In this age of instant information and rapid-fire gratification, of drone-delivered packages (i.e., drone-delivered drones) “in 30 minutes or less,” of New Media data smog and overindulgence and infoxication—numbing of the brain, the loins, the heart—we sometimes forget the difference between knowing something about a place and actually experiencing it. These places and the tangible experiences therein help shape our malleable, nescient selves, much more than a video game or an Instagram scroll or a Google search. For New York-based, Nepal-born designer/painter/polymathic style-maker Arpana Rayamajhi (b. 1987), that place is Kathmandu: temple-studded mountain town, “Land of Gods”, ancient agglomeration flanked by Himalayan traceries, and just a really beautiful place. Kathmandu is also home to that mystical waypoint on the hippie trail, Old Freak Street, where dreadlocked crust-funders from suburban U.S.A. began, back around the ’70s, their desperate search for culture. But for Arpana, it’s home, and the inspirational springboard for her handmade and one-of-a-kind jewelry.
Here, we discuss this cultural homage, influences on personal style, Western obsession with cultural appropriation, and the heart and soul of Arpana’s stunning work.
You’re from Kathmandu, a land that most of us probably first heard of during the flower power generation. It’s no surprise that bohemian chic plays into your fashion sense. How would you say your homeland and its unique fashion culture has inspired your own style evolution?
Not a lot of people know that Nepal is culturally rich. As you mentioned, the hippie flower generation thing happened in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and there are certain parts of the city that still have the residue remaining from that era—hippie clothing, colors and patterns that are generally associated with that kind of foreigner style. I don’t really think that it’s that particular culture that influences my work. Of course I grew up around it so it must have somewhere, but the whole bohemian, hippie-chic thing is not something that I consciously pursue aesthetically or conceptually. For me, music is a huge influence, the likes of Jimi Hendrix. I love rock ‘n’ roll, and what I’d like to think I’m influenced by is this mixture of music met with fashion.
You cite Tim Burton and Björk, to rock ‘n’ roll icons Kim Gordon and Iggy Pop, as a few of the style icons who inspired you. I get the sense that pop culture plays a heavy hand in influencing particularly your jewelry line. What inspires you about these creative figures?
For me, it’s these concepts of non-conformity and counterculture. Apart from the fact that I love the sound, it’s also the ideology or the lifestyle behind it that resonates with me. It’s the act of not conforming to a standard, and it’s expressive. You’re constantly challenging, not just yourself artistically and musically, but people’s perception of you and a certain persona. In a hyper-consumerist world, counterculture is harder to exist because everything is at everyone’s disposal. I think we need people who are generally doing things that challenge the current norm and question corporate identities. My desire going back to these figures like Iggy Pop is to be inspired by people who once embodied a persona who questions corporate identities. It’s harder for me to find people who are doing that now, and who are genuine.
In a past interview, you mentioned that it was only after transplanting from Kathmandu to NYC that you began incorporating more color into your wardrobe. Why do you think it took the move to draw out that desire for more colorful hues and patterns?
I think there are several things. I wouldn’t necessarily say NYC changed me, but I think what it did was made me more of myself and less of an idea of what I have to be. I think NY allowed me that freedom because it values individuality so much. I really felt like I could explore myself in terms of style.
The other reason is that Nepal is so colorful and when I see a certain norm or standard I feel a need to question it, to challenge it, because anything that a mass agrees on is something that can be examined and critiqued. Because everyone else around me was wearing a lot of color, I felt like I was just like everyone else. At the time, I was going to a lot of underground concerts in Nepal and black was the color. When I came to New York—despite the fact that NYC tends to tell people that you can be who you are, there is a general norm and black plays into that—black was the norm. It’s seen as high-end. I wanted to explore myself more; I was missing home and colors became my resort for that. I was also going to art school and studying color theory and that definitely played a hand in it.
Jewelry design wasn’t your original focus in art school. You started out by painting, illustrating, sculpting. What caused the jewelry-making jump?
I think creativity is boundary-less. My sculptures were less functional than my jewelry but my jewelry is pretty out there, so the audience that I have and that I’m getting are a very specific sort of people who actually really enjoy looking at it. I made the jump out of necessity for two reasons. One was that the majority of the jewelry I found in the market was either cheap and mass-produced or expensive and mass-produced. And I thought, I could probably make a piece for myself and it would be one-of-a-kind. So, I gave it a shot and it snowballed from there.
The other reason was that I was going to a really heady art school, Cooper Union, and I was surrounded by the institution of art and the language around art, and this elitist attitude towards Western high art. And as much as I was very happy to have gone to Cooper, like everything else in my life, I started questioning and asking: What is it all about? I needed an escape from this very traditional institution of art, so I started making jewelry. I never took it to class because I wanted it to be separate from my art. I didn’t want people to be critiquing it because I felt it was unnecessary for my work. I didn’t want it to be tainted by the same art world language or concepts; I wanted it to be mine. So, it was almost an escape for me to do something that I loved doing without feeling like it had to fit in a certain world or a certain context. Free from all the baggage of contrived expectations, and remind myself that it’s fun.
