'It is a milestone': Ace couturier JJ Valaya celebrates three decades in fashion industry

Amid his show at the FDCI India Couture Week 2022, Valaya talks about his latest couture collection, what three decades in the fashion industry means, and more.

Published: 24th July 2022 01:26 PM  |   Last Updated: 24th July 2022 01:26 PM   |  A+A-

Ace couturier JJ Valaya

Ace couturier JJ Valaya (photo| Special Arrangement0

Express News Service

Even though it is early on a Saturday morning, there is a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing at the lower level of the Taj Palace, New Delhi. We are here for the fitting session for couturier JJ Valaya's show at the FDCI India Couture Week 2022 in association with Lotus Make-up that is set to take place at the JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity in a few hours from now on a Sunday.

Models are seen being attentive to details doled out by choreographers while make-up artists are busy revisiting looks that will make it to the final event. Amid the flurry of activity, you find ace couturier JJ Valaya calmly meandering around the space, giving his inputs while simultaneously inspecting every single detail carefully.

Miles covered, and miles to go

A lot has transpired this year for Valaya and his brand. To start with, he celebrates three decades in the industry. Then there was the recent launch of The World of Valaya, his flagship store in the city, which brings together his "three primary loves - fashion, interiors, and photography".

Next up, he will be launching a precious jewellery line with Jagdish Jewellers Chandigarh (1866). "Sketches are being done; we will be ready with that line in three to four months," he tells us as we sit down for an elaborate chat.

Stressing on how there is so much going on in his life currently, we ask him if this was, in any way, a planned approach - something he chalked out amid the two-year sabbatical he took, which extended for a year and more due to the pandemic.

Whilst you can say it was planned, nothing in life is really planned. It [life] surprises you all the time. "You may think you want to do something but something else happens. But I was very clear that fashion, interiors, and photography are the three areas that I really want to give my everything to. Poor photography is getting the least attention; I wish I can give it a lot more. But between fashion and home, there is a lot of action happening. And, it is extremely exciting," he says.

Ready after a creative refresh

With every (unrehearsed) response, Valaya showcases a feeling of contentment - it is such a rare state for most people to be in these days, but he just seems attuned to this quality. Thirty successful years in the business of fashion is no mean feat, mind you.

"Being 30 years… it is a milestone. So, with everything coming together [this year], we are trying to make every single moment count. Also, I am very clear at this point of time that I only want to do things, which totally come from the heart. I do not have the time for things that do not interest me too much. Basically, I have learnt to say no to a lot of things. Despite that, there is a fair amount [of things] we are doing," he says.

Curious about this, we ask him if he ever had to pander to creative demands he never aligned with. "Of course; there was a reason I took that sabbatical. I realised that, first and foremost, I was not being true to myself. And there were just too many things I was agreeing to without it making much sense. It was a tough decision but one of the best decisions of my life," he says.

Impulsive, disruptive, whatever you might call it, it is a decision he has no regrets about. Must we say, it is just the make-or-break decision (in his case, make) Valaya needed. "There were two primary decisions that I took in my life," he adds

"One happened when I was 21, which is quitting chartered accountancy, not knowing what to do, and then discovering NIFT. That totally changed my life. The second one is this, because I was right there, and then I said 'Ok, screw it! Two years, I am going to just disconnect, reconnect within, and then come back with what I want to'."

You understand his sentiment only when you connect the dots and realise the name of this couture collection, which he will showcase in a few hours, is aptly titled 'Alma', meaning ‘soul’ in Spanish. The influences, on paper, are galore - the costumes of the Matador, the motifs on the Manila shawl, and the patterns of the Pericon fan.

All of these dominating ideas point towards maximalism, larger-than-life, flamboyant, et al., aesthetics Valaya has embraced whole-heartedly. Not the first time a destination has served as muse… the designer is known to dive into books or even travel memories, and incorporate his takeaway into designs. In fact, this one reminds us of the ‘Maharaja of Madrid’ collection he showcased for a Fashion Tour in 2013.

Valaya explains, "I have picked up nuances from all my past collections - detail from one, motif from somewhere, colour from somewhere, a technique from another - and have incorporated it into the season's collection. So, if you ask me, today you will see 42 collections in one collection. For the first time, we are showcasing a collection where each piece has its own little story."

Fashion and the recent discourse

In a post-pandemic fashion age, every conversation is almost incomplete without important, need-of-the-hour words such as digitisation or minimalism. How has couture - a concept that assimilates luxury, intimacy, and exclusivity - evolved for Valaya, who is not just a self-proclaimed maximalist but also an out-and-out couturier?

Was there a momentary thought given to design ethos and whether it should be changed in a post-COVID world? "I believed, and will always believe that something so regressive [as COVID] that shakes up the entire world is always transient. If you are a rock-solid brand, you will never change for the transient phase; you will keep evolving and taking yourself to where your original trajectory was," he says.

Steering the conversation to Indian weddings - big, small, or somewhere in between - Valaya mentions, with no doubt whatsoever that "girls and boys still want to look like a million bucks… Whether it is for 15 people or 5,000 people is irrelevant".

