How a Fashion Stylist Living On Her Own Terms Won Over the Moral Police

Aesha Merchant’s grandmother was her first fashion icon: “She would always turn out impeccably dressed, with coordinated jewellery and lipstick in place even on the day she passed away.” Aesha’s mom was equally fascinated by bags and shoes.

And so, as a young girl in New Zealand, Aesha was sure she wanted to get into fashion when she grew up. But back then, no one really knew where fashion could take you.

Aesha-Merchant-1In fact, it took Aesha back to her birthplace, Mumbai, where she now styles Bollywood celebrities, works with India’s biggest production companies, runs her own vintage clothing brand, and defies social stereotypes simply by being herself.

Aesha’s family moved to New Zealand when she was a teenager. After completing her education, she worked for a short while as a visual merchandiser before moving to Mumbai “for a year” which turned into 10.

She took up residence at her late grandmother’s flat – unprepared for the community pressure to conform that would assail her as a single girl living alone.

Her career took off well enough. She worked at a designer store before joining MTV, where she was on her toes for nearly two years styling well-known VJs, from Cyrus Sahukar, Nikhil Chinappa and Purab Kohli to Anushka Dandekar.

“It was like a circus! The experience was the building block of my career; it taught me so much of how things work in India,” says Aesha. Soon, she got a lucky break in styling commercials.

Aesha-Merchant-5She went on to work with brands like Lakme, Dove, Olay and Garnier, and Bollywood celebrities including Alia Bhatt, Nargis Fakhri and Vir Das. Her first movie styling project, Kaalakaandi starring Saif Ali Khan, released earlier this year.

An animal lover, Aesha was careful to opt for eco-friendly and cruelty-free garments, fabrics and beauty products for all her styling assignments and for her vintage clothing label Red Empress.

But while her work was creative and productive, life in India wasn’t as easy. Neighbours complained about her pets – Aesha often rescued dogs and fed strays. Some asked why she came home late at night; “I work in show-business,” she’d reply, taken aback by the moral policing.

Aesha-Merchant-4“Initially, I’d get scared or lose my cool,” the 33-year-old recalls, “but then my dad advised me to win over people nicely.” So she changed tack and met her neighbours, developing personal relationships.

Soon, the petite young girl proved herself to be strong and level-headed, and won herself several supporters.

Two years ago, she and her videographer boyfriend Delton Dsouza moved in together. This time, there were no complaints. It helped that her parents often visit and are supportive of her choices.

Aesha-Merchant-3“I even take my boyfriend along to older people in the building when there is a situation they need help with,” says Aesha, who enjoys books on history and philosophy, and fashion documentaries on Netflix.

“Society is changing, and people are sweet once you let them know who you are. I made the effort to go meet them,” says the fashionista. “It makes all the difference.”

Photography by Delton Dsouza. First published in the March 2018 issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here.