South Asian director & photographer making waves in fashion
Tanya Ravichandran is just 21 years old and incredibly wise. She is the South Asian creator, director and photographer making waves in the fashion and beauty industries. Tanya was photographing campaigns for well-known brands by the age of 15. She has amassed over one and a half million followers across TikTok and Instagram. Some of Tanya’s recent partnerships include Fendi, Gucci, Dior, Alexander McQueen, Farfetch and many more. She has also been featured in Vogue India, Harper’s Bazaar, and Coveteur to name a few. As if that wasn’t enough, Tanya is also double majoring in design and computer science at one of the country’s top programs in California.
S5 EP5: Tanya Ravichandran – South Asian Creator on Shaking up Fashion
Tanya Ravichandran 0:00
Photography actually became a way for me to express myself but not only to express myself but to see myself in a new light. I almost felt like when I took my self portrait, that seeing yourself in the way that you wish to perceive yourself and society, rather than how society or the way that we think society sees us, was so important and life changing for me. And honestly, throughout my career, I continue to use fashion and photography to celebrate that beauty of diversity and empowering your own self to feel beautiful in the way you want to perceive yourself.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:51
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian-American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful. Tanya Ravichandran is just 21 years old and incredibly wise. She is the South Asian creator, director and photographer making waves in the fashion and beauty industries. Tanya was photographing campaigns for well known brands by the age of 15. She has amassed over one and a half million followers across TikTok and Instagram. Some of Tanya’s recent partnerships include Fendi, Gucci, Dior, Alexander McQueen, Farfetch and many more. She has also been featured in Vogue India, Harper’s Bazaar, and Coveteur to name a few. As if that wasn’t enough, Tanya is also double majoring in design and computer science at one of the country’s top programs in California.
Tanya Ravichandran 2:34
I grew up in the Bay Area, California, and I grew up in a city called Cupertino, which actually has one of the highest South Asian populations in the United States. It was definitely a little bubble of South Asian people,so it was very good to grow up with people who are just like me. It honestly shielded you from the world and what it’s like to be South Asian in the world beyond our city. I’m very grateful, honestly, for my parents for that, because then it honestly helped me focus on things that I love to do and wanted to do, because I wasn’t worried about societal issues that came with being South Asian when you’re in this little bubble. But in terms of my family life, in terms of having very strict parents, of course, as a South Asian woman, I have very strict parents from India. I’m sure a lot of you can agree with that and have similar experiences. Growing up even my mom says this to this day, “Growing up, you can either be a doctor or an engineer or failure.” And she always makes that joke. She’s like “when I was growing up Tanya I had that instilled in me as well, doctor, engineer or failure.” And of course, everyone in my family is actually a doctor or an engineerso it’s very funny to have that actually be the reality for my family, and expect that from me as well. But honestly, even though these values of being a doctor and engineer were pushed on to me, it taught me how to grind, to get my foothold in an industry that is not as common among South Asian woman, because I felt like I needed to prove to my parents that, this is a viable career. This is what I really love to do. I want to follow this. I can be successful past a doctor or an engineer, and I don’t need to be a failure, and I can be something more. But to be honest, growing up, I wanted to go to Stanford, I wanted to study computer science, I wanted to be the average Indian girl from my town who did exactly what her parents told her to do and study computer science at Berkeley or Stanford because that was honestly the reality for a lot of South Asian women in my town. And that was my goal until I discovered photography. I realised, maybe I don’t need to do this. Maybe I can see that there actually is a viable career in something creative. I think that because there’s not a lot of South Asian people in this creative industry, when we don’t see people like ourselves in it, especially if my parents don’t see people like ourselves in it, It’s not a viable career for us, it’s not normalised for us, it’s not something that we can just easily drop and do. And therefore, I think that this idea of doctor or engineer, because there are already so many South Asian doctors and engineers in the world, and that’s already considered just a very successful career in all of society, hey, that’s what you should do, you’re guaranteed success if you do this. And in terms of other socially strict things, I think this is just very funny. I had a curfew of 6pm not allowed to have friends unless they met the friends and the need to sit down, and we call it the interrogation dinner, where these friends would need to come over and my parents would interrogate them and boys, no boys allowed, I was not allowed to have a boyfriend. But I was allowed to have things with boys, but they’re just my friend. It was really funny, and just definitely a very traditional South Asian household in certain ways growing up. I think in the beginning, when I was surrounded by all the South Asian people, I did feel like I belonged. But in other ways, I felt like I was alienated. So I felt like my family was not as traditionally South Asian as these other families. Sometimes it makes you honestly feel alienated from them like, “Oh my God, you don’t go to temple every weekend, you don’t speak the language, you don’t eat Indian food at home every day.” Because these are things that were not normal in my family and I think it’s because my parents wanted to almost assimilate more into American culture, working these tech roles in companies surrounded by white counterparts. And therefore they felt the need to assimilate. So they think that “In order to rise in my job, I’d need to be quote-on-quote, “as white as possible”, and therefore rejecting a little bit of the culture.” And therefore when my South Asian counterparts saw me rejecting some of my culture, because that’s all I knew, it made me feel sometimes alienated from them, because I wasn’t Indian enough and that’s another issue on the whole other side of the spectrum.
