'A designer at heart'|Kashmiri musician-artist makes Papier-mâché custom wearables, gets featured In 'Forbes 30-under-30' list

It all happened at home. When the self-taught musician-turned-designer saw some denim jackets lying around at the corner of his room, he decided to turn them into pieces of art, thus giving birth to his unique line of customised jackets.

Aaquib Wani, 29, originally from Safa Kadal, a Downtown area of summer capital, Srinagar, who is passionate about reviving traditional art including papier-mâché, Sozni and other lesser-known Indian art forms like Gond and Pichwai, works with a team of artisans and embroiderers from various regions to create these one-of-a-kind pieces. His recent collaborative showcase with Levi’s is proof of his fresh perspective.

Wani, who is currently based in Delhi is a graphic artist and experiential designer with a difference. He says he carries Kashmir along in all his works.

 “I carry my culture in all my works,” he says. “People across the globe must have heard of papier-mâché boxes, but have you ever heard of papier-mâché jackets. I thought of taking this really amazing art to its next level.”

Wani says Kashmir language, its people, food, culture and values is outstandingly unique. “We have to have a professional outlook to create out-of-the-box initiatives and opportunities for our artisans and budding entrepreneurs,” he says.

“My first interaction with Kashmiri crafts was through my father, who he says introduced him to the intricacies of art and culture from the very beginning,” he says.

“When my father shifted to Delhi, he used to deal in Kashmiri handicrafts. So from a young age, I used to be fascinated with the craftsmen who would think of designs without any technology, make them by hand and take months for detailing. This got me interested in arts as a whole and more so in traditional crafts,” he says.

“Now when I work with craftsmen, I have such immense respect for their craftwork. In Kashmir, specifically, I feel at ease with everyone I work with since there is an unsaid relationship already.”

The Delhi-based wedding & space designer and installation artist by profession, Wani designed part of Isha Ambani’s Sangeet and Akash Ambani’s wedding.

He designs logos for brands and album art for bands. However, he kick-started his career with metal band Phobia, then worked with a music magazine before finding out that his passion lay in playing with colours and 3D design.

Completely self-taught, Wani hand-paints all his jackets and finishes these off with embellishments and embroidery. “I’d say my style is vibrant, colourful and full of life,” explains Wani, whose jackets are in denim and leather, though he’s open to working with other materials as well.

“We believe in self-sustainability. Looking at the kind of pollution we are witnessing, we want people to go and wear the custom wearables,” he says. “I collaborate with a lot of artists globally and I get many accolades for the work I do.”

‘Forbes 30-under-30 for Design’

Wani, Forbes 30 under 30 for Design ’21, is a self-taught experiential designer & art director with creative expertise in spaces, sets, interactive installations, weddings, visual, and graphic design, blending the aesthetic palettes absorbed through his Kashmiri heritage and upbringing in New Delhi.

He has no formal training or education in design. From working as the art director for a music magazine to learning the boundaries of space design under renowned spatial designer Sumant Jayakrishnan, he has mastered the art of not just 2D but also 3D design. Wani dropped out of college. He says creativity needs to be nurtured not looked down upon.

The 29-year-old musician-turned-visual artist has made it to the prestigious Forbes 30-under-30 list under the designer category.

Wani now takes orders from clients who want to give an old jacket a makeover or add colour to a brand new one. He also makes jackets from scratch. A favourite creation was his collaboration with Levi’s. “It was to celebrate the 145th birthday of the blue jeans. I designed it with a giant octopus on the back, surrounded by botanical motifs. It’s very chaotic. I wanted the effect to be like a ‘butterfly in a storm.’”

 “I love collecting different fabrics, from dress materials to bedspreads and curtains. I even have shirts made from bedsheets. And people always find these interesting,” he says.

Wani, says he would launch a line of shirts, trousers and bomber jackets made from ikat and garment factory waste. He’s also in the middle of bringing out a jacket collection in traditional Indian art like Madhubani and Pattachitra, in collaboration with small-time artisans.

Wani is quick to say he doesn’t have any formal education in graphic designing, but did build his way up after being part of the design team at music magazine Rock Street Journal, working under Bhattacharya for three years. Wani, who started out designing artwork for his own metal band Phobia in 2008, has worked with the likes of prog metal band Skyharbor and the metal edition of crowdfunded gig series Control Alt Delete.

The idea of art & design becoming a career surfaced when Aaquib formed a metal band for which he not only composed music but also played the guitars, and started making collaterals to promote his shows. It was the first time people noticed and appreciated his work. His first professional foray came with working at the music magazine Rock Street Journal where he worked his way up to becoming their Creative Head. The iconic magazine has been instrumental in helping indie music bands grow and more famously organizing the Great Indian Rock Festival and along with his team he led their entire design aesthetic. Post this, he worked at Scenografia Sumant which helped fine-tune Aaquib’s creative outputs for art installations, weddings and spatial design.

‘Design Studio’

After five years, Wani took the leap of faith in 2018 and set up his own design studio, ‘Aaquib Wani Design’ (AWD). Backed by twelve years of experience, the studio works on marrying graphic design elements with unique and contemporary visuals to bring unparalleled aesthetics for fashion, art, spaces, and brands. “We are known for our wide spectrum of projects including branding, art direction, space design & one-of-a-kind installations for weddings, music festivals, fashion brands, themed hospitality outlets, and varied artworks including murals.” “Our design label provides end-to-end solutions including strategy, production, and execution.”

In the time since, AWD, has collaborated with United Nations for the UN Day celebrated across the globe, and with brands such as Levi’s, Coca-Cola, GAS, and adidas for experiential events, MG Motors for car launches, one of a kind installation for Phoenix mall in Mumbai and branding and interiors as the Creative Head of the members-only bespoke club- PVR Home, and for hospitality outlets like Baar Baar. The studio has also been working with music festivals around the country, including the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, to find and hone their own distinctive design identity online and on-ground at the venues. Further, he led the spatial design for Swadesh Bazaar at Isha Ambani’s sangeet celebration in Udaipur in 2018, and served on the team as the art director for WDC, at her brother Akash Ambani’s wedding in Mumbai in 2019.