The most important part of creativity is fearlessness,” asserts JJ Valaya, in a freewheeling conversation at his plush flagship store at The Gallery on MG. “If you are not fearless, you are not going to break the imaginary walls that you think exist and hold you back.” Valaya’s eponymous label turns 25 this year. The designer’s opulent fashion empire wouldn’t have existed had he not given up chartered accountancy to pursue design. One fine day, he sold his books for `282. Handing over the princely sum to his mother, he told her, “I don’t know what will I do, but I know what I don’t want to do.” The one-time bean-counter passed his first test in fearlessness in flying colours.
Born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s royal heritage somehow crept into his core. ‘Royal Nomad’ has been his brand ethos and royalty is a signature construct that he has always believed in, be it in clothes, interiors or even his photography. “Royalty is an indelible part of my DNA,” he says. The boy who hailed from an army background had no reason to fret over this life-changing decision. Despite the deeply regimented and nomadic army life they led, they were a creatively inclined family. His genetic pool held him in good stead. An avid painter from childhood, Valaya’s brush strokes won him the best artist title for eight years while he schooled. His mother had launched a very successful kidswear brand, and also found time to teach army wives’ delicate embroidery, while Valaya’s elder brother won ‘the best cartoonist’ title during his stint at the NDA. And his aunt, the late Parmeshwar Godrej, was a creative force unto herself.
Valaya gravitated towards design and enrolled himself in NIFT. Recounting his student days, he says, “Studying fashion was completely different back then.” Portentously, Valaya was among the 24 candidates to be selected out of the 20,000 odd applicants. This tiny coterie of students ensured that they squeezed out the best from their education. He belonged to the first batch of Indian designers who would, later on, decide to launch their own labels. “There were no benchmarks and no set criteria,” he says, smiling, “We could do whatever we wanted.” The privilege of a clean slate kept the young designers on a perennial creative high. His first assemblage was a jacket he stitched for a friend, his first client, during his NIFT days, for `250, nifty pocket money for an aspiring designer.
In 1992, he founded the House of Valaya, and his brother, TJ Singh, seeing the potential in the brand gave up his career in the army to work alongside his brother. The gifted Valaya, born Jagsharanjit Singh Ahluwalia, shortened his name to the crisp JJ Valaya. It was a pragmatic decision rather than one made purely out of aesthetical reasons, given that his birth name would have spilled over the band if he emblazoned it on a collar. “I thought of keeping it simple and easy,” explains the self-styled maverick Maharaja whose fashion is anything but simple. A Valaya creation is drenched in opulence, commonly featuring silk brocade embellished with bead work, embroidery and crystals.
“I revel in contradiction,” quips Valaya. With his work spanning fashion, home design, wedding décor and even photography, he shatters all boundaries. When you ask him whom he admires the most, he considers the late Rohit Khosla as the father of modern Indian fashion. “He operated on a different level,” states Valaya. As Khosla’s protégé and his first and only trainee, Valaya got an opportunity to closely work with the iconic designer who shaped his sensibilities.
His sumptuous designs have varied inspirations. Over the years his collections have paid homage to some of the greatest dynasties— the Russian empire, the Mughals and the Ottoman court. “I find the set path incredibly boring. It’s important for me to see something which disagrees with a preconceived line of thought. As creators, we have to believe we are creating something that has a legacy,” he states.
Valaya’s gorgeous wedding couture is unapologetically regal and has been worn by celebrities like Gul Panag as well as Yuvraj Singh and his bride Hazel Keech. His leitmotif has been to envision heirlooms since the label’s inception. He recounts an anecdote about a young bride who had her trousseau stitched by him, nearly 25 years ago. She returned to the store this time with her 22-year-old daughter in tow. “She wanted her mother’s bridal outfit fitted to her size,” he said. They unpacked the piece, discovering that it was in mint condition, as luscious as it was when it was first created. “The piece endured the test of time,” he said, with a hint of pride, “that’s timelessness.” The 49-year-old designer wants to create couture that remains relevant, much like jewellery.
