first place. So I sometimes quite like the challenge of having loads of things like that. I quite often just go to charity shops and find bits of things, and try and make it out of that. So I'll go and pick a colour palette, I'll just get lots of red things. And then I have boxes and boxes of things, trinkets, keepsakes that I have collected along the way. I'll just pick out all these things and put them in piles, and see what I can make out of those bits adding them into the looks to create a kind of multi- facetted language through objects and techniques."
I like to create fantasies or that kind of fantasy, but kind of rooted in reality. So a lot of One Granary’s clothes feel like they work in that realm. I like to feature that. If it's something designer and, it's too obvious it can be a little bit boring. It seems readymade whereas there needs to be a bit more of a challenge where I am able to make it into something else. If I do use something that's really obvious design wise, I might try putting it on the body in a different way. So it's not as obvious what it is.”
Your Instagram bio says: I dress you up / DIY deity / Repurpose. Do you think that pretty much sums up your creative practice?
“I guess so. Repurpose is a new thing but it's always been there. It definitely responds to waste. It’s also got to do with all this designer stuff. We've just all got to be real about the fact that no one can afford it. So I just say, why are we all plugging all this stuff that no one can wear anyway? Why are we all kidding ourselves and trying to like appear like we're all these rich kids who can do that, you know? It relates to that. And then the DIY deity, for ages, I feel like I always end up making these superhero characters. And the idea of a modern Goddess, I find that really interesting. It doesn't have to be gendered either. It can be whatever or whoever. But I just like the idea of elevating the human so it feels powerful.”
And so, Neesha in 2030, what does that look like?
“I mean, do I really just want to be rich and famous? There's a little part of you that always wants to. I just want to be making some mega DIY deities and for it to be a thing. I basically just want to have half the year being on holiday naked on an island. Then the rest of the year if somebody would just pay me to make them look like a DIY deity at the Met Ball. I would also like to see some changes in the way the fashion industry praises wealth and newness and fetishises really basic beauty standards, it is so boring. There is so much more going on! It's like a stuck record. I think it is changing slowly, but I am excited to see the shift of the predominantly white gatekeeping institutions. Then I think we will really begin to see a major shift. ”
Mark the date in your calendar, folks. It’s going to happen. We promised that in 10 years, I would remind her that I predicted this - Neesha Tulsi Champaneria styling a mega DIY deity at the Met Ball on the first Monday of May 2030.
A very very big thank you to Neesha for taking the time out to chat with me about her creative process and for providing these gorgeous images.