Sangeeta Pillai 7:01
I guess for them, from their point of view, as well, they’re doing the best that they can, right? They’re fitting in, and they keep getting their kids to fit in. Because they know that the price of not fitting in is really, really high in a new country. But then on the other side, for you growing up, I guess, in many ways, you’re feeling really American maybe, but maybe that Indian part of you doesn’t feel as connected. How does that feel now?
Tanya Ravichandran 7:29
When my parents actually divorced, and it’s not very common amongst South Asians, it’s very uncommon and honestly considered taboo among South Asian families to divorce. And they’re both remarried, one of them remarried to a white man and another to a South Asian woman. dad married a South Asian woman who’s incredibly in touch with her South Asian culture and it made me feel like I can finally accept the culture that I deserved, and wanted to be more embedded in. It also taught me to feel resilient and independent, in terms of my American identity and my South Asian identity and learn to bring these two identities together, rather than seeing them as two completely different things that in what group I’m in, I need to conform to this side when I’m with my South Asian friends, I need to be more South Asian when I was with my American friends, I need to be more American. Why can’t I just be Tanya and feel like Tanya all the time. I feel that’s what she really taught me.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:30
That’s beautiful. That really is. So you didn’t become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, and you’re certainly not a failure. I love that. I’m going to remember that and use that. How did you find your way into fashion or fashion found its way to you, whichever you want to explain it?
Tanya Ravichandran 8:45
So growing up what my parents love to do- there was no such thing as Christmas, there’s no such thing as Thanksgiving, no such thing as holidays, but what there was, was travelling. So on every Christmas, every New Year’s, every Thanksgiving, every summer, it wasn’t the time to relax at home, cook dinner with family and have a good time, it was more of a time for let’s go to the middle of the Amazon jungle and go on a boat for a week and trek through the jungle, and look at cool bugs and animals. That’s what my parents love to do. They loved adventure vacationsand what better way to document these vacations than to take photos. My dad, ever since I could remember, used to collect all these DSLR cameras and vintage film cameras and take photos of everything and document everything. He was a little photographer himself to be honest and his love for photography made me fall in love with photography, because I can remember as young as nine years old, I’d be like, “Hey Dad, can I have your camera for the day? I’d love to borrow it.” And we’d go on these vacations and I would honestly start to learn how the camera works and how beautifully I can photograph things and how I personally perceive the world through the camera. I’m incredibly privileged and honoured to have the opportunity to have travelled to all these incredible places and therefore have the opportunity to experiment and photograph such beautiful things with the camera that my dad had. From there, I slowly realised, maybe I can start taking photos beyond just travel. What if I start taking photos of people and things and not just bland, beautiful landscapes. So it all started when we started travellingand I would take photos of people who are from these different nations. So, for example, an indigenous tribe in the Amazon jungle, I started taking photos of them, and I’d start documenting it and almost started going into photojournalism. I realised what I really loved about photography was people and their places and the places they live and how you can show their environments through their photos, and what it’s like to be them and it all started when I started to fall in love with analog photography. I bought myself a Polaroid Land camera. And a Polaroid we have nowadays, it’s these little instant cameras, where you take a photo, it comes out and it’s just right there. A Polaroid Land camera is one of the original Polaroid cameras where you take a photo, you pull it out, and the chemicals go across the image, and then you peel back the Polaroid and there’s a negative and a positive. And what I used to do is I would go to these different places, and I have a very core memory of going to a small village in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and I took a photo of a little girl, I was like, “Hey, can I please take a photo of you?” I took a photo of her and I gave her the photo. She started running around and frolicking everywhere with the photo, she’s like, “I’ve never had some,” she’s telling our tour guide, “I’ve never had someone take a photo of me before. This is insane. This is beautiful.” And I love the smile it brought to her face. That memory is what really made me fall in love with photographing people and telling a story through the photos, the type of excitement and joy you can bring to others and yourself. It was very rewarding to see her reaction to that photo. So that honestly slowly brought me more into the realm of photographing people. And then I started going… I opened an Instagram at, I think 11 years old, very young, probably should not be on social media. I don’t know how my parents let me go on social media. But I opened an Instagram account. I was like, “Mom, please let me open an Instagram, I’m just gonna post photography, you can log into my account, please.” So I opened my Instagram and I started posting these photos. I started taking the most random self portraits where I would manipulate it in Photoshop, I started to fall in love with Photoshop, I spent all my time at school in the cafeteria, or in the locker room at lunch, watching editing videos on Photoshop, I would go hide in the stall and watch these videos, and teach myself Photoshop and just try to become the best photographer ever. I kept posting and posting and then I started finding these random girls on Instagram and I started taking photos of them. And then out of nowhere one day, this company called PacSun, which is a very popular brand for teenagers, DM’S me and they’re like we’d love for you to be our photographer. I was like, “You’re kidding me. Of course, I will do this.” And that’s kind of where my world of fashion began. That’s where I delved and I think the reason why I grinded so hard and wanted this so badly and fell in love with it even more, was because it’s one thing to love something and it’s one thing to literally give it your all in order to get what you want. I think what fueled that is to prove to my parents like, “Hey, maybe I want to do this as more than a hobby. I want to do this as something I want to be successful in.” I think that’s a shared experience a lot of South Asians can agree upon.
