Fashion is an ever-changing, ever-evolving beast. Moving in cycles, it regurgitates former trends and revamps them in new, updated, born-again shades of cool. In fact, as one particularly memorable scene from The Devil Wears Prada explains, just as couture treads the path of least resistance from the catwalk to the discount sale rack, discarding anything unusual along the way; consumers might incorporate hints of past styles yet ultimately follow the pack. Yet there are some people out there who go against this grain, who boldly step out and seek out the trends where they begin, unabashedly making them their own.
Tara Chandra is one such person. She is a regular, 20-year-old university student - she juggles work and study, procrastinates too frequently, hangs out with her friends as much as possible and loves snapping the perfect pic for her Instagram. Except, of course, not many university students have a casual 34 thousand followers who see that ‘gram.
At age 15, Chandra began sharing her love of fashion - from the brand-new, to the pre-loved, to the DIY’ed - on her YouTube channel, under the pseudonym of Fashion Bambini. Now, nearly six years later, and there’s no more facade: she is Tara Chandra; a fashion influencer (for want of a better word, as she herself admits) with a penchant for DIYs and excessive accessories, and a determination to be a positive, educational influence on her audience.
On the Tuesday afternoon we've arranged to meet up, Chandra beats me to our meeting spot. She's perched on a ledge outside Carriageworks, wearing an all-black set she just got in the mail. She had messaged me earlier in the morning, unsure if what she’d picked out was the right vibe, and I told her to just wear whatever she feels like: “hahahah ok, insta thot aesthetic locked in then,” she replies.
Insta thot aesthetic, Chandra explains, is kind of hard to pin down: “I’m kind of in my insta thot phase. It’s basically like ... if you see those bigger Instagram accounts, and they’re all wearing I.AM.GIA - it’s basically just I.AM.GIA,” she laughs. “It’s very street-style, but kind of crop tops.”
Chandra’s style can really be described as nothing less than eye-catching. As we walk to a local cafe, passers-by can’t help but find themselves drawn to her, taking in the whole outfit: from the sleek, long black hair and impossibly chic micro-fringe, to the signature ultra-winged eyeliner, to the D-ring choker, to the layers of chains around her neck, all the way down to her platform boots. To a stranger it might be somewhat of an intimidating look, especially when she’s in photoshoot mode, staring down the barrel of the camera and radiating power, confidence and absolute fierceness.
“As long as I feel confident in what I'm wearing, and I like what I'm wearing, that's empowering in itself,” Chandra explains.
When it comes to her personality, however, the element of intimidation instantly disappears. The intelligence and strength are there for sure, but they’re overshadowed by the down-to-earth, genuine nature of a person who speaks gently and thoughtfully, and who isn’t afraid to laugh at herself and make light of any situation - like her early days in YouTube.
“I just remember filming my first video, and I was like, running around my backyard and filming different arty clips - like, let’s walk along this brick wall, let’s turn this tap on to show off my bracelets.” She cringes at the memory. “Worst idea. It was so embarrassing.”
While YouTube was a formative influence - Chandra cites YouTubers like Jenn Im, The Fashion Citizen and Sunbeams Jess - her current aesthetic developed out of a more networked interface.
“I don’t think I really, properly developed this style” - she gestures to her outfit - “until three or four years ago. I got a lot more into social media, and I feel like that’s where a lot of the more out-there trends emerge.”
“Social media is probably my biggest influence, solely because I'm following all these people whose style I like, and I get inspiration from them. But also, I guess I wear a lot of cultural pieces, especially Chinese pieces. I have some more social movement-inspired pieces, too - like a jacket I DIY’ed that says ‘feminism=equality’.”
Chandra’s sense of style and confidence in her expression of herself has certainly grown over the years, alongside her advancements as a content creator. On a personal level, though, she has also become more self-assured and determined in her beliefs: “I feel like I know myself enough to know what I'm passionate about, and what I want to talk about. I think my biggest one is talking about internalised racism, because I know I have a lot of Asian followers that grew up in Western countries like Australia, and a lot of them resonate really strongly with that”.
