Bahra’s photography blog “Singh Street Style” started life simply capturing Sikh men who combine a unique fashion sense- tailored jackets, skinny jeans, printed t-shirts, coloured socks with that iconic Sikh symbol ,the turban. Since the blog’s launch last year, Bahra’s photography and keen eye for men’s fashion has got him noticed by mainstream fashion and national press. Impressive indeed. But not as impressive as his latest feat: becoming the face of Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha ad campaign. This latest achievement has earned him billboards including the front of the IMAX cinema in London and the front cover of the Metro.
We’re used to seeing Asian women fronting high profile global ad campaigns- such as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for Omega watches (amongst other brands) and Frieda Pinto and Katrina Kaif as the faces of L’Oreal. We applaud seeing a non-white face in glossy magazines and outdoor billboards because we feel like we Asians are finally being represented. But with Bahra, it’s not the brown face that is of note, but the turban.
Is it just a clever marketing move on the part of Samsung? After all, it’s no secret that most Asians like their gadgets, so making a Singh the face of their latest campaign seems to make good sense. But by targeting their new product at such a niche audience, do Samsung run the risk of alienating other potential customers?
And what’s more, and perhaps more crucial, does Bahra risk offending those who see the turban as more than just a statement of fashion, or at best of Sikh pride, but as something sacred and deeply personal? When Jean Paul Gaultier put brightly coloured turbans on his male models for his Spring/Summer 2013 collection, many Sikhs criticised him saying he was exploiting the turban for the sake of providing a bit of ‘exotic flair’ to his latest collection.
Can religious symbols therefore ever be used as a fashion statement without ticking off the deeply religious? Pardeep and his models all wear their turbans with tightly fitting clothes such as tailored jackets and skinny jeans- contrary to the loose clothing you’d see on religious Sikhs. The same goes for hijab fashion. Devout Muslims are dismissive of women who combine a stylishly wrapped hijab with figure hugging clothing which is contrary to the Muslim dress code. And yet you only have to type in “hijab style” on Pinterest to see models wearing outfits that are nipped in at the waist and show a clearly defined bust- covering up while still revealing a lot, albeit through the silhouette the outfit creates.
Religious symbols are supposed to be worn with pride to identify oneself with your faith. In an age where wearing them at all has become such a source of contention, even legal dispute, these young British Asians are displaying their faith as part of their dress sense to make a statement. “I am Singh, hear me roar” is photo exhibition of Sikh men taking place later this year in London. The exhibition will showcase both the wearing of their turbans and the beard, another symbol of male Sikhism. And you certainly can hear them roar. Far from shying away from religious identity by leaving turbans, hijabs, karas at home and not upset the tolerance police or secularists, this new generation of faith-filled yet fashion savvy British Asians are reclaiming their symbols with pride. They’re wearing them to positively identify themselves with their faith. And by making them a part of their ensemble- more than just an accessory but a crucial part of the overall look, they are making a statement of identity.
Yes they are likely to offend a section of their community, usually the older generation who hold onto tradition and conventional ways of doing things particularly when it comes to religion. But for now, it’ll be interesting to watch the rise and rise of those like Pardeep Singh Bahra and see where they take this new wave of fashion meets faith.