Sangeeta Pillai 13:42
And how old were you at that point when they asked you to be the photographer? How old were you?
Tanya Ravichandran 13:47
I believe I was 15-16 years old. I started shooting for PacSun, Errol Postel, I actually went to Santiago, Chile and I worked with Elite models Chile, which is really random, but they DM me and they’re like come shoot our models. And I was like yes.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:05
That’s incredible. Absolutely incredible. Tell me something, when we live in or grew up in countries where the majority of people don’t look like us, there’s a little bit of that feeling conscious of how we look or the colour of our skin, the colour of our hair or the shape of our bodies. I read this thing you wrote. I think one of your essays or your interview saying that the first time you felt beautiful was when you saw the self portrait of yourself. Tell me more about that. That sentence really captured my mind.
Tanya Ravichandran 14:36
So growing up South Asian in the West can certainly be challenging as we are often made to feel self conscious about our identity and appearance, and almost commonly attributed to the lack of normalisation of diversity of our presence in the media. And photography actually became a way for me to express myself but not only to express myself but to see myself in a new light. I almost felt Like when I took my self portrait that seeing yourself in the way that you wish to perceive yourself in society, rather than how society or the way that we think society sees us, was so important and life changing for me, it felt like I had control over every aspect of the photo and can take the photo in the way that I wish society sees me because this is how I see myself. And it made me feel so beautiful because it felt like I had control over everything, for the first time in my life, to see how people perceive me rather than how they decide they want to. And honestly, throughout my career, I continue to use fashion and photography to celebrate that beauty of diversity and empowering your own self to feel beautiful in the way you want to perceive yourself.
Sangeeta Pillai 15:49
That’s really beautiful. And I guess it’s almost turning it on its head, isn’t it? This idea of, “this is how you see me but I want you to see me like this.” And here’s what it is right now. I completely get that,, that’s really powerful. I think you also talked in one of your Instagram posts about your sister, and I loved that as well about the sister Monica being the entire reason you share your work in public. And I just thought that said so much about a very beautiful relationship. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?
Tanya Ravichandran 16:23
Yes, so my sister is actually a makeup influencer on Instagram and TikTok. And her whole page is actually about Brown Girl beauty hacks. Her whole premise of her audience is like, let’s help brown girls find their place in makeup. Let’s show them what shades actually work for us. Help us find a place in order to find makeup that suits us. Because obviously, I’m sure you can relate to this, we do not know what to wear, it’s hard to even find our foundation undertone. I know you feel this.
Sangeeta Pillai 16:53
I often look at my face and look at my neck, right? That’s the foundation, you know, it’s get –
Tanya Ravichandran 17:00
Exactly, they don’t market to us, so okay, let’s fix this. Let’s fix this. Let’s start putting blue undertones colour correctors with our foundation, she’s giving all of these incredible hacks all for the brown girls. But let’s start from the beginning of the story. So when she opened a TikTok during COVID, when COVID started and everyone was quarantining. And she’s like, I want to showcase my makeup videos. I love makeup. And even from as young as I can remember, when she was in middle school, in high school, she loved creative makeup. The way we honestly bonded with each other is I would go into her room and she would do my makeup and experiment on makeup on me and do all these funky colours. And she just loved it ever since she was young. And even when she was applying to colleges, she really wanted to be a dermatologist and dermatology is not very common amongst South Asian women like when my parents thought you should be a Doctor, no, go be a paediatrician, go be a heart surgeon, don’t be a dermatologist. That does not seem like a very important form of being a doctor. I think that’s what they thought to themselves, and therefore she could not pursue that. So when she opened her TikTok and she started giving these skincare and makeup hacks for brown girls, it felt like she was finally reconnecting with her culture, but also sharing what she’s always wanted to do since she was young. And right now she’s actually an engineer, she works as a computer scientist for a tech company. But two weeks ago, she finally resigned and she’s a full time content creator, because of all her support, and she’s able to do this full time. Anyways, back to when we were young, we bonded through her doing her makeup for me. I think what I noticed and now that I reflect on from when I was young, South Asian parents instil this idea of competition constantly, like you’re competing against each other, you’re competing against your peers. Parents are competing against parents, like anytime we go to a party, “this is what my daughter’s doing.” I’m sure you can relate to that and that’s this whole idea of competition, like I need to be the best. My daughter needs to be the best. My family needs to be the best. And sometimes the competition happens internally. I felt like sometimes the media and my sister and I were routed against each other, and we’re forced to compete. And this was often due to like, who’s doing better in their computer science classes, who’s getting a better GPA, but by finding our own artistic mediums by her discovering makeup on TikTok and me discovering fashion on social media, we found a way to not compete, but rather a place to bond because it felt like we finally found a safe ground where there’s no competition possible, but rather just us doing what we really love. I think that’s honestly what motivated me to want to open my TikTok because I’ve loved fashion my whole life. I’ve always been known as the girl who overdresses for events like “why are you wearing that Tanya isn’t that a bit overdressed?” Like, “no, I don’t care. I wanted to wear this.” And I’ve always been known as that. I love fashion. Us opening up these social media accounts gave us this safe ground for us to finally not compete, but to actually bond over something that we both find creatively beautiful.
