“India is not a minimalist country.” On this point, JJ Valaya is clear, explaining, “Architecture and temples? Complex designs. Our festivals and ceremonies, very detailed. Food? Full of spices and flavours. In the run to be globally cool and chic, Indians sometimes forget this.”
Somewhere, the words Gandhian and Khadi get quieted. But then, the world of designer Valaya has always been awe-inspiring, about bringing grand visions to life. Jagsharanjit Singh Ahluwalia, or JJ Valaya as he is known, is certainly not a minimalist.
The second chapter of his Bursa couture line launches tomorrow (February 14) on the runway of the world — Instagram. He joins many other designers, including Tarun Tahiliani and Arpita Mehta, who, post-pandemic, have opted to drop their collections on the photo-sharing app.
Headbands and borders
This line is an ode to the Ottoman Empire. “I am deeply in love with India, yet I am tempted by other cultures and civilisations,” says Valaya. He likes carrying forward a theme across two seasons to tell a complete story. This spring-summer line is made of lightweight organza and silk, with antiquated metals, gota, silk threads and intricate embroidery on lehengas, saris, sherwanis and blouses. Faux leather and velvet patches are engineered to fit seamlessly into the design. The campaign is styled by his 22-year-old daughter Hoorvi Valaya (an upcoming stylist and presumably future custodian of the brand) who no doubt introduced contemporary elements such as belts and a heavily detailed couture headband to the collection, which is already sold out on the website.
The highlight of Bursa though is Emrooz (‘today’ in Persian), a bejewelled border carefully sewn into several pieces of the collection. Valaya recounts making it first for a client back in the 90s. Twenty years since, its karigari still looks fresh, hence the name. Would he consider selling the borders like the Chinese salesman did the Parsi kors (the Parsi gara borders) that have lasted centuries? He says he had never considered the idea, but now he very well may.
“[Couture] is like an old pair of jeans; you don’t throw it away.” This may seem paradoxical. But then, brides he dressed 25 years ago renew their bridal sets for their daughters. “If you can buy something that retains its quality and relevance over two decades and then have a whole new generation associating with it, there is nothing more sustainable than that,” he says.
Sustainability is the big fashion buzzword right now, but as a couturier, he has always endeavoured to create timeless pieces. Valaya expresses his disappointment at seeing senior and newer designers trying too hard to keep up with the Joneses and dabbling with too many categories and trends. Couture, he reflects, is about research, substance and, as in his case, a life dedicated to it. Instead, he feels the market is inundated with bridal pieces that can only be described as an embroidery explosion or as a money-making venture. Deeper conversations on textiles or embroidery techniques in his new collection are shushed. “A lot of designers will glorify the basic with complicated terms. The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” he says. The final frontier, especially within couture, is to deliver on quality parameters and the depth of the inspiration, he adds. To that end, Valaya’s mission is to keep the karigar and the crafts of India relevant, and make his clients “feel like a trillion bucks”.
His flagship store in Delhi launches in August this year, encompassing all facets of his work — clothes, home interiors and even his photography. “Luxury is not about selling clothes. We sell the brand aura, and, above all, the experience. The feeling of being overwhelmed at the scale [of the store], the signature fragrance, the service, the butler… It is unparalleled. You cannot get that digitally,” he says.
While he does believe that going forward, fashion weeks and events will have to create a new hybrid format, he is wasting no time on nostalgia. The brand currently offers HD video conferencing for NRI brides and an exciting DIY, customisable version of the ‘Ika’ jacket on his website, perfect to pair with, you know, a pair of jeans. There is also season two of his ‘River’ collaboration with Amazon Fashion, with accessible pieces carrying the Valaya DNA in sporty luxe styles.
Meanwhile, he remains the OG — millennial speak for original — maximalist king of Indian fashion. In that the man and the brand are not separate. “Trying to be minimal is going against our intrinsic grain. To make what has been offered to us relevant, modern, and contemporary, and make it speak a different language is the true service by people who are given the opportunity to interpret India in a new way. That is truly all I do,” he concludes.
The Bursa couture collection drops @jjvalaya on Instagram on February 14 at 8.30 pm