(January 3, 2021) In January 2021, an acclaimed celebrity designer daringly came out as a trans woman, surprising many who heard the news. Fast forward to December 2021, this Indian fashion designer’s talent was recognised by the entire world when Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu wore the designer’s sparkly phulkari-inspired ethereal gown at the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel. Meet the sassy and bold National Institute of Fashion Technology-alum Saisha Shinde, whose new identity and work has the world starstruck, not just because of her bespoke outfits but also her incredible talent.
Formerly known as Swapnil Shinde, Saisha’s Miss Universe milestone is all the more special because this is her first grand achievement as a trans woman. “I never get tired of telling people how I’m feeling about this feat because it’s a historic moment for India and me. I feel blessed to have this win in my kitty. I was in college when Lara Dutta was crowned Miss Universe and I have been designing for pageants, especially Miss India for seven years now. But as Saisha, my first Miss India project led me to the Miss Universe gig, so this victory is all the more special,” smiles the Indian fashion designer who started accepting her alternative sexuality at NIFT.
Designing the stunning gown that Harnaaz sported, Saisha says, “Harnaaz trusted the experts completely. I always ask my clients a few basic questions – favourite colour, where they hail from, favourite flower etc. Having known that Harnaaz is from Punjab, where the phulkari motif originated, I wanted to take the phulkari geometric shape, and convert it into a mosaic. Miss Indias’ have a specific look, so we needed to follow that and make Harnaaz look exquisite.” The NIFT graduate interned at the renowned House of Versace in Italy, which has given her a depth and versatility evident in her designs.
How the “trans” journey began
On Saisha’s coming out, she reveals that that her simple Maharashtrian parents, albeit shocked, accepted her truth wholeheartedly. “My relationship with my mother has grown leaps and bounds. We always underestimate our parents – it’s important to communicate with them with respect and not rebellion. In other situations, you have to be rebellious sometimes,” quips Saisha. She also touches upon how living in a democracy should mean that people can voice opinions for marginalised communities like hers, “The only way to spread the message is to shout, I do it with full swing when the work is not done on time!” she tells Global Indian.
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After years of being Swapnil, why did Saisha decide to come out this year? “I knew that I was going to come out. I was waiting to accept it. I could not see myself leading a double life – I wanted to live a life of truth and have nothing to hide. I came out for myself – I didn’t expect it to become what it became, but I’m glad it did because it’s opened doors for a host of trans people in India. It’s been inspiring to get inspired by others,” says the gutsy designer, who received overwhelming support on social media after her announcement.
Coming out has lifted a huge burden off the 39-year-old’s mind, yet it comes with its share of difficult learnings too. “I now understand what women go through every single day. Women are expected to behave, talk, dress and sit in a certain way. As a male, I didn’t have to face this. It didn’t even occur to me that I had to sit and stand a certain way. As for my professional life, I’m lucky to hail from an industry that’s accepting and more inclusive than any other profession – they have accepted me with open arms. We have so many gay men, lesbian women and trans men and women behind the scenes and we’re all paid properly and treated well. I always felt a sense of security here,” says Saisha who hails from Maharashtra.
How her designs emulated her persona
After years of designing clothes for women as a man, Saisha admits that after she came out as a trans woman, the way she looks at women’s design has changed drastically. “At first, I would create without thinking too much about the woman or what she’s about. Now, I’m conscious about what I’m making and for who. Earlier, comfort played an insignificant role when designing, but now, comfort is the number one priority. For me, it’s a revolutionary change,” she muses.
As someone who designs for Bollywood stars, how does the film industry see trans people? “Many are ignorant and have pre-set notions. A few trailblazing transwomen like Gazal Dhaliwal and Trinetra Haldar are breaking norms. It’s just a matter of time when representation of our community will be visible in films or TV shows,” mulls Saisha.
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Being different, being true
When it comes to the alarming stereotypes about her community, Saisha shares, “Everyone thinks that transgenders are eunuchs and that’s not the case. They also think that we have a disease that’s contagious and that they might turn trans if they touch us! People also think that men dressing as women for entertainment and humour are ‘us,’ but that is not ‘us.’ Those are men who are cross-dressers or men who are doing drag.”
Dressing the stars
On the work front, Saisha’s clientele includes Bollywood superstars like Madhuri Dixit, Kareena Kapoor and Anushka Sharma. Her all-time favourite is the woman she grew up idolising. “When I was in school, I’d lock my bedroom door and dance to Madhuri’s songs. Eventually, I got to work with her and that alone made me feel successful. She’s so amazing to work with – she’s loyal and gives one creative freedom. I also like dressing up Deepika Padukone as anything you give her looks good on her!”
In the world of fashion, Saisha’s idols include the late Wendell Rodricks, Anaita Shroff Adajania, Shaleena Nathani, Eka Lakhani and Sabina Chopra (her mentor since day one). Her future projects are the magnum opus Ponniyan Selvan: I, directed by the Mani Ratnam, where Saisha got to dress up the ethereal Aishwarya Rai. “In collaboration with Eka Lakhani, we have created costumes for Aishwarya, Trisha and a few other cast members. I get to work with Mani sir and that’s a dream come true. I’ve also designed for Deepika for a song in Pathan (which stars Shah Rukh Khan) and there are a few other interesting projects in the pipeline.”
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Shinde hopes to make metro inhabitants aware of the trans community, and hopes the community will get a separate employment quota one day. “They should be able to get legal documents without hassles. Once this happens in big cities, we can target tier-2 and 3 cities,” she adds.
When she’s not working, Saisha is inevitably engrossed in fashion shows on TV, and voraciously reads about fashion. Having trained at Shaimak Davar’s dance school in jazz and funk, she now intends to learn Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Saisha’s also has another aspiring dream – to be awarded the prestigious Padma Shri like Manjamma Jogath, the first transgender to bag the award. “I felt so proud when I heard that. I prayed that I stand in her place one day,” she signs off.