Sangeeta Pillai 20:16
Scarcity. South Asians know it only too well. It’s in our DNA. It’s in our blood. So many of our ancestors grew up poor. So many of us moved to countries where we weren’t welcome. So here’s what we learned: there is only so much to go around, whether that’s food or money, or opportunities, and that we’ve got to compete with each other for those limited resources. We’ve got to fight each other in order to grab the best bits. Today, there is no real scarcity in most of our lives, but that mindset still persists. The same thing is reflected in South Asian parenting, also very competitive. “You only got 99% in that test, which other kid got the 100%?” parents will ask. It might sound like a joke. But it’s serious in so many homes. Our bodies still cling on to that scarcity mindset, even though we don’t need to.
Sangeeta Pillai 21:37
Tanya I’ve written this down because I actually read it. So you’re 21, is that right?
Tanya Ravichandran 21:42
Sangeeta Pillai 21:43
I didn’t know my ass from my elbow when I was 21, like I was that useless.Honestly, you’re 21, you started your career at 15, and you were shooting portfolio work for models. And now 21 you’re curating your own fashion campaigns for Gucci and Valentino and Fendi, curating, shooting, modelling all of this. How does that feel?
Tanya Ravichandran 22:05
It feels incredible to have achieved so much at a young age. But as we all know, we always have so much more to learn and achieve. I want to actually take this the other way. I feel like pushing myself at a young age has honestly taught me to chill out more now. I think that it’s important to chill out. I feel like I lost a lot of my childhood spending my lunches in middle school, in high school, in the locker room, editing photos and calling agencies. I didn’t even have friends, I didn’t want to have friends. I could have had friends, I would make these friendships that would last maybe a week, and then they’d be gone because I was just so engrossed with my work and editing photos and making mood boards and doing shoots, that all the friends I had were like the makeup artists I worked with, but they’re obviously like, 20 years older than me. So how much can a 15 year old and a 40 year old have in common? Not very much. So I feel like now I’m trying to learn to find this balance. I think I burnt out while I was quite young. I’m very grateful to have pushed myself from the start and achieved so much from such a young age, but I’ve learned that there’s more to life than just work, work, work, work, work, and to learn this balance to understand that, “hey, I can be successful while still creating social connections and finding other hobbies other than just work.” I think due to my strict parents enforcing this idea that hard work yields good results, and therefore you need to just be on the grind all the time, my brain has been altered to always think that way. Like if I’m sitting down and doing nothing, I am a failure in my head and that is not okay. And that’s because I’ve been thinking like that since I was a child Obviously, it’s paid off and given me some incredible results and incredible opportunities, but I feel like it’s time to chill out and learn to take a balance and reclaim some of my childhood and honestly, heal that inner child that needs the time to understand who she is and be even more comfortable in who she is right now.
Sangeeta Pillai 24:19
I think you’ll find you’re not alone. I don’t know a single South Asian person, particularly women, who aren’t huge overachievers, everything’s got to be the best. You’re the makeup artist, you’ve got to be the best. You’ve got to push yourself and you’ve got to work crazy hours and you’ve got to achieve, I don’t know what this is like in our DNA. I think when they feed us rotis or rice or whatever, they feed this to us. And like you say it’s a double edged sword, I feel the same thing. It’s like, I feel like “Oh shit, I’ve got to this age and I got all this stuff to do.” And then I’ve got to say okay, unlike him, I’m not 21 so I haven’t got that much and then time to do it in. But then at the same time I’m like, “Oh, but I burn out.” Because what’s the point of that? I want to enjoy this thing that I’m doing, you know, this constant feeling of like, is that good enough? And can I put this out into the world? And it can be better. And, you know, this constant barrage, really. And I think that’s very much the South Asian experience, I think. And like you very rightly said, our parents would have instilled that in us at a very young age, whether it’s just competitively like, “look, so and so…” For you, it was your sister, maybe or “the neighbour’s kids did this, what have you done?”, and then you’re like, “Oh, I better get cracking with this, because the neighbour’s kid’s doing better than me.” But what you said is that what we then lose out is the joy of that thing, whatever that thing might be that we’re doing, whether it’s I don’t know, wearing an amazing outfit, or going to a party or writing, I’m a writer. So for me, it’s probably that somehow we are in danger of losing that. So I love what you said about connecting with that inner childand that inner child is always within us whether you’re 50, like me, or 21, like you. And that’s such a big part. I was in the park this afternoon before coming to the podcast, and I saw this little girl on her pushbike. And she just learned to ride without the safety things on the side. I saw her going by and she’s doing we and she’s actually doing that sound. I thought to myself, “That, I want that.” That we feel like doing a thing and being really excited and happy. I guess that’s what we lose when we like pushing ourselves and being really hard and all of the rest of it. So I completely get it.
