Meet the Indian Design Duo Shaking Up the Look of Athleisure

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by Whitney Wei–  Vogue

There’s no question that the language of athleisure is universal. The look has spawned a multitude of buzzy micro trends in recent years—remember when the term “health goth” first came around? And yet, if designers Mriga Kapadiya and Amrit Kumar have it their way, then the ubiquitous all-black post-gym uniform could be poised for a colorful makeover. Their brand, NorBlack NorWhite, stands in vibrant opposition to the minimalist sportswear status quo. Take a look at their new collaboration with Fila, for instance, and you’ll find familiar athletic staples reinvented thanks to age-old Indian textiles and prints—think, saturated, picnic-checkered T-shirts and black-and-white bandhani-print shorts. Even the classic Fila Disruptor shoe receives a fresh update, its craggy soles anew with tiny diamanté studs. The Toronto-bred, Delhi-based duo also redesigned Fila’s iconic logo in rainbow colors, which are splashed over mesh basketball jerseys and all-white sweatsuits accented with festive tassels.

“Life ain’t black and white, and our work explores the gray space of culture, not just the clothes, hence the name NorBlack NorWhite,” says Kapadiya. “It’s boring and pretentious to associate contemporary fashion and aesthetic with strictly black and white, while color and pattern often get pigeonholed into ‘ethnic,’ ‘flamboyant,’ or ‘boho.’ We love the idea of life being lived in color and create from that space.”

 

Naturally, these mood-brightening and eclectic influences are reflected in both Kapadiya and Kumar’s personal wardrobes and their main line, too. The pair met right out of college via a mutual friend in Toronto and bonded almost instantly. As Kapadiya puts it, “We gravitated toward each other as two weird Indian girls who appreciated some overlapping aesthetics.” She was the first to make the pilgrimage out to Mumbai in 2009, before Kumar joined her six months later. It was through their travels to the Kutch district, stumbling upon a library of indigenous textiles at the Kala Raksha preservation center and making tie-dyed fabrics alongside a local artisan family, that the idea of NorBlack NorWhite suddenly crystallized. Now, in their mid-30s, the two have almost a decade of design experience under their belts. Remarkably, neither Kapadiya nor Kumar have undergone formal fashion training. Instead, they’ve opted for a more intuitive route of “learning through creating”—embracing the many test runs, mistakes, and missteps along the way. In 2015, NorBlack NorWhite made the decision to gradually relocate their headquarters to Delhi to be closer to manufacturers and young, like-minded brands.

 

While the duo’s Fila collection focuses on clean lines and boxy cuts, NBNW originally made its name creating dresses and tracksuits in billowy, multihued silks. The designers cast a wide net for inspiration, often crisscrossing northern India to source new fabrics, or jetting back and forth to North America for fashion pop-ups. And that makes packing for a last-minute trip a no-brainer. Two apron dresses, remnants from NBNW’s past collections and made with handwoven textile from Assam and Mizoram, are always in Kapadiya’s suitcase; then there are the stacks of gold necklaces and rings she never takes off. The two may have swapped the baggy jeans and bomber jackets from their early days in Toronto for a self-designed uniform of light cotton trousers and calf-grazing tunics (better suited for India’s sweltering heat), but there’s still a transcultural sensibility to their style: They’re just as influenced by American ’90s R&B music videos as they are by old Bollywood films and the maze of colorful wares at Mangaldas Market in Mumbai.

 

Kumar recalls her first encounters with a family of artisans in the Tibetan region Kharta, where the duo source bandhani-dyed fabrics, “They always trip out! They were like, ‘You dress like you’re from here, but you don’t look like you’re from here?’ ” As she explains, it comes down to the way she and Kapadiya wear a mix and match of dupatta scarves picked up from their travels with a different printed NBNW kurta tunic top. Whether they’re dressing for a casual weekend at home or for a meeting at the design studio, there’s a sense of purpose and optimism. “Why not wear garments that spark happiness and make us feel alive?” asks Kapadiya. Kumar concurs, “I don’t want to be in a room where I just look like anyone else.”

 

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