Supriya Lele on Summers Spent on Motorbikes with Her Family in India

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Courtesy of Supriya Lele

The designer would visit family in Nagpur and Jabalpur most years as she was growing up

For British-Indian designer Supriya Lele, an adolescence spent in the West Midlands was punctuated by yearly trips to visit family in India during the holidays. Both of her parents are from the country’s central region – her mother from Nagpur, and her father Jabalpur – and Lele remembers holidays filled with riding around on her uncle’s motorbikes, taking in the vivacious “visual information” (and occasionally waiting for dial-up connections in Internet cafés to enable MSN messenger).

Now at the helm of her eponymous brand, the influence of these holidays has become central to Lele’s practice. “I think they have more impacted the DNA of the brand,” the RCA graduate says, “because that’s kind of the basis of my design handwriting. That sort of interpretation will always be there in the work.” Lele’s collections offer an entwining of references in this sense: there are allusions to her Indian heritage via traditional fabrics, draping techniques and, as with her debut A/W17 collection, even in the set design, which featured Indian floral garlands and incense-filled gold bowls; and then her punk goth youth in the 1990s, coming through in the likes of sheer materials, neon tones, latex and PVC.

When she was growing up, these journeys to India – pre-super fast internet and the prevalence of WiFi – equalled total escape. Here, as part of a series on designers’ memorable summers, Lele reflects on the chaotic appeal of the country.

“I remember it used to take me quite a while to adjust when I got to India. I very much enjoyed summer holidays – we wouldn’t necessarily go in the summer because it was too hot, but it would still be the equivalent of that when we were there. My uncle used to take me around the town on his motorbike. Everybody travels around on scooters and motorbikes mainly, if you are from there. He would take me on his, and we would just roam around. For me that really stands out because I remember so distinctly the smells of the street, and the noise, and all the visual information. I’d be taking that all in and I used to really enjoy those moments.

“My mum used to say that when I was a baby and I was crying, the only thing that would stop me crying for some reason was if my uncle took me, and my mum sat on the motorbike with me in her arms. I just loved it so much. I still do. But now I get a bit more scared – I think it’s age. You know that Indian roads are notoriously crazy, so it is just a whole different experience; you’re going really fast and there’s a cow in the road and stuff. It’s complete madness.

“I also remember my grandad taking us places, because my grandad used to be the chief of the Indian Forestry Commission. One time my grandfather booked us in these really rustic old huts in a place called Kanha Kisli, which is a national park. We went and we got up at five in the morning and we saw tigers and stuff, it was amazing. And it was really cold. I remember waking up at five and wrapping up really warm and we went out with the ranger and we could see tigers with their cubs. It was kind of crazy, but those kind of memories are amazing.

“Obviously for me, India is a very special place. But also I lost my dad in 2010, so I hadn’t been back to India until last year – that had been seven or eight years. It’s always got lots of memories for me because I’ve been going so much, but at different moments in my life it holds different kind of milestones or markers. Right from being a little kid to being a 30-year-old woman – I have very different experiences of going there. I think actually now as an adult, I have completely different attitude towards it. I can appreciate the things I may not necessarily have liked growing up as a child. Going as a child, it is so alien when you are from somewhere like the UK. Growing up there wasn’t this digital generation. We didn’t have iPhones, and we didn’t have the internet at our fingertips. So for me, going to India was going off, going to another world. And it was a world that I didn’t really relate to. But now I’m an adult, it’s really nice to go and to appreciate all those things that I didn’t really understand growing up.”