Sangeeta Pillai 24:19
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” -yes, I did that- to creating the multi award winning masala podcast. And now, I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 26:37
So while I was stalking you on your Instagram, I saw that beautiful Jean Paul Gaultier bondage vest that you styled like 50 ways, and it looks amazing, right? I guess it brings me to my question about sustainability and fashion. When did that start for you?
Tanya Ravichandran 27:54
So let’s start from the beginning. I want to start with like a basic most opening sentence on why sustainable fashion is so important. As consumers, we are so irresponsible for not making sustainable choices and supporting brands that are committed to sustainability. A lot of times when in society, people don’t know whether to put the sustainability blame on the consumers or the businesses. But I think it’s important to diffuse this responsibility and understand that work can be done on both sides. And we can do as much as we can. So to start off with my journey, I want to be so honest and transparent with you that when I opened my Tiktok and Instagram, I worked with Fast fashion brands. I was the girl who did the shein haul. That’s not something I’m going to hide from you. I think it’s important if you’re willing to go from fast fashion to a sustainable timeline that should be awarded. That should not be something like, “ew, you wore fast fashion in the past. Like you should be reprimanded” that’s not okay, no, we should be glad that people are making these decisions and changing their choices. So I want to talk about how I changed my decision and why I am the way I am right now.
So when I used to buy these fast fashion brands, honestly, my whole closet was fast fashion, I realised a lot of these clothes were very poorly constructed, and they would not last me over a month. And what would be the point of getting them amended or alternatively paying $4 for them. And the labour was like one cent, that’s terrible. I also realised that these clothes did not make me feel good as I was not dressing for myself, but rather formulating these fast fashion outfits that were to cater to my audience because my audience was built on what fast fashion should I buy next? What was the trend cycle right now? And that’s what they wanted to see. I was catering to them because my whole goal of my platform was, let me grow, let me make money. I want to do this. I want to get as many views as possible and therefore I need to appeal to the audience that wants that. I was basically reinforcing the trend cycle and I was causing it to move faster due to my large influence on platforms. If a video of me wearing a Shein shirt got 5 million views, and now hundreds of 1000s of people are asking where my shirt is from, I’m influencing 1000s of more purchases and pushing the trends cycle faster and saying this is what’s trending right now. Because 5 million is a huge influence, that is not okay for me to be influencing so many people to be purchasing fast fashion on such a large platform.
Later, I went on to Depop. I’d always use Depop in order to sell my clothes, but I never purchased clothes from Depop. I was like, Okay, I want to go check out Depop. I need to list some clothes. I went on the platform to list some clothes and I ended up going into the deep dark hole of archive fashion, which I have no regrets for. I discovered that I could start looking into these old collections that have pieces that I would find on Depop. For example, in the 1980s Jean Paul Gaultier bondage vest, I fell in love with it. I saw it on Depop. I started looking for the video of it on the runway online. Constantly I wanted to look at all the Jean Paul Gaultier collections, I went into this hole of researching to archive fashion, all the incredible designers throughout the decades, Tom Ford for Gucci, one of my favourite creative directors of all time and I, now, am proud to say that most of my closet is Tom Ford by Gucci and Jean Paul Gaultier because I had created this obsession of wanting to go into this grind of only finding secondhand pieces. And this influenced me to start shopping only on The RealReal, Grilled, Vestiaire collective and so much more. To the point where I ditched fast fashion completely, I don’t have a single piece of fast fashion in my closet, not saying I threw it away, my mom actually has all of it, which is good because that means that I’m still extending its lifecycle and it’s not going in the trash.
I’ve actually never donated a piece of clothing, since like 10 years, I would say. And it’s because I am trying to extend their lifecycle and I give it to all my friends. Or I give the fabric to my friends who love to sew and they like to use it up and repurpose it. So no, no clothing ever gets donated ever again, everything that I shop is secondhand. And when I started shopping at all these second hand stores, I also started to garner more personal style that felt good about the way I dressed. I noticed I was losing some of the audience that I had that wanted these fast fashion clothes, but I realised maybe that’s okay, is the goal of my platform to get as famous as possible for the wrong reasons or is it a way for me to push a good message and understand that I, as an influencer, have the responsibility to help consumers make good choices? That’s when it really hit me that I need to start changing over my platform to support sustainable brands and support secondhand shopping. And also, in a way, to do that is to help others garner personal style by showcasing my own personal style. So when we buy secondhand clothing, we are extending the life of these garments, which reduces the need for new clothing and production. And this in turn reduces the environmental impact of the entire fashion industry, including carbon emissions, water consumption and land use all of this associated with clothing production.
I learned more about this when I actually went on The RealReal. You can actually see their actual numerical statistics of “hey, when you buy a secondhand piece of clothing, you’re saving this much water, you’re reducing this much carbon emissions.” And it started also putting me to another deep dive of why sustainable fashion is so important and how I can reinforce that on my platform. And it became one of my core values that I hold to this day.
Sangeeta Pillai 33:46
Tell me Tanya, if somebody were to want to start buying like this, or you bought a lot of fast fashion, you spent a lot of money, and now you’re like “Okay, I really want to buy sustainably”, what’s a couple of tips you could give that would help people?