The 54-year-old designer is certain that the pandemic was meant to teach us to be a more "grateful race"; it was "not meant to teach us how to do business".

He continues, "As a brand, we were clear that I took that two-year off to realign everything, to reconstruct everything. So, we knew that this was transient. And, after something negative such as a pandemic or a war gets over, luxury comes back with a huge bang."

Embracing all things larger than life

While there is no evident change he is planning for the brand, Valaya mentions that there is a phase of reinvention. "I am on an evolutionary spin," he says, adding, "But I always benchmark my success as a collection with what happens after the show. I have put in my best, the team has done their best, but like I always say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating."

For a designer, there are no better cheerleaders and critics than clients, and Valaya is sure of that. "Clients are the absolute benchmark if you are running a business. If you are an artist, they can go take a walk. We run a business, so it is important to find a balance between art and commerce; and of course, remaining true to my soul," he says.

There are so many hints in conversation, which affirm that maximalism is a way of life for Valaya. We are a maximalist country; he says with just about no qualms. In fact, he backs it up with ample facts one cannot possibly ignore.

"I have always believed in maximalism, because India is maximalist and this is something we all tend to forget. Look at our weddings, the whole shebang, as opposed to the poor white wedding, where one white gown and one tuxedo does the job. Weddings in India are like grandeur… let's not even go there. Then look at our festivals; do we have a simple festival? Never. It is all elaborate. Cuisines!? Go to Paris, they will give you a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a bottle of wine, and you are done. Over here, we get into the masalas, spices, flavours…north to south, east to west, you will go crazy putting Indian food together. Even our crafts - elaborate. Indian architecture - they were chiselling away at rocks for years to create temples. So, who are we pretending to be?"

Valaya calls it the "gora [Western] hangover; people think it must be cool so let's imbibe it". Stating Italy as an example, he mentions how the country has managed to fuse its colossal characteristics with modest ones.

"Italy has the most ornate, baroque carvings and the cleanest minimal lines in the world. And both these co-exist. They value both. Similarly in India, look at the heritage - our weavers, embroiderers; if we do not keep their craft alive then who will?" he asks.

Valaya is also crystal clear that his responsibility goes beyond his clientele and him, "As an Indian designer, I have to celebrate this country, and any country which has craft as its legacy - the Spice Route, Silk Route, I am forever enamoured by it. That is what I do; I continue to make beautiful clothes and make people wearing them feel good about themselves. That is the primary job of a designer anyway," he says.

Staying true to one's identity

By the end of our conversation, it would be right to say that it looks like Valaya has reached the zenith of luxury that he often refers to. When it comes to his brand, the designer is very obstinate that luxury, something he is associated with, has to be top-notch.

"Experientially, luxury has to be up there. There are no shortcuts. You have to take everything to the nth level - the experience, the space, the detailing, your staff; obviously your product comes number one. A brand creates a signature and then people come to it for that. So, it is not that they [brands] need to keep reinventing the wheel," he says. Sticking true to his brand identity has been instrumental to Valaya.

For Valaya, his stance in design language has remained constant in the 30 years he has taken to carve out a niche for himself. "We are known as the royal nomads with a penchant for Art Deco. Every collection of mine will have a royal twist; a joy in contradiction and therefore the nomadic streak, which is a complete contradiction to royalty; and a definite affinity to the Art Deco period, which I thought was the most glamorous and coolest era ever,' he says.

"All these three elements are what I play around with, so every collection is going to be another beautiful story told using the same words. You just follow with your own story, and the aim is to keep pushing it and take it to the nth level," he says.

Always going with the flow

A major support for Valaya comes from his daughter, Hoorvi Valaya (24) - she styles his campaigns. Seated right next to us but engrossed in her own banter with members of the crew, a confident Hoorvi has been on her toes all morning at the fittings, creatively directing models and staff (and at times, her father). "I trust her. Obviously, she had to inherit the tough nut attitude from me. She is a good critic," he says.

Does Hoorvi's suggestions help with understanding and catering to a younger clientele? "Sadly, she is not involved with the collection at all, which gives me a little pain, and a secret joy since that means I am still having fun the way I want to," Valaya says.

"But between the two of us, we create a look which is now a perfect balance between what the brand stands for and what it needs to do to be relevant to every generation that wears them. That is where she comes in. Hopefully, one day she will join the brand," he says.

Throughout this tête-a-tête, Valaya routinely talks about "going with the flow" and also reveals without delving into details that he is soon going to be working on two Hollywood projects - he has earlier worked on the Eddie Murphy-starrer Coming 2 America along with Ruth E Carter (a 2019 Academy award winner for Best Costume Design for Black Panther).

"Such a complete departure from bridal wear, right?" We concur, and are ready to wind up with one final question. Did he ever envision 30 years in the Indian fashion industry?

"I am a fauji [army] kid; my dad would get posted every three years, and that made me resilient for sure, because of how often I saw a change of friends and homes. But, never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would create a brand that has national interest and, to some extent, international relevance. I am deeply grateful… to God who makes it happen, and to everybody who embraced the brand. Because you are nobody without your appreciators," he concludes.


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