Amid historic levels of anti-Asian violence, it's crucial this Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month to not just rally against racism, but to uplift stories of joy that show the fullness of the AAPI experience. This May, Teen Vogue is shining light on that full spectrum, from history you're not taught in school to cultural contributions we'd all be worse without.
There are a few different stories of where the friendships started and blossomed, between nebulous fashion industry bubbles and the magic acquaintance-turned-friend nature of Instagram follows. But through a delicate series of happenstances and connections, artist and Teen Vogue Generation Next designer Sheena Sood of Abacaxi, found her people: friends, collaborators, and creative companions.
There are Sirat Kaur and Mannat Kaur, models and twins whose distinct energies weave in and around each other harmoniously; Tara Raani, a model, actress, and writer whose speaking tone and vocal quality makes it impossible not to listen when she speaks; Christopher Nandalall, a hairstylist with a soft demeanor and a talent for creative vision that all his friends would gladly vouch for; and Christina Tung, a designer and public relations gem whose stream of consciousness speech sounds like literature.
We all sit in Sheena’s living room, in the apartment she moved into seven years ago, and on the terrace outside is a large Japanese red maple tree that’s grown quite a lot since she first planted its roots. The place is sun drenched and covered in art: textiles, paintings, racks of Abacaxi garments. The visual sensibilities present in Abacaxi are also on display in the rest of Sheena’s space. I mentioned that it felt like a scene in a painting, and it was as if set off like fireworks that everyone erupted into their own stories, memories, and associations of the place. (“I was like, ‘It feels so Indian in here and so comfortable,’” Sirat says. “Every time I come here, we drink chai,” Mannat says. “It normally smells like incense in here. You’re like, ‘it smells like a temple,’” Sheena says. “Incense or inventory,” Mannat adds. “There’s like an India fabric smell. Mothballs.” Tara offers up. “YES!” in unison.) The sound of their voices overlapping each other is dulcet like wind chimes. It’s undeniably a home with love in the walls—the room sets the stage, and their circle of friends are the players.
Between the shared vibes and visions, working together on collaborations and projects between each other feels second nature. Sheena works on shoots with Christopher often but consults with him on creative vision beyond just hair. Abacaxi is now a client of Christina’s boutique PR company, House Of, and Sheena and Christina have worked on a capsule dyed slip dress collection together. In addition to modeling for the brand and other clients with Mannat, Sirat assists Sheena with the business side of Abacaxi and has started creating knitwear garments on the side. “It’s not just about doing the task we were brought on for,” Christopher says. “As a group we want to bring everyone up, make cool stuff, and incorporate our history and culture in a way that we can identify. I’m always so excited to see what you guys are doing, and I weirdly feel like part of it in some ways.” Sirat tacks on: “It’s not like one person has one job on set. It’s not, ‘the stylist does this, the makeup person does this, the hair person does this. It’s more like a collaborative thought process.”
It came up naturally, as it often does in creative circles of Asian Americans, a discussion of who had started in a STEM field. Of the seven of us in Sheena’s living room, four of us had. It’s a not-incorrect stereotype that Asian Americans feel the pressure to pursue some kind of steady, responsible-feeling field of study or career. A pressure so unassailable that something like leaving a tech job to pursue modeling and acting, as Tara did, feels almost like reconstructing a sense of self. But it makes sitting in a room full of other Asian Americans dedicated to their art feel all the more radical. “We have such a rich history. Half of India’s economy is textile and jewelry design,” Tara said. “It’s literally in our blood, and I think it’s almost ironic that the expectation is we come here and we become lawyers and doctors. I think there is another reason we gravitate towards it. It’s in our heritage and in our blood to be artists and be creators.”
That idea makes the pursuit of collaboration and friendship all the more important, not just for the survival of Asian art, but to combat the isolation that comes with pursuing art as a desi person. “During the pandemic and going into the summer, one of the first shoots we did, I kind of was asking, like, is the industry over?” Christopher said. “Through friendship and community, it gave me a little hope and reminded me to get creative again. That shoot kind of saved me and reminded me that, yeah, we are still creative and can still come together.”
It’s a curious thing how people make their way into the American fashion industry, perhaps even more so for people of color. There’s a lot of focus on the how of it, but Christina felt like it was very simple and natural to have an affinity for it. “Fashion was a way for me to assimilate and be like, ‘I’m normal too. I’m just like you guys.’ I just want to be like everybody else, don’t look at me, don’t ask me what I eat for dinner,” she said. “But having more experiences, going to college, moving to New York. There’s so much to celebrate our culture through our garments. I think about that all the time, like why did I gravitate toward fashion, but it feels natural. It’s such a social way to connect. If you feel marginalized, you’re always just looking to connect with people.”
Every one of them is at the starting points of long creative careers, but the initial push before the momentum picked up has felt long and slow. As young as they all are, it was easy for them to recall the drastic ways the industry has materially changed in terms of opening up to non-white people. Sheena, whose color palette and visual sensibilities in her designs and art are strongly steeped in influences from abroad, has felt the wind change directions.
“It’s a whole other world now than it was when I first started,” Sheena said, talking about Abacaxi and the changes she has seen in recent years for herself as a South Asian designer. “When I first started in 2013, it was completely different. Maybe people weren’t ready for what I wanted to make. In addition to getting better at my craft and making my work better and better, it’s a different world. I’m glad that things are changing and people want to hear more from me.”
Mannat and Sirat added to that, from the lens of their similar experiences in the modeling industry. “I always felt like we’re only getting booked for things because they need somebody [brown,]” Mannat said. Sirat started telling the story of the first modeling job they had together. They’d booked a shoot, and then realized the purpose they were there as soon as they got to set. “We were the only unsigned people, and [when we got there,] it was really clear why they flew us out the night before. It kind of didn’t feel good. Because it felt like it wasn’t for us. It was because, ‘We need brown people casted.’ But it was a realization.”
Not for nothing, the fact that today, the lot of them were on set for a fashion shoot, not just as models but as subjects of a feature story, wearing clothes designed by one of their own was a clear sign of the changing tides. Christina chimes in and addresses her friends: “As a kid could you imagine people wanting to talk to us about this stuff and hear our story? As a kid, you’re just trying to skate under the radar so much. I mean, obviously, we’re all celebrating differences, but really celebrating those differences is so touching.”
It’s good. They think naturally about their youths and what they’d think if they could give their younger selves a glimpse. Beyond just childhood, they can recall how much has drastically changed in the last few years. It’s a relief, it’s a dream. It’s good, but it’s not enough.
“What I would like to see more is more people of color behind the camera,” Sirat said. “For the biggest clients, all their casts look like us, and then every person hired behind the camera is white. It’s fake. It’s like okay, I’m here. But they’re getting way more benefit from it than we are.”
Mannat and Tara, the other two professional models, both called it the scariest part, almost in unison. “We get paid a day rate,” Tara said. “The people behind the camera get paid a full time salary, they have healthcare, they have stable jobs. The people making money from the items we sell from our picture are generally white people.”
Sheena says it’s obvious in the work when something’s been co-opted. “I think it also makes a difference in the creative output. But I feel like I can tell. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not so subtle. But whoever’s behind the lens, it really does make a difference.”
The past years of drastic progress still have to stand up against what’s left to be done. Their dreams have started to come true, but with haunting levels of race and labor disparity. A scarcity mindset doesn’t get to them, though. They all still believe in a vision where they get what they want: an equitable industry with accessible opportunities for everyone, in front of and behind the lens. The ethos is simple for them. Open doors for the community until they can create their own opportunities. “One way I take advantage,” Mannat says, “I meet people and make enough connections, and then I put my friends on.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue