Grant Watson<That’s the really shitty thing with austerity. These youth clubs and organizations and facilities in areas where there’s quite a lot of deprivation get taken away. But that was a real transformation for you—going from Isle of the Dogs and that local art club to Central Saint Martins, how was it? Was it a bit of a shock entering that art college environment? And at that point was it already in King’s Cross?
Rahemur Rahman<No, in Charing Cross.
GW< Oh, ok, so you went to the old building, which is fantastic. I used to teach there years ago.
RR< I loved it. I’m not going to lie. I have such fond memories. I remember there was only one other London kid on that course with me.
GW< I’m surprised to hear that. So, you were doing fashion design menswear?
RR< Yes. I was on fashion and menswear, and there was just that one other kid who was from London. Everyone else was from Dorset or Oxford, or they were international students and had come from money. The two of us became bandits and we were just like, “I don’t know what I’m doing at this school!” I failed my first year because I was so out of my depth I just stopped going. It was just way too much for me, because I think even though I had always known that I was gay, I’d never really ever confronted it. And then I came into this space, and I was like. . .
GW< Everybody is gay!
RR< It was the gayest thing ever! And I remember my first year tutor, who has sadly passed away, she said to me when I failed the first time, she was like, “listen, if you really want to study fashion, you’ve got to go out with your friends from this course, go to the pub, go to the clubs, go do all of the stuff, go be messy.” So, I stayed the next day and I slowly stopped hanging out with my friends from East London. I was like, “okay, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to give it my everything.” And I did. I really immersed myself into that student life. I started going to all the clubs and all this stuff. I was in the middle of Soho and everything and I still hadn’t even come out. It’s quite wild to think about what was I doing; everyone must’ve known. And then when the course moved to King’s Cross, which was in the last bit of my second time doing the first year, it was just a lot easier. And then I started to find my stride and it was kind of fine.
GW< What were the things that you were drawing on as a fashion student?
RR< In the first three years of my four-year studies, I was very much obsessed with streetwear and utilitarian clothing. Like the idea of purpose, how can clothing really fit the way that we live? And then it changed in my final year when Rana Plaza happened. A lot of people were asking me questions because of my family connection to Bangladesh and I was like, “I don’t have a fucking clue. I’m from London, I don’t know.” But because people kept asking, I thought, I guess I should know. And that’s when I decided to learn more.
GW< So that was a very tragic event. Am I right in thinking that it oriented you to think about the Bangladeshi garment industry, textiles, and fashion? Maybe you could just sort of plot that out a bit, speak through it?
RR< At the time Rana Plaza happened, a lot of people reached out to me be as a Bengali student at Central Saint Martins, be it from Fashion Revolution or other places like that. And then, because I didn’t have a lot of the answers, I went off and started to read all of this stuff from Human Rights Watch, from Fashion Revolution, from The Guardian, to really equip myself with information about what is going on in Bangladesh. And in the same breath, I kept thinking, “what can I do to improve that? What can I do as a designer? How am I going to respond to this in my work?” I didn’t really find a way to respond to the fast fashion aspect. Obviously, there were ideas around upcycling and using fabrics again, all that stuff, but I didn’t quite like that. Because I felt like the finish just wasn’t as beautiful as I wanted. So, then I started to search out artisanal craft from Bangladesh and I was like, “okay that’s what I’m going do: I am going to flip the narrative.” If it’s 2014, and Rana Plaza just happened, and everyone’s talking about Bangladesh, and they’re speaking about the country in such a negative way, then let’s show people the great things that also come out of Bangladesh from the fashion industry there, let’s show them the amazing weaves that are so technically advanced. You have to put respect on the textile, and because I wanted to do it in a very, very beautiful way, I used a lot of soft and almost see-through fabric amongst great tailoring. I wanted to still have a very sartorial look. I wanted it to look beautiful and luxurious. I didn’t want someone to look at it and think of fast fashion. I didn’t want someone to look at it and just immediately think of Rana Plaza. I wanted people to think of beautiful textiles and great work, and then read the thesis behind it, understand the press release behind it, and see the points that I was making. And it’s weird, because I think I’m still doing the same thing to this day. I haven’t moved on that far because that approach is still needed, to be honest, there’s such a high level of skill in the country. And the more that I work in Bangladesh, the more I see it. And obviously that all started from 2014 and now I am here in 2021 and still doing it, and we have come so far. Like the V&A have just recently bought a piece of the Jamdani weave that is done by a company that I work with. They’ve also just bought my textile, which I’m really proud about, to be honest.
