Harnessing Kink, Queerness and Community In India With Subculture
Kink as a lifestyle isn’t exactly new in the subcontinent. People of all ages, sizes, and sexual orientations have long taken to sexual exploration and power play. But all of it is still shrouded in enigma and you aren’t supposed to talk about it in broad daylight, lest you wish to be branded a sicko. In this prudish culture, where exactly are Indians supposed to shop for play accessories such as harnesses or chokers? Stuck between the choice of shady online shops or paying through the nose for international shipping, some might resign to jugaad or give up their interest in kink altogether.
Enter Subculture. As a leather designer, Randhir Singh had liberation on his mind while starting the Jaipur-based leather, fetish, and utility fashion label. This sexual liberation is, of course, a celebration of pleasure, fantasy, romance, and eroticism.
“With a brand like Subculture that is sex-positive in nature & where sexual expression is the outcome, the stigma comes naturally in India, where sexuality is not discussed and is considered vulgar. Apart from stigma it [Subculture] also attracts a lot of misunderstanding in terms of its products as they are something very fresh in the Indian market, and the majority of the population had its introduction to kink through Fifty Shades Of Grey. It's not any other regular fashion or accessory brand where you just put it out there for the world to consume. Subculture is a lifestyle and choice that was much needed in India, and is intended to start the conversation,” says Singh.
Working closely with local craftspersons from rural Rajasthan who employ traditional leather-crafting techniques for made-to-order pieces, Subculture is also undeniably desi in that it draws inspiration from our heritage that is replete with references to eroticism, sexual pleasure, sexual fulfillment, and sexual fantasy.
Edgy Meets Utility
Singh’s approach is to combine sexy with practical. For instance, the utilitarian leather bag harness features a detachable leather pouch in the front. This facilitates wearers who want to take leather outside of the bedroom and wear it in a more public setting, where it serves a dual purpose.
He explains, “Leather fetish goes back to only being fetish until the 80s and 90s when it became a lifestyle. I have learnt one thing since I was a child and that is that we as Indians love leather accessories such as belts & bags or wallets, which are mainly utilitarian. At Subculture, I have gear that is mainly fashion, fetish or utility alone, but other gear crosses over, as I strongly believe that design is not meant to be only aesthetically appealing but also functional.”
Being Kinky With Pride
Kink as a lifestyle choice is inextricably tied to the LGBTQIA+ community, and as a queer person himself, Singh is acutely aware of the connotations of his brand.
Heated debates on whether kink belongs at pride polarize the internet before pride month every year without fail. .
Moreover, desexualized and vanilla depictions of queerness in public really play into normative standards of respectability. No one should have to hide their sexuality to be worthy of respect.
“Queer people have always been at the forefront of sex-positivity. Queerness bleeds into kink for so many individuals because it allows us to determine the parameters for our sexual behaviour in a world where the rulebook does not apply to us. Queerness can be about lust, love, or both, but by that same token, kink, leather, and BDSM aren’t exclusively about sex; to a large extent, they’re about community building. There’s a taboo around discussing sex and sexuality in our culture, and it is especially seen as taboo for queer people, who have been ostracized and outcast for not falling into heteronormative expectations of how we should love and form relationships,” Singh tells us.
“Heterosexual individuals have long been under the same umbrella, exploring and expressing their sexual desires, but mainly under the carpet. So what you usually see is the queer community that is out and open about it and therefore looked down upon by the conservatives. My customer base includes a large number of heterosexual people. It’s not just queer people who have fetishes or kinks but just that they are open and liberal about it.”
Clearly, the point here is to extend this liberation to everyone and encourage a culture where consent and communication are central to all discussions around sex.
Naming the brand Subculture is a clear acknowledgment of the fact that leather and fetish fashion has not been a part of mainstream culture, and has existed mostly in queer safe spaces. However, Singh harks back to legendary entertainers who introduced the masses to fetish fashion and sent conservatives into a tizzy.
“Let’s not forget the likes of Madonna and the contents of her infamous book SEX during her Erotica Era, and the gender-bending, boundary bulldozing, unapologetically fashion-forward Grace Jones,” Singh reminds us.
With the growth of many alternate aesthetics on platforms like TikTok, young people are feeling more comfortable incorporating studded chokers or leather suspenders into their fits. According to Singh, pop icons ran so that e-girls could fly.
“These platforms [like TikTok] are walking down the path paved by people like Grace Jones, Madonna & later, Lady Gaga. Historically, the queer community has set trends especially in the field of fashion & art over and over again, and the rest of the world seems to just follow it every time,” he says.
Codes of liberation
But fashion and lifestyle accessories of the kind that Subculture sells run the risk of being reduced to mere symbols. There is always the possibility that people might accept the aesthetic of leather and fetish fashion without truly coming around to the ideas of sex positivity and inclusion that it stands for.
For Singh, however, the mainstreaming of fetish-oriented leather wear might hold the key to a radical overhaul. He says, “I personally think leather fetish is definitely for the ones who truly understand the ideas of sex positivity and inclusion. However, people should also accept an individual’s fashion choices- acceptance is progressive. The mainstream mass that takes leather just in its aesthetic sense is quite common now, but that is what gets the wheel rolling. What is really important is speaking about it openly and I think that has already started.”