In modern times, travel hasn’t been limited to just being a hobby, or something people do once a year to blow off steam. It has also turned into an escape from the everyday tragedies of life that haunt us. Whether it be a bad breakup or being fired from a job, many of those privileged enough to leave had been coping with it by packing their bags and leaving for where the #goodvibes were powerful and the WiFi weak. The pandemic changed all of that.
In the early stages of the lockdown, 24-year-old Siddhant Agarwal, who was then working with a Delhi-based marketing firm in India, found himself moving back to his hometown of Shahjahanpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh to live with his parents, like many other young professionals across the country. Soon after in June, he was sent on an unpaid leave, and thus began a difficult period. For the first time in his life, he was completely unoccupied. As he saw pandemic passion projects sprouting up around him, he began to fall into the unavoidable cycle of overthinking and feeling shitty about himself and his productivity.
One night, as he sat by himself, he had an anxiety attack for the first time in his life. While it was the first and only time he’s experienced something of this sort, it made him realise he needed to do something with his time—something that mattered. So, he began to have conversations with people around him and ask them a simple question: What do you miss the most during the lockdown?
Quite unsurprisingly, the most common answer was travel. Cooped up indoors through most of 2020, most people wanted to leave and travel as far as they could. Except they couldn’t, with borders sealed and meeting people suddenly deemed dangerous.
However, while humans were restricted from travelling, objects and ideas weren’t. That’s when Agarwal came up with the idea of Project HOPE: the travelling t-shirt. A T-shirt that travels across the world, I bet you haven’t heard of that one before.
“I wanted to do something for everyone who wanted to go outside and relive that feeling of travel. I wanted to replicate that in some way for them,” he tells VICE.
To document this journey, Agarwal got in touch with artists and creators across the cultural hubs of the world: Singapore, Tokyo, New York, Toronto, Amsterdam, and so on. He found them via social media and asked if they’d receive the T-shirt and show it around their city. And of course, document that for the people at home. Many agreed, and that’s how the journey of Hope, the Travelling T-shirt began.
“She” has already been to Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and is venturing around New York right now. Why is the T-shirt a “she”, you ask?
“I wanted the T-shirt to have a personality of its own. That way it’s not just an object going around a bunch of cities, it’s an entity that means something,” Agarwal says, “I designed a logo that would go on the T-shirt, and asked every creator that Hope was visiting, to wear it while filming their story.”
With this project, people can experience these cities through the eyes of the travelling T-shirt and live vicariously through it. The vlogs from some of the cities have already been shared on the project’s YouTube channel. While a free climber shows you a bird’s eye view of Los Angeles, a videographer curates a Singaporean’s guide to surviving life.
To ensure the variety of content that is created as part of this project, Agarwal scoured social media to find offbeat artists that represent the signature art of their city. That’s how he collaborated with some skateboarders in New York, and a group of alpine climbers in Canmore, a town in Alberta, Canada.
“All I want is for these people to create videos that are story-driven and of great quality,” he says, while reflecting on how this T-shirt is bringing together artists from across the world to collaborate on this creative experiment.
But aren’t clothes also divisive in nature? The first question someone might wonder when asked to wear an item of clothing and go about the city filming a vlog is: Will it fit me? The idea wasn’t to perpetuate a one-size-fits-all approach, and to avoid any such situations, the T-shirt is delivered along with stencils of various sizes that one can use to print the logo onto any black T-shirt.
After DIY-ing a HOPE T-shirt in their size, these storytellers wear it and take you around, giving you a peek into the cities as they've emerged since 2020—cities where people are masked, life is slowly getting back on its feet, people are stepping out again but with new realities afforded to them by the pandemic. Newly shrunken pockets are mentioned as someone is forced to take the train to travel to the other end of the city. One of the vlogs alludes to international events like the Tokyo Olympics that were put off, disappointing cities and people that had been gearing up for them for years. Seeing vignettes of post-lockdown living reinfuses the message we’ve heard the most this past year: We’re all in this together. Seeing how life goes on ignites that spark of hope that it will slowly be okay.
And that’s the underlying idea that binds these stories together, says Agarwal, who hopes to auction the globetrotting T-shirt once it reaches back home and create more interesting content about India with the money raised from the auction.
“It’s hope that breaks all these barriers, even when we are stuck in situations we have no control over,” he says, “Each of us have our own stories of hope that we revisit in tough times, and that’s what we’re trying to highlight.”
Follow Snigdha on Twitter.