Tanya Ravichandran 34:02
I would give you three big tips. Number one, when you love an item, put it in your notes app, don’t buy it right away. Let it sit in your notes app for a month and come back to it. Do you still love it? Or did you love it at the moment because the trend was telling you you loved it. I’m buying things with conviction. I’m buying things with the intention to wear it for life when I let it sit in my notes app for a month. It’s very, very rudimentary, but it’s a great tip that I think everyone could use.
Number two, purchasing on the idea of investment over quantity. So I find it really rewarding when I found out that I saved this amount of money for the past five months to buy this dream piece I’ve wanted and researched all over the internet for years or months and I finally am able to afford it. That makes you want to wear the piece more because you know you put so much of your hard work into it.
And then finally the last last tip I have is for when you’re shopping in person rather than online. When I find a piece in person that I love, I imagine making a capsule wardrobe with it in my head, like, hey, if I have this piece, can I add it into a capsule wardrobe of five pieces and make at least 10-15 outfits from it? If your answer is no or you’re thinking really hard to come up with pieces that would match it, maybe that’s not your personal style. I am very aware that a lot of people don’t have the socioeconomic abilities to buy these investment pieces and maybe their only option to shop is fast fashion, you can still have the intention of longevity in mind when you shop fast fashion even though these garments are not as well constructed. If you are purchasing these garments with ideas like I am going to wear them till they are done with their use, it is better than buying 50 things at once and trying them all out. You’re helping Earth at the end of the day.
Sangeeta Pillai 35:59
Talking with Tanya really made me think of my own fashion purchases. Now, I love clothes. I love fashion, but I know that during the lowest points of my life, I’ve bought way more than I needed. You know what I mean? Those clothes that sit in the back of the wardrobe, sometimes with the tags still attached, making you feel so guilty every time you see them. Yep, I’ve been there. Conversely, the clothes that have made me the happiest have been vintage clothes. I have this one dress that I found in a vintage store in Brooklyn. I saw it and I fell in love. It’s this beautiful psychedelic 70s dress. It has literally every colour under the sun and that’s how I feel when I wear it, like I’m lit up with sunshine. And maybe that’s why people remember that dress. I’ve worn it maybe 20 odd times to various events and people who saw me at those events remember me in that dress years later. And you know the best bit is that psychedelic dress wasn’t that expensive.
Sangeeta Pillai 37:24
I love something else you said earlier. And that is kind of – it’s taken me decades to get there, which is why I want to be overdressed all the time. I want to be sparkly, I want to be blingy, I want to be over the top as much as I can. You mentioned something about always dressing bold, always dressing extra. Have you always felt like that?
Tanya Ravichandran 37:43
So although I come from a very strict Asian family, I did mention in the past that they weren’t as traditional as the other South Asian families in my neighbourhood. And one of the ways they were not traditional, is that I’ve been instilled and taught to always dress bold and extra since I was a child, I would call my mom honestly my fashion icon. I can remember from a young age that she would put me in the most beautiful, bright coloured, bold outfits to go to like the grocery store or something random like that. And to give you perspective on who she is, she’s actually the Chief Marketing Officer of Cisco WebEx, which is a huge role. She’s definitely like one of the top tech executives in the tech world. And ever since I can remember she would show up to prestigious tech events like VMworld, which is a very famous conference in tech, and she’d be wearing this cute little form fitting y2k colourful dress when everyone else was wearing a pantsuit. She definitely stood out and she did not care. It did not pass her mind. Not a singular time.
Actually, last week, she went to the White House Correspondents Dinner, and this woman wore a bright pink gown that went to the floor and I was like I love you. She did not care and she was posing with Biden. I was like “This is incredible.” Like she’s so confident and no one else seemed to care because if you’re so confident in what you are wearing, no one else is going to notice, no one else is going to care because they’re just like, “wow, she’s owning it like she’s obviously comfortable in it.” It’s just gonna fly right past them. And even as a child in California – I’m sure they do this in other states and other countries – in fifth grade you go to a science camp, or you go camp with all the students and teachers, no parents for a week in the woods. And we went up to this place past San Francisco, and we camped in the woods. Oh my god. I wore pink sweat suits with rhinestones every day and corduroy flared jeans with tight BB crop tops. I’m sure you’ve heard of BB, the old y2k brand. This grade me was wearing that in the middle of the woods and I didn’t care, I thought that was normal. I was like “I’m just fine, I’m dressed like normal.” I’ve never been taught to see myself like, I’m overdressed. That’s something that never crossed my mind when I was young. Until around my senior year of high school, and early into college, I finally started to understand my identity of being South Asian.
So as I mentioned, the high school I went to and middle school was a tiny South Asian bubble. But when my parents split, I ended up going to a different high school for my senior year and I was one of maybe 10 People of Colour in the whole 5000 person school so I became the minority for the first time in my life. I was cognisant of it, I finally understood what it meant to be a minority, and to be treated like a minority. I started to feel like my beauty was not as honoured as others due to the simple idea of me finally being aware that I am South Asian in a white society. I did not understand what that was until my senior year of high school, due to the small sheltered bubble I grew up in all my life, that was life changing for me. And that made me incredibly depressed and it caused me to not dress up as much. Because I realised, once you start realising your identity and society, you start losing your confidence, and you start losing your confidence to dress bold, because you realise, “Wow, maybe I shouldn’t be wearing this. Other people are not wearing this, I’m finally aware of what other people are wearing for the first time.” I also started being treated differently by my white peers, and being bullied. I even have this memory of one of my first high school parties ever because we didn’t go to high school parties, of course, as a South Asian. Of course not, until my senior year of high school, I went to a high school party and snuck out, of course, and this guy who’s definitely very intoxicated, I was talking to him, and his other friend was like, “don’t be talking to the ugly Indian girl.”