GW< I have a couple of questions: one is about your experience of visiting and working in Bangladesh, and the other, doubling back a bit, is to do with you coming out and your relationship with your family. Which comes first?
RR< It was the coming out that came first. I came out when I was twenty-five. It was quite volatile in that moment. My parents didn’t know that I had come out. It was only my two siblings. And then we kind of decided amongst us that I was going to leave. And that I was going to leave amicably, and make sure there’s no shouting. I was just going to grab my bags and say that I’ve moved out. At that time I had a boyfriend, so I just moved in with him.
GW< And were your siblings supportive?
RR< No, no, not even. For me, I was just leaving.
GW< So you told them and they were like, “this is not right, you have to leave?”
RR< Yes, pretty much. They were just like, “you’ve got to go. We don’t want to upset mum. We don’t want to upset dad. We don’t want to upset the family dynamic that we have in this house. You’ve got to go.” And so I said okay. And then I was like, “please give me a day.” So I packed everything. And I looked around the house, looking at the things that they never really touched, but I did. I took all the family photographs. And a couple of my mum’s saris. I took some bangles. Because at that point I was twenty-five and I’d already heard from other people what their coming out experiences were like. And I knew this might be one of the last times I was going to be in this house. I kind of just went grab, grab, grab, grab, and put loads of stuff in a bag. And then I left. And I’m so glad that I did it in that moment, that I decided to hold onto these memories, because even before that incident happened I was already harking on about memories and like trying to deal with ideas of identity. For me those were such big parts of my work. So I was like, “I’m going to take them.” And they’ve never asked for them back.
GW< And it was a split-second decision that you needed all of those things, a feeling that they’d be better off with you perhaps?
RR< Literally, yes. Because nobody looked at those family photographs. Nobody did—I was the first person to really go through them when I was trying to do my final collection. Before that, they just sat in a box. And I took that whole box with me. With the other stuff, like my mum’s saris, I’m really glad I have them. In my head I was thinking, “one day, I’m going to get married, I’m going to cut this sari up, and make it be a great suit. And that’s what I’m going to wear on my wedding day.”
GW< Wow. But presumably now your parents are very proud of the things that you’ve achieved. Do they appear at openings and events? What’s the communication at this point with them?
RR< I would say that communication is on a need-to-know basis. I think that’s the best way to describe it. Every now and then there might be a very soft phone call. It’s like, “hey, are you okay? You’re alive? You’re still going?” There was a little period where I went through a really bad depression. So, then they were just like, “are you okay? Are you alive?” I say “yes,” and then I usually just hang up because the conversation will always go into that they just want to convince me to be what they need me to be. Because that’s the only way that they know to show love and for them it’s about coming back to the straight narrative, come back to us. This is a good way of living. I completely understand their thinking. I just don’t need it.
GW< And did you get support from other queer Bangladeshi friends that had similar experiences?
RR< I was very lucky. I’m not gonna lie. This is where I really count my luck in a lot of my life situations, because I was completely surrounded by support when I was coming out. I had my boyfriend, I had all my best friends. I was twenty-five, so I was quite a lot older than other people. I had access to a car. I had already signed a lease on house. And this is why, whenever I meet other South Asian young people who are queer and are having a hard time, I always feel like I have to save them. I think I’m just aware that I had it slightly easier than a lot of people. And I hear some of their stories and it does break my heart.
Like the most recent person that I met, I’m like obsessed them. Their name is Haznat, they’re twenty-one years old. They came out and had a really awful experience because they are a younger generation, so queer in every way, and it’s so beautiful. They look like a cool kid from Berlin, but they’ve been raised in a Bengali family and grew up in very similar estates to me. Obviously back then, I was assimilating to this straight guy vibe, and it worked, whereas they weren’t doing any of that.
GW< Some people can’t do it, it’s impossible.
