Work In Progress — VIHANGA SONTAM & MILES JACKSON of Vihanga

On a quiet street off of a main Echo Park artery, Vihanga and Mile’s studio is well hidden. “Text us when you arrive!” as the studio door can be hard to find, he says. Sure enough, against a wall of graffiti art the 6pm darkness has hidden the nondescript entrance to the studio space Vihanga and Miles share with another artist.

Shortly after I text, Vihanga peeks her head out of the doorway across the street and waves at me. We pass through the space downstairs that has interesting ceramic pieces on the wall and make our way to the A-framed studio upstairs. Miles welcomes me with a firm handshake into their minimalist, extremely tidy space.

What you notice first in conversation with Vihanga and Miles is how fluidly they move with and around each other. Finishing each other’s sentences is one thing, but there is an additional air of reverence and respect between two artists who are in love with each other but also with each other's work. They were both students at Chicago’s Art Institute, Miles in sculpture and Vihanga a graduate student in fashion from India, when friends introduced them.

“We met the old fashioned way—at a house party…. Three months before her visa was about to expire.”

“We thought, you know, that this was just going to be a three-month thing,” Miles remembers, “but we found that we were really good at doing long distance. We were really good at all the visa stuff and paperwork. And we worked well in the way that we could figure out things with each other.”

After a few cycles of only being able to see each other once every six months between Chicago and Hyderabad, four years ago the duo decided that in order to fully realize the dreams they had concocted together, they had to be together and got married. Turning down a lucrative teaching position back in India, Vihanga moved back to Chicago to start her eponymous brand and life together with Miles. 

As a brand, Vihanga has already gone through iterations of evolution. Starting off more as an art practice alongside full-time jobs as many designers and artists do, they would buy materials to create designs to sell, and then sell them to buy more materials. They draw inspiration from their very different geographic backgrounds, but they are admittedly more alike in the builder and craftsman references they are both drawn to. Vihanga speaks about color palettes of her native Indian village that evoke the sun, dusty and murky but bright whites, and red oxide. Miles speaks to the familiarity of denim as a material, a symbol of the labor movement in the US. All of these evocations show up in their designs, seamlessly folded together just as the two of them, rooted in clear systems and utilitarian in nature. They are very intent on creating things that last, exist and function in the the material world. 

But for a burgeoning fashion brand, Chicago didn’t necessarily offer the same resources that a New York City or even Los Angeles would. As they started exploring both cities as possible next steps, it became pretty obvious where they would feel more at home and among peers. 

“Our friends in LA were all like ‘it’s great we’ll help you find a place we’ll help you move’ while it felt like in New York everyone was working hard and doing their own thing,” Miles explained. During the pandemic, both were let go from their jobs but instead of waiting it out in Chicago, they took the opportunity to reset and research in LA. They quickly assimilated into their new community.

"They’re excited about what they’re doing and that’s a nice starting point. I’m doing this cool thing, are you doing a cool thing, tell me about it.”

Vihanga and Miles are doing very cool things. The coolest is probably how they are subverting fashion without really realizing or thinking about it, which becomes apparent after I start asking about showrooms and distribution. “Coming from a fine art background, my relationship to that does lend itself to be more personal,” says Miles. “I have a studio and I have work in it and like, you can come over and we can talk, right, and it’s much more intimate and personal so for me that’s the standard way of operating and what’s foreign is hiring an agency.” Admittedly, many aspects of the fashion industry as a whole were called into question during the pandemic—"NYFW is dead, Vogue doesn’t matter," and the rules of an entire system and its social contracts were challenged. But coming out of Covid, it's become apparent that these institutions do very much still matter, do have a place in shaping fashion's future—but equally so do emerging brands like Vihanga who operate on a much more contemporary philosophy, unriddled by age and tradition. Finding that balance will be the crux of success for each emergent brand in this new era of fashion.

"Are we in, or are we outside of it?"

All to say, no, Vihanga is not represented by any showroom or agency. Quite the opposite, the pair is focusing their efforts on more eyes and more personal connections with their customers in the new year, starting with a pop-up in a DTLA space in January. Never straying far from art world connections or ideas, Vihanga’s already-a-classic string top (we sold out immediately), crop puffy jacket and shaggy pants silhouettes are sure to appear in unexpected and delightful ways within the space.

Like when Vihanga points to the shaggy pants Miles is wearing and says, “He made those because he’s also a breakdancer. He used to taper his pants himself!” Will Miles be break dancing at the pop-up? "Maybe," they say, and laugh.


Below images courtesy of Vihanga.



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