Frequently sharing excerpts from books like “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race” and other intersectional-focused literary pieces on her Instagram stories, Chandra also has a secondary YouTube channel. On “Tara C. Vlogs”, she posts more discussion-based videos about personal experiences she feels that her audience may relate to, with titles like “heteronormative society + not being ‘bi’ enough + labels” or “jealousy & internalising emotions”. In these, you really get a sense of that authentic, honest and open personality that I witness while talking with her. Chandra never fails to speak passionately and intelligently, with an aim to educate, but not to patronise.
But two YouTube channels and a thriving Instagram profile aren’t Chandra’s only creative outlets. In addition to clothing DIYs (like patchwork jackets made from cut-up jeans, or hand-painted denim pieces featuring the likes of Chihiro from Spirited Away, or Daria), Chandra collaborates frequently with other creatives. Next week, she tells me nonchalantly, she’ll be directing and producing a music video for Melbourne-based hip hop artist, Freeds. She also created Easy Mag in 2016, a collaborative project focusing on spotlighting up-and-coming or already-established creatives, from singers, to painters, to writers, and more. “Anyone can be a creative,” she tells me, as she sips her drink. “If you have something that you're doing or making then you're pretty much a creative!”
Chandra’s first collaboration was with a friend’s choker store back in 2014, and she reminisces on it fondly, noting her excitement at simply receiving something in the mail. Her first big, somewhat surreal collaboration, she tells me, was early in 2017, when she was shot for a collaborative project by Gucci, WeChat and Grazia magazine. Her face lights up with a mixture of pride and excitement as she recollects the shoot: “I remember when I got there and had my hair and makeup done, I was like, oh my god, I've made it!”
Since then, Chandra has only continued to rise within the fashion world, gaining followers and opportunities at every turn. “Probably my biggest collab was Converse, earlier this year. I had been doing a lot of content with them at the end of last year, and then it just kept going from there. They ended up messaging me while I was overseas, like ‘oh yeah, we're sending you to London in four weeks’ - and I was like what?! I'm literally being sent overseas by a massive brand that I've been wearing since I was a kid”.
As much as Chandra loves what she does, she does have her qualms about the industry. It’s no secret that ethical consumption has been an increasingly noisy issue, as people begin to recognise the harmful nature of fast fashion. But as Chandra explains to me, there’s no easy solution to the problem: “For most people, fast fashion is what's most accessible, monetarily. Not everyone can afford high-end, I definitely can't. But also, if you shut down all of these fast fashion companies, you'd be getting rid of all the lives behind the production. About 70 to 90 per cent of those people rely solely on fast fashion to earn an income. And although a lot of them are earning below minimum wages, it's still something to support their families. It's a cycle that's so difficult to break and fix.”
And where does she see herself within the fashion industry as a whole? She takes her time to think about her response, joking that she’s not really sure if she contributes anything, really. Ultimately, she decides: she’s an influencer. But she immediately grimaces at the word - even though she admits it’s the easiest way to describe what she does, she isn’t a fan of the term in itself: “I don't like the stigma attached to it. I feel like a lot of people see influencers as people that just don't do much. I feel like what I do is a bit more than just posting photos, because I do other forms of content creation. It's not just for money or free stuff - I would do this regardless”.
Above all, and regardless of the term she chooses to use to define herself, Chandra is passionate about the freedom with which she gets to express herself and her style. Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that she is happily following this path into the fashion world wherever it takes her, humbly and gratefully accepting opportunities that come her way; and always working hard and looking towards the next project.
“My favourite thing is that I get to dictate everything I do - it's not controlled by anyone else but myself. I really like personal style, and that's my way of expressing myself. And I dress like this all the time - I don't just dress up for a photo, this is something that I'm passionate about. It's just an expression of self. I'm a shy person, but this is my way of being loud.”