“I love India! And I am a showman. It’s the very basis of all the creative work that I do,” states JJ Valaya, the man who has made a veritable design empire on the ethos of a ‘royal nomad’. His House of Valaya, which is celebrating 25 years this year, is considered the epitome of Indian luxury and extravagance. Headquartered in Delhi, his clients think nothing of flying hundreds of miles for an appointment with him and a piece of his ornate creations. He was the choice of wedding wear for cricket sensation Yuvraj Singh and his actress-bride Hazel Keech last year, and now has collaborations across the board from a bestselling fashion jewellery line with Swarovski to award-winning ‘Gulistan’ tiles with luxury lifestyle major, FCML.
Drawing multicultural inspirations from around the world and infusing them with elements of India, Valaya has gone from fashion to home design, wedding décor and even photography and coffee-table books, building on his artistic strengths and growing his businesses along the way. And yet, for this Jodhpur-born creative genius who was born Jagsharanjit Singh Ahluwalia, everything begins with the regimental life of an army officer’s family.
“No civilian will ever understand what it is like growing up as an army kid,” says the amiable designer, seated on at an expansive table in his showroom at the Gallery on MG. It’s a mild winter morning, and there are already a couple of families here to select bridal-wear for weddings slated later in the year. “The army life teaches you a lot of discipline. It also makes you resilient because every three years you have to pack up and go to a new city, make new friends, let go of old ones, get into a new school, adapt to it all over again, only to leave in three years. So it gives you such an interesting exposure. Look at Captain CP Krishnan Nair, the founder of The Leela Hotels. It seems like those from the fauji background seem to do pretty well,” he smiles.
While his father, uncles and two older brothers were all committed to the army life, Valaya believes his mother’s gift for embroideries and kidswear may have something “to do with the DNA for embroideries” in her youngest son. “My mom was always teaching army jawans’ wives cross-stitch and smocking, and at the same time used to design her own kidswear, which was phenomenal. I don’t think anyone does that kind of kidswear till date,” he reminisces of his late mother’s talent. The young Jagsharanjit, however, was sure he did not want to join the army or work under anyone else: “I had too many ideas of my own.” He graduated in commerce and began pursuing chartered accountancy. “But in 1987, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore,” he says, and instead joined the newly launched National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), graduating in 1991. “The first outfit I ever made was a jacket for a fellow student. I got the material, took her measurements, and made it myself,” he recalls. “I can’t even begin to tell you how I felt when she paid me Rs 250 for it. I felt like lord of the world, I was the man, I could make money,” he beams. Even today, Valaya says, the jacket continues to be the only silhouette that excites him: “Our clothes have always been more structured and less draped.”
Luckily for Valaya, his father had taken an early retirement from the army and was accustomed to civilian life by then, “which he realized wasn’t all that bad,” and so the young fashion graduate did not face much opposition when he announced that he would set up his own line of menswear. One of his brothers TJ Singh even left his own post in the army to help Valaya establish his business in 1992, after seeing the potential in Valaya’s graduation collection.
The fashion industry in those days was still in its nascent stages, dominated by the likes of the late Rohit Khosla and a handful of others, but Valaya soon discovered his own language and raison d’etre. “I knew that if I have to build something of credibility, it would take time,” he says of his early years. In 1996, he set the tone for a path-breaking career by launching a flagship store from a farmhouse in Chhattarpur, on the suburbs of Delhi en route to Gurgaon, which was barely a city then, forget a designer shopping destination. “I still remember, when we opened, everyone said, ‘This is stunning but it’s way ahead of its time. It’s a white elephant.’ But we proved everyone wrong. We were there for 15 years,” he chuckles.
What was important to him, as now, was the idea of creating an ambience for luxury. “I don’t believe I am in the business of selling clothes, I think it’s more to do with people relating to the aura of the brand, the ethos which is the royal nomad,” he affirms. The royalty factor is evident, of course; it is the Valaya signature. “Nomad, because we are constantly travelling for inspiration. Whether it’s Spain, Morocco or Russia,” he says. His latest collection is in fact called ‘The Ranas of Kachchh’, which is a medley of influences from the Ranas of Nepal and nomads from the interiors of Gujarat. “The royal nomad in me is never going to settle down,” says the father of two girls.
Valaya began making tapestries way back in 1996, the likes of which are on display in the Leela Palace in Delhi. But the full-fledged Valaya Home line, including furniture, decorative pieces and wall art, was launched in December 2014. He insists he’s not reinventing the wheel; every topnotch designer around the world, from Ralph Lauren and Fendi to Versace and Armani, started from fashion and ventured into the home or ‘casa’ space eventually. “Design cannot know boundaries. If you have a style, a signature, which people associate with you, it can then touch anything and everything,” he reasons.
Valaya also has an ‘alter-ego’, he says, which finds expression in art and photography. An avid lensman, his works have been put up at exhibitions and found their way into coffee-table books, notably Decoded Paradox, a stunning book of black-and-white photographs published in 2011. He travels extensively to fuel his love for photography, and has started a blog jjaleph.com where he publishes “interesting insights into the world of aesthetics that excites me, turns me on,” whether it’s a building, a person, a plant or a sky. “Design is a spiritual process. Good design always comes from the spirit, not the mind. Think of the classic Chanel tweed jacket or the Eames chair, things that have endured. I think that’s the ultimate goal for anyone from the design profession,” he says.
If there’s one classic from the Valaya stable, it’s the Alika jacket. Introduced a few years ago, it is Valaya’s signature piece that is reinvented in different formats during every fashion week, and is versatile enough to be paired with any sort of lower, from trousers to lehengas. “We wanted to introduce one silhouette that would withstand the test of time, and it has,” says Valaya, adding that he will showcase a surprising new version of it at a massive fashion show this year to celebrate 25 years of his label.
As a businessman, Valaya strongly believes it is very important to be market-savvy. “The fact that we have been around 25 years means we have figured that part out,” he says wryly. At the same time, he says, “I’m a terrible salesman. I cannot stand in front of a customer and forcibly sell something that isn’t working. If the ethics are wrong, sooner or later, it catches up.” He narrates an incident when he refused to create a fishtail lehenga for a client – “It is a silhouette that I hate; it’s a European silhouette not designed for Indian bodies” – because it felt as if he was cheating himself. “The day you start lying to yourself is the day it all starts going wrong. You need to look inward, how are you evolving? How are you taking yourself to the next level? If you don’t feel it yourself, your customer is certainly not going to feel it,” he philosophises.
The ponytailed designer, who will turn 50 this year, says his creative energy is much higher now than it was when he was a 22-year-old NIFT graduate, and every day is full of exciting lessons. “The day you stop getting excited, the story is over anyway,” he says, adding that no matter what he does, his label will always be about the glory of India. “All I want to do is celebrate India and multiculturism,” says the fashion icon. “Wherever there is history, culture and love for craft, that’s where I belong.”
First published in the summer 2017 issue of The Leela magazine