Spill the jeans for

Updated: Jun 28, 2020, 08:06 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

An American artist and designer is giving denims owned by celebrities, including from India, a makeover to raise funds for refugees

Johny Dar
Johny Dar

IN an interview, maverick French designer Yves Saint Laurent had once regretfully confessed that he had not invented blue jeans. "They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity," he had said. As the garment graduated from workwear to high street, denim also came to represent a counter-culture in the 1960s among American youth, who opted to wear jeans to illustrate their solidarity with the working classes.

Cut to the present, artist, designer and musician Johny Dar is harnessing denim's popularity to draw attention to a deepening humanitarian crisis: the refugees. His initiative, Jeans for Refugees (JFR), is a charity drive that raises funds for the International Rescue Committee. His roster of donors is nothing less than an Oscar invitee list. Singer Elton John and supermodel Karlie Kloss to former French first lady Carla Bruni and Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the ruler of Sharjah, have all donated their jeans. "It is an item of clothing that a majority of humanity can relate to," he says in an interview to this writer. "Most people own a pair of jeans. Denim is worn by the rich and the poor, young and old, celebrity and refugee. It's a leveller this way."

Now, Dar is approaching Indian celebrities to come on board. Jackie Shroï¬Â€, Sara Ali Khan and Kriti Sanon have given the nod.

Denims donated by Sharon Stone
Denims donated by Sharon Stone

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1978, Dar grew up nurturing dreams of becoming a filmmaker, convinced from an early age that he had a vision to share. Discovering his talent for design, he moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1997 to study fashion, launched his first label in 1999, and captured the fashion scene with his avant-garde collections. Under the brilliance, he grappled with an innate restlessness that one associates with most geniuses. "I have struggled to find a place on earth where I feel at home, like a refugee. This led me to questioning the point of being a human anyway, and what the true meaning of home is, until I realised that home is within you and a state of being, not a geographic location." Curiously, Dar says it hasn't been easy to get mega celebrities to donate their name, their jeans and their support to the campaign. "The presidency of Trump meant that some of our sponsors and partners decided to freeze their activities within the campaign because some celebrities involved in JFR spoke out against him. So, we have also been impacted by politics, even though the campaign is fundamentally humanitarian, not political." He admits that the episode pushed back their efforts considerably. "After that happened, we had to take a step back and recover from the setback."

All the pieces are wearable and washable. On getting hold of a piece, Dar hangs it for a few days until he feels like "we are talking". "Once it waves at me and says hello, that's when I get down to documenting that interaction through the design. It's like I am getting to know the person through the essence that the person left in the piece. It's an intimate, transpersonal, creative adventure." Dar wrapped up painting Victoria Beckham's jeans in four hours and Sharon Stone's jeans in one week.

Eva Longaria’s pair of jeans
Eva Longaria's pair of jeans

So far, he has collected 150 denims, but the aim is to collect 200 before announcing the final sale-cum-exhibition and gala. His goal is to reach 10 million dollars.

Interestingly, Dar's stint with activism began with environmentalism. Later, he decided to train his lens on refugees. "I realised there is nothing to change about the environment and nature. What needs to change is human behaviour. May be if we can start caring more about each other, we will naturally start caring more about everything around us." Dar says the issue of displacement is more pertinent now. "With the current state of the world and the direction we are heading in, these numbers are going to rise exponentially in the coming decade. For example, if the lockdown continues for a few more months, many more people will become refugees or end up in a crisis one way or another."

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