RR< The other day I took them for the first curry that they’ve had in ages. Cause I think food and smells and all of that stuff, plays a big role. And especially food, because I remember after I came out, for about two or three years, I didn’t really eat a good curry. Obviously in London there’s like plenty of Indian curry, but I’m talking about a good home cooked meal, and Haznat was the same. And when I first met them, I was like, “when’s the last time you had curry?” And they were like “too long” and I was like “let’s go for a meal.” And then we sat there, surrounded by Bengali brothers. All of them were completely shocked, like what is Haznat doing in here?
GW< In terms of traveling to Bangladesh, did you go there to research and produce your graduate collection?
RR< No, when I did my graduate collection in 2014 all of the communication was over Skype. And it was with a really lovely guy called Shamim Miah who has a natural dye, weaving, artisan community. But the first time I ever went to Bangladesh was just before I launched the brand in November 2018 when I was twenty-eight. And I didn’t even go to the family village, I literally just went to work. And it was great because then I got to see the culture, I only saw the arts and that was the biggest part of Bangla culture that I missed out on. I remember when I first had that meeting with the artisans, they asked me what I wanted to do. And I was like, “I just want to help you as you help me.” And they were like, “cool, let’s try.” And I feel like I’m still doing that now. The exchange is equal because I help them explore new colors in their natural dyes and new patterns that they then pitch to other wholesalers. They use my samples to show people like, “look at how far we can technically go.” Plus, I have loads of fun with it. It’s like a little playground, with all these artisans around me. Initially I remember the first sample that I did, none of them believed in what I was doing or what I was talking about. I was just this weird foreigner who had come over to tell them what to do. So, it actually took a long time for me to convince the artisans that I was on their side, that I was trying to work with them. And I think they really got it when we made the sample that’s going to the V&A. We were all around this dye vat and they lifted this one piece of fabric out, and all of us were like, “oh my God, it fucking works.”
GW< So, you made a patchwork and then you dyed it.
RR< Oh yes. So, we were trying to see how many colors we could get in this patchwork. It’s a wax resist, it has wax on it and then you dip it in color and just keep layering it. And when we got to about layer six we were like “okay, we should stop.” There were like ten of us working on this thing for about four or five days.
GW< Somewhere I read a quote where you said: “Sustainability is a problem of rich people. It’s only rich people that are not sustainable.” So, my question is if you are engaged with issues of inequality and poverty in your work alongside your cultural heritage?
RR< Well, for me, they go hand in hand. I think we can’t speak about the British system—or the British anything—unless we talk about these ideas of class and wealth and the wealth gap. I only had the life experience I had because I was poor, and I grew up around loads of other poor people. And I stand by that statement. I say all the time, rich people are the problem for sustainability, it’s not the poor. Because we have no choice but to be sustainable. And it’s so funny because we grew up wearing hand-me-downs; new clothes weren’t really a thing. And that’s the lived experience that’s always embedded in my work. I guess that’s why access to art and accessibility is so important to me. I think of the exhibition “My Home, My Bari” that I did just recently, and the number of meetings I had to make sure that the language on the website was accessible to someone who had no idea about any of the shit that we were talking about, but also was accessible to somebody who did. And it is also about how we can create art that allows anyone to be able to be a part of it. Obviously this approach involves doing lots of workshops in lots of youth clubs, with loads of schools from different ages and stuff like that.
GW< So, those workshops are now a part of what you do?
RR< Yes. Whenever I get a commission there has to be an element in the budget for a youth program and that youth program has to share the space with me in the final presentation. A lot of people at the beginning said no; for the first project we had to almost self-fund to show people that’s possible, that you can do it. But now people are starting to come around to it and I’m getting a lot of yeses. It just takes a lot of extra craft, extra love, and a lot of extra work. But it’s possible. And I think now I’m starting to get those types of commissions where I would do an art project, but it will start with a youth program. The whole idea of the youth program is for them to learn something while I’m also learning from them. So the art project at the end is almost like cross collaborative across all of us. And again, obviously I can’t have this conversation without speaking about wealth or class, because I’m only doing this because I want them to have an easier time getting into the arts than I did. And the only reason why they will have a hard time is because they’re working-class kids.
GW< Finally, is there a queer aspect to your work or your politics?
RR< I guess it’s just another othering to my identity. But I didn’t know any of my queer history, so I had to go and learn it, and to be honest I’m still learning.