The Washington Times - June 12, 2008, 02:49PM

Seven years ago; sporting a Sikh turban could get you killed, as was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner who was shot Sept. 15, 2001 in Mesa, Ariz., after his murderer mistook him for a Muslim.

 

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Today, the trademark black head covering sported by male members of the Sikh religion can get you into the heights of mens’ fashion. Such is what happened to Sandeep Singh  “Sonny” Caberwal, 29, a graduate of Duke University and Georgetown Law School who on a whim, it seems, decided to take on a most unusual assignment: Modeling mens clothing to make a point about diversity.

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Mr. Caberwal, shown in photos accompanying this column, grew up in rural Ashboro, N.C. as the son of a doctor and the wearer of a turban ever since he was a small child. His family is from Punjab, India. He has never cut his hair, as all Sikh men have been required to have long hair since 1699. It is always covered by a skull cap and turban. Some time ago - he does not know when - Kenneth Cole, founder of a clothing line by the same name - got an idea for an advertising campaign on breaking stereotypes - and plugging clothing. Mr. Cole hired a casting agency to find a male Sikh willing to be a model. The man had to be American-born, highly educated and articulate. There being no candidates on the usual lists, the agency began calling up national Sikh-rights organizations and Mr. Caberwal heard Cole was looking. 

 

One thing led to another and last October, he found himself in New York posing in some pretty spiffy clothes along with that turban. 

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“People think Sikhs are fundamentalist, outside the mainstream of society, or immigrants or something is wrong with them,” Mr. Caberwal said in a visit to my office yesterday. “Kenneth Cole wanted to represent the fabric of American culture. There’s a lot of struggle in the United States as to how we perceive people post 9-11. I as much American as anyone else.” 

 

Kenneth Cole has a history of provocative advertising, running ads promoting everything from AIDS awareness to helping homelessness. He designed T-shirts for World AIDS Day in 2005 and announced in 2006 he would stop selling fur in his clothing. His choice of a Sikh to represent an American Everyman has made headlines in newspapers in India, where Sikhs number some 25 million adherents, a drop in the ocean compared with the country’s huge Hindu majority. There are about 500,000 Sikhs in the United States. 

 

“I’ve heard from thousands of people around the world on how they appreciated this,” Mr. Caberwal said. He hopes his day in the sun will encourage Sikh youth, whose unusual headcovering makes them stand out in a crowd. 

 

“Having a unique identity can be a very lonely road to walk down,” the model said. “Fighting against a negative stereotype is consistantly tough.”

 

All Sikhs know what it’s like to be harassed, he said, and his brother-in-law has endured worse: physical threats, job descrimination and taunts just for being confused with Muslims. Kenneth Cole had heard of what Sikhs endure, he said, and wanted to include a Sikh in an ad campaign to introduce the concept that Sikhs are normal folk who wear cool clothes and think like us. 

 

He flew to Washington Tuesday to speak at a Sikh-American dinner on Capitol Hill. I told him that I had rarely if ever encountered an ad agency that used religion to sell clothes. We disagreed over whether Kenneth Cole’s campaign had anything to do with faith. He said it did not; it was more about a “look” that is exotic, unusual, out-of-the-box now but that will be the new normal in a more diversified America. 

 

Even if it’s just about building a brand, Kenneth Cole is borrowing symbols that are far more complex than a fashion centerfold. And where does it stop? If you use a turbaned Sikh to shock and captivate today, do you employ women in hijabs and men wearing yarmulkehs tomorrow? Religious clothing makes a statement, as we’ve seen from the granny-style dresses worn by fundamentalist Mormon women who were part of the west Texas compound raided last month by police and child welfare investigators. 

 

Is there a point at which such clothing, worn for modesty or to express devotion to God, should not be used as a fashion statement, no matter how noble its objectives? I draw the line at who is doing the modeling. If the model - as was Mr. Caberwal, part of that religion, I’ve no problem with them wearing distinctive dress. But should that clothing become an accoutrement on a secular wearer, then no, it should not be used for fashion. 

 

In the case of the Sikhs, Mr. Caberwal is the first such American model and a groundbreaker in illustrating how Sikhs and other Indians have arrived as part of the American scene. 

 

— Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times