One of the things you seem to have mastered is blending traditional sensibilities with thrifted finds to make a modern look. Tell us about your discovery process. Where do you shop and how do you shop?
I never go by what’s in the market. I could care less for trends. When I go about looking for a style, I have a certain sensibility and every piece that I own has to be in some way representative of my interests outside of clothes. For instance, I love animals, so I’ll wear faux-fur jackets—I don’t wear fur; I’m totally against wearing exotic animals—but I’ll buy faux fur. I buy prints with snakeskin. I like the human anatomy so I’ll find a necklace with an anatomical heart and then I’ll pair it with eyeball pants. There are certain interests that I have outside of clothes that inform my tastes. It doesn’t necessarily have a system, which is why I think it works.
Sociopolitical and environmental issues play a role in your latest line, Have a Heart. What can you tell us about that work?
It’s going to be an online series where I can voice my ideas about issues that I find relevant and important. They won’t just be limited to the environment or women’s rights, but will include education, animal rights or really any subject. If jewelry is a medium that I’m working on right now, I want it to be functional so that people can own them, but I also need it to be more than that. I’m not just interested in design or sales, but I make work because I have ideas that are larger than a necklace. If people want to reduce my work down to that, so be it, but this is my way of taking on the role of a positive influence in this world. So, the idea behind Have a Heart is that a percentage of the sales will be donated to specific grassroots organizations that are doing work for causes. It’s my way of giving back.
There is an unfortunate trend for mainstream fashion to adopt style trends from ‘dying cultures’ and turn them into a sort of homogeneous flash fashion attire. As a designer who is both compelled by styles from different cultures, and a person who comes from a culture that could be seen as ‘dying,’ how do you toe the line between style incorporation and style appropriation?
I feel like cultural appropriation is a predominantly American conversation. The rest of the world is not having this conversation and I think it’s because the U.S. is suffering from an identity crisis, and they have been for a while. I think that now because of social media some comments are interesting and some are just reductionist. The conversation around cultural or style appropriation comes from the fact that there are a lot of issues within this country that have not been resolved—racism, systematic oppression. I see cultural appropriation as a symptom of those issues, not as a cause. Had people not been subjected to being subhuman or being treated unfairly, this would have never been an issue. At the same time, the entire world, where we are now, is because we have appropriated everything. Everyone is appropriating everything. To see cultural appropriation as something larger than fashion is really helpful. It is unfortunate that the mass reduces it to fashion. Language is culturally appropriated; music is culturally appropriated; architecture is culturally appropriated. Food is; really any form of art. If we are to see this issue as something that could open the world up as opposed to close it, I think would be more helpful.
The problem with cultural appropriation as a conversation that’s happening right now on social media is that people’s idea of cultural appropriation is limited to their knowledge of culture in itself. A lot of people think I’m stealing Native American designs, which is totally false. I’m more influenced by Southern Native American tribes in Columbia, Southeast Asia. Where I come from, we use beads and colors all the time. So, in order to understand cultural appropriation one must be very careful to first have knowledge of the entire world and see how different cultures are very similar and not just reduce it to fashion. I urge people to get to the heart of the problem, which is systematic oppression and a system that is putting some people down over others. To think of a system as something abstract, whereas to see an individual as something concrete that you can bring down, is a very sad mentality and very unprogressive.
Foreigners visiting Nepal, if you guys decide to eat our food, wear our clothes, speak our language, that’s the highest form of respect.
You have quite the Instagram following and for good reason; you host a well-curated account. For upcoming designers and fashion aspirers on the rise, what would you say is the secret to developing a name for yourself in terms of social media presence?
I was resisting Instagram for a very long time. I didn’t want to just be alive on the Internet. But after I finished school, I had a whole series that I wanted to share with the world and I thought what better way than to share it on Instagram. When I started out, it was mostly my jewelry and painting and my sculpture, there was very little of me. Over time it’s become a showcase of who I am as a person and communicating that. There is a standard in social media and there are very few people who break that. I don’t know if there’s a secret. For me, I just try to put my best work out there and show what I have accomplished as of now and then all other interests play into context, like my love for music, my love for cultures, my love for the world and also my style. I’m just showing people my world and who I am as a person, and I’ve been fortunate that everyone’s been so welcoming of that and recognize that I’m trying to do something sincere.
What places have you traveled to recently that have inspired you? What impacted you most about those places? Was it the culture, the color palate? How have these affected your designs?
Japan is a huge influence for me in terms of my work. Its quirkiness, attention to detail and work ethic is very inspiring to me. Mexico is another. Even though they are both two different parts of the world, Mexico and Japan remind me of Nepal. I was recently in Arizona; I’ve been there twice in the last month. I absolutely love the canyons and the desert and the artistically Native American jewelry is so beautiful. The silver work is incredible. I also saw a lot of reservations for Hopi and Native American people and that was a big eye-opening experience for me, because when we talk about poverty and marginalized groups I really do wish Native American suffering was talked about just as much because it is so bad. And if anything, I feel like the Arizona trip was less artistic and more about the soul. I’ve had the opportunity to travel around a lot recently, and I feel like I can get inspired nearly anywhere, provided that there is heart and soul to it.