Valaya’s streak of fearlessness has been a part of his spirited approach to business. His first store was in a Chhattarpur farmhouse, when the region was still a part of a vast hinterland before its impressive growth spurt and hardly a choice of a trendy retail destination. But the label thrived. He’s not impressed with the “designer” tag. “I deal in luxury. It’s the only word I understand,” he says, adding that he’s not in the business of ready-to-wear.
Commenting on the current state of fashion in the country, he says, “You lift a rock and you will find a ‘designer.’ It’s not the best way forward.” In the world of fashion, he says, it’s important to understand and embrace your identity. “We need to embrace our crafts, because there is so much that we can do,” he adds.
What excites him these days is what he terms as ‘new tradition.’ He has strong views on minimalism. “In a modern world which has embraced technology and minimalism to an almost disturbing level, it is perhaps only the arts and crafts that will keep mankind’s connection with its past alive and prospering. Therefore, as creators, whilst it is important for us to keep commerce and ’trends’ in mind, it is also our moral responsibility to embrace our past as unabashedly as we can and reinterpret it as much as we should to make it relevant for today,” the designer has blogged. According to him, though a wave of minimalist cool exists in India, we are intrinsically a country of maximalists, be it our festivals, weddings or clothes. Valaya says that the challenge in a fluid marketplace is to keep tradition alive, while maintaining a dialogue with a discerning clientele.
With ‘Make in India,’ the industry has seen a resurgence in khadi and other traditional handlooms. “We are also a modern evolving nation and what makes this so exciting for me is the ability and opportunity to create a line which evokes the very spirit of India, using the crafts and expertise that India is replete with, and simultaneously, to intriguingly appeal to a mature global audience,” he adds. He observes that India is making a phenomenal comeback, armed with a modern outlook. Yet, he still places value on novel designs and believes that while overt ethnicity may be passé, drawing inspiration from there is not. “Doing something different just for the sake of it is always disastrous, but taking a puritan approach, reinterpreting it and bestowing on it timelessness, that is where the challenge lies,” he explains. He places this burden gently on the shoulders of the millennials— the next generation of couturiers. “The future belongs to the millennials.” According to him, if they want, they can “completely reinterpret India on their own terms. I think that’s what they should focus on.” Valaya is open to the idea of reaching out to his younger clients, and hence, is ready to experiment with e-commerce. However, he thinks the channel has some inherent limitations. “You cannot sell luxury beyond a certain price point.”
Today, The House of Valaya covers a whole range of luxury products, including women’s and men’s fashion, home furnishings, furniture, textiles, tapestries and more. He has extended his artistic palette to include photography, dabbling in fine art photography, and even dabbling in ‘phonography.’ Blogging at jjaleph.com, he describes himself as a travelling nomad, an avid spectator, and storyteller. “My need to indulge in this journal is born out of a personal desire to share my views on everything that I believe has potential to inspire,” he writes. Valaya describes his visually-driven ‘alter-ego,’ even more fearless than the designer. In 2011, he showcased a collection titled Tasveer, and followed it with a coffee table book, Decoded Paradox. “Photography has triggered my passion for travelling,” says the designer, who is driven to try out new things on his travels and now plans to publish his travelling memoirs in a series of books.
“I find spaces wildly exciting,” says Valaya, whose brand dabbles in décor too. His lush store in Gallery on MG is adorned with stunning handmade tapestries and the label has collaborated with The Leela Palace, Chanakyapuri to create over 30 hand-embroidered wall tapestries, the only fashion designer in the country to have done so. Valaya also collaborated with FCML, the luxury lifestyle conglomerate to create ‘Gulistan’ tiles and was also the first brand ambassador for Swarovski, creating a popular fashion jewellery line for them. The future includes a fine jewellery collaboration.
In his silver jubilee year he has a host of celebrations lined up, which will include the reinterpretation of his signature Alika jacket. He says he is making the most of the present, finding happiness in what he does. “Needless to say, this is one journey I intend on enjoying, and most certainly, to my heart’s content.” Valaya’s understanding of the craft, his ability to adapt with time and his uncompromising sense of grandeur, have shaped the legendary brand.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN BLACKBOOK on June 7th, 2017