Sangeeta Pillai 42:00
Oh my God!
Tanya Ravichandran 42:01
I know! I’m like, why did you diminish me down to my identity and decide to put ugly in front of it? It made me very aware of my identity for the first time and that’s not the only time that that’s happened. And it made me not dress bold as much and I lost confidence in my beauty and therefore lost confidence in the way I should dress. But later down the line, once COVID happened, and I went home, quarantine changed everything. I was isolated, once again, in my little bubble of my safe home with my loving dad and stepmom, and my two dogs. I stopped being perceived by people and I realised, I really miss dressing boldly. What’s really stopping me is the perception of white people in society perceiving me in a certain way and now that I was not really being perceived in person, I started having fun with dressing bold again. It has put this confidence back into me and I finally came back out to be dressing how I loved and I learned to embrace the individuality I have and to celebrate my unique beauty. That has given me the confidence to be true to myself in all aspects of life and that came from being alone. I know that sounds so counterintuitive, but it’s almost like I needed that time to be alone to realise and self actualise who I am and understand that the way I’m feeling is due to outsiders’ opinions, not because it’s the actual reality or the truth.
Sangeeta Pillai 43:29
Absolutely got so many things… There are so many things that I wanted to just pipe up and say you know, the Western idea of what is cool or what is fashionable, is sometimes so different from a South Asian idea, think of the way we dress right? The Saris, the colours, the weddings, the garlands, the jewellery, everything is extra and bold and colourful and making a statement, that’s how we live in the world. Whether you’re an old granny of 95 or a 15 year old, you wear colour and you own it and you wear your bangles and your Bindeez and you wear whatever. But that’s how we always have been. I remember – funny enough – when you started talking, I remember when I first moved to the UK 18 years ago, my wardrobe changed completely. Out went all the peacock colours and the green and the magenta and whatever – in came all the greys and the beiges and the whatever. Because I wanted to work and I wanted to fit into the professional world and the professional world, I don’t know what it’s like in America, but in the UK, it’s very beige and grey and black. The corporate world, nobody wears like…, maybe now they’re starting to but back then… and I guess mostly and it took for me as well, going back I think over the last couple of years. When I turned 40 I started to think about like, who am I? What is my aesthetic? And my aesthetic is very Indian, I wear a lot of blingy jewellery and I wear bindeez, and I wear saris and I love it, you know.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that so much of fashion is also about identity. Fashion isn’t just fashion, fashion is saying, this is who I am, these are my people, these are my colours. This is how I choose to represent myself, as you said, when you see yourself on the other side of a photograph. That’s how you want to be perceived and that’s what fashion does. So I think it’s also connected, I think when we choose to make a statement with what we wear, the colours we wear, the style we wear, we’re choosing to tell the world who we are, and who we are in cultural terms, in identity terms, in terms of that sense of core belonging, I guess. So, in many ways, fashion, I think or style, or the way we dress reflects a sense of how we feel about ourselves. Like confidence, the word you mentioned, it’s come at a much later stage in my life. When I was your age, I wouldn’t have dared to wear like half the stuff I wear now. I guess that confidence of really owning who you are and your look, that’s so, so, so important.
But fashion also makes a political statement, isn’t it? In a society fashion can help fight against patriarchal values, Eurocentric ideas of beauty? Which is something you talk about as well. Could you talk a little bit about that? How do you find it in your own life?
Tanya Ravichandran 46:27
Yes. Fashion definitely has the power to make a statement and challenge societal norms and values. And as you said, it’s a tool for self expression and individuality and it can be a platform for advocating for social change and promoting inclusivity and diversity. But in the way that fashion can fight against patriarchal value systems by challenging traditional gender roles and promoting gender equality, the best way that I’ve seen it in the media is the rise of gender neutral and unisex clothing. This is something that I’ve even incorporated into my wardrobe, a lot of the stuff that I wear is very gender neutral, I actually share a closet with my boyfriend. We wear the exact same clothes because we view clothes as not girl and boy clothes, we view clothes as something that everyone can share. He wears my skirts, I wear his jeans, it works both ways. I think that’s important for people on all sides of the spectrum to understand that fashion is not gendered and that’s actually something that I want to start talking more about on my platform, that fashion is not split between boy and girl. You can wear whatever you want. And I think that’s where fashion is really taking a push towards. I love all the creators on Instagram and Tiktok, who are talking about how your capsule wardrobe as a man can also include a skirt, because come on – skirts are incredibly practical and comfortable. My boyfriend talks about that all the time, he’s like, “Hey, I wish I could wear this almost every single day, but sometimes I’m really scared and I need society to normalise this more.” That’s one way we can fight against these value systems. Similarly, fashion – and this is something that more resonates with my platform – can challenge mainstream Eurocentric attitudes towards beauty by celebrating this diversity and promoting inclusivity.
So as we all know, the fashion industry has been historically criticised for its lack of diversity and its promotion of Eurocentric beauty standards. We rarely see South Asian women on the runway, we rarely see South Asian women in campaigns for brands. Anytime I see a luxury fashion brand, reach out to me and ask me to do a campaign, I’m like, “Oh my God, do I finally have a seat at the table? Do I finally have a voice to talk? Or am I just part of their tokenization brand campaign and I’m just adding to their tokenization?” Sometimes you just have to forget about that and that sucks because you don’t know if you’re a token, or if you actually have a seat at the table and a voice at the table in this conversation. And understand that no matter what you do for these brands, if you are creating a campaign for these brands, at the end of the day, you are putting your beautiful woman of colour face off there and you’re showing these other women of colour like “hey, you can do this as well.” You are promoting the diversity of beauty by putting your own face out there, no matter the reason. Even if the brand is tokenizing you, the more brands that hire you and have you do this, realise like “hey, maybe this is normalised.” Maybe we need to change our values. Maybe we actually shouldn’t be tokenizing them because are they really a token anymore? If you’re seeing them all across all types of media campaigns, maybe they’re not a token anymore. It’s not tokenization anymore. It’s literally just being inclusive, and seeing people for their work and not for their skin colour. That’s something that I feel like I have to get over first to understand that these brands just want me no matter the reason and I need to be there to do these brands good, and show my art to the world to make it normalised to see someone like me in the media.
I completely understand that by not seeing people who look like yourself in the media, you are conditioned to learn that your beauty is not appreciated, and I talk about this a lot. With more of us in the media, we are normalising this and finally giving a chance for our beauty to shine. This goes beyond ways by finding more South Asian women in the media because if we start, if young girls start seeing more of us in the media, we start to feel more normal in society. Growing up watching movies, we didn’t see people like us. We’re like, hey, we can’t be the popular cheerleader in the high school who’s getting the popular jock, no we are the nerd who’s sharing all their homework, all the stereotypes and all the classes. By myself and my peers accepting all these jobs, no matter the reason, and pushing ourselves into the media, by breaking down these Eurocentric attitudes, we are giving these young girls a place to feel confident and also girls who want to go into fashion to feel more confident. At the end of the day, I feel like I’ve reiterated this a lot. Us being in fashion is helping others feel confident or dressing boldly. I think at the end of the day, everything comes down to helping other people of colour feel confident.
Sangeeta Pillai 51:21
So tell me Tanya, if Tanya aged five was sitting with us today, talking to us, what would Tanya age 21 say to her.
Tanya Ravichandran 51:28
So I actually wrote this out because I would want everything that I said to her to be incredibly specific and planned out because as an impressionable 5 or 10 year old, you need to know what you are hearing and it’s going to sit with you for life. I would speak to her and tell her about her incredible journey that awaits, I would tell her about the many challenges and struggles she would face, but also about the incredible opportunities and experiences that will shape her into the person she’s meant to be.
I would like to reassure her that her Indian heritage is something to be proud about and that it’ll give her a unique perspective and sense of strength and resilience as she navigates the world around her. I would also tell her that her dreams and aspirations are valid and achievable and she should never let anyone or anything or the media tell her otherwise. I would want her to know that she does not need to overwork herself to prove to her family and the fashion industry that she’s worthy. She needs to enjoy who she is now and learn to be comfortable with herself and her social connections to navigate that aspect of life before trying to prove something to others. I would want her to know that there will be moments of doubt and uncertainty but these moments are an opportunity for growth and discovery. I would encourage her to be kind to herself and to always remain true to our values and beliefs and to always stay bold.
Finally I would tell her that she is loved and valued just as she is as a young South Asian woman. I would want her to know that she does not need to change who she is to fit in or to be accepted. Her unique identity and experiences are something to be celebrated and cherished. That’s exactly what I would tell her.
Sangeeta Pillai 53:09
That is beautiful. Have you got anything to say to listeners of the podcast? Young women, older women, is there anything you want to leave for us?
Tanya Ravichandran 53:22
Yes, I would like to say that you are not alone, even though sometimes you could feel like you are alone, especially when it comes to the media since that seems to be something that I’m very focused about. Many of us have felt the same way you do at some point in our lives. It can be challenging to navigate these cultural expectations, while at the same time feeling that you don’t fit in but to understand that your experiences and perspectives of a South Asian woman are unique and valuable and you are invaluable. You’re important and you belong in this world. Your beauty is admired and valuable and you deserve to have a spot at the table and a seat in the media and don’t let anyone or anything tell you otherwise.
Sangeeta Pillai 54:00
Oh wow! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I love that. Tanya, it’s been an absolute joy chatting with you. Thank you for taking the time. Thank you for being as open and beautiful and lovely as you happen. Thank you so much for being on the Masala podcast.
Sangeeta Pillai 54:16
Thank you so much. Once again, I’m so honoured to be here and also learn such incredible things from you.
Sangeeta Pillai 54:27
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.