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November 30, 1999


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The Rediff Enterprise Interview/ J J Valaya

'The fashion industry is not taken very seriously here' continues its occasional series of interviews celebrating the spirit of Indian enterprise. We began the series with Shyam Ahuja, the caliph of the carpet. Today: Jagsharan Jeet Valaya, the high priest of haute coutre.

J J Valaya, 32, is the new guru of Indian fashion. In Mumbai last week to open retail outlets and showcase his stunning fall-winter collection, Valaya explains to Pritish Nandy the key metaphors that inspire his work. And why his shows, like his designs, leave such an enduring impact on audiences. A chat with Jagsharan Jeet Singh Ahluwalia, the man behind the label.

What are the key metaphors that have inspired your work?

Royalty. In my last birth I must have been a maharaja. I have this thing about royalty which shows through all my work. Even my fashion shows attempt to explore that kind of scale, that kind of impact.

Royalty has so many faces. Which one inspired you? North Indian Hindu royalty? The Sikh kings? The Nawabs of Oudh? The Nizams of Hyderabad? Each had its own traditions, its own colours and its own exotica.

Royalty in general inspired my work. I like the colours, the period craftsmanship, the weaves, the sense of history that it rubs off. If you look at the colours I use, you will notice the jewel tones. Emerald greens, ruby reds, pearl whites. You will see the way I use oxidised copper. The burnished colours of metal. You will notice the way I age it.

Ageing brings in its own nuances, its own sense of history. I do not like the feel of the new. Every element in my work must have a sense of history. It must bring in the past, it must recreate and restore tradition. Royalty for me is history, it's the past. It's the past larger than life. I try to replicate that larger than life quality in my work.

What about wearability? I remember once watching Noyonika Chatterjee sashaying down the ramp with huge plants in her headgear as part of a JJ Valaya design. Surely you do not expect real people to wear that kind of stuff?

That was part of a Filmfare show if I remember right. There are actually two elements in a fashion show. One is wearability. My works are extremely wearable. I try to focus on that. The other is impact. We do some things for sheer impact (at times) so that people remember the label. There are designers who show a lot of skin for impact. But, if you ask me, wearability is a very important thing for me. I like people to wear my clothes.

What about context?

Context is also very important for me. I believe that if any one of us are to make an impact on the world of fashion, if we want to be noticed in Europe we must focus on designs and textures that are essentially Indian. No one will notice us if we start designing the kind of things that French and Italian designers are already wellknown for. Our designs must be essentially Indian if we want to be noticed.

Have you shown your work overseas in solo shows?

Yes. But not very seriously. I have done two charity shows. They were noticed, commented on. But that was all. Over there, you must remember, fashion is serious business. If you do not do it seriously, no one has the time for you.

But here it looks as if its part of the entertainment business?

That's the problem, I agree. That is also why the fashion industry is not taken very seriously here. It does not look like, it is not promoted like serious business. After all, at the end of all the colour and splendour and lovely models, what we are actually looking at is an industry. A serious multi-million dollar industry. If we are to break into it, we must treat it seriously. Like a business. Maybe we have not understood that as yet in India.

Is that why you are going retail in Mumbai? Will you sell your pret-a-porter line or your high fashion stuff here?

We are opening two separate places for the two. In Studio Valaya at Crossroads we will sell the pret line. In JJ Valaya at Vama, behind the main store, we will keep the expensive high fashion stuff. We expect different kinds of buyers in the two places and, as far as I am concerned, I want to try and make a serious breakthrough in Bombay.

It is quite a city, even though I do not claim to know it too well, and I think my designs will do very well here. People dress well here. They are fashion conscious. You should have seen the show. The turnout was absolutely amazing. I think we have an opportunity out here.

How did you enter the fashion business?

It was a very strange entry. I did my chartered accountancy and then moved on. This was something I wanted to do. So I went back to school. To design school this time…

In Delhi?

Yes and the moment I came out I launched my label sometime around the end of 1991. I planned it that way. My brother also joined me in the business and we started the JJ Valaya line in early 1992.

You have this spectacular place in Delhi. How come you are opening just a retail shop here?

That's in one of those huge, sprawling farm houses spread out over one and a half acres near Chhattarpur. How will I ever find space like that in Bombay? It is a place where I can showcase my entire collection and show people what I have done over these eight years. That is my flagship store. I do not think I will be able to ever replicate it.

Do you, like the rest, largely focus on women's clothing?

You will be surprised, Pritish. Fifty per cent of our sales come from men's clothes. Yes, there is a huge market there as well. It is just that not too many designers have focused on it.

Here, too, do you focus on Indian clothes?

Yes, we do. But we actually do both. It could be a beautiful long, black achkan with amazing embroidery in burnished copper sneaking through its gaps or it could be Western style suits with that very special Indian touch. We try and do innovative things. Different from the rest. Yet very Indian. With that exclusive touch of history. The sense of times gone by. Recapturing our most glorious period, when the rajas and maharajas nurtured the arts and lived with such style and grandeur. I love that period of Indian history and will always be inspired by it. It's like Indian art. Very rich, very original.

You paint?

Yes, I love painting but I am never very satisfied with the works when I have completed them.

What kind of work? Figurative?

I can never speak of my art. Like I cannot describe my designs. I am, I guess, simply capable of creating, not discussing my creations.

What does JJ stand for?

It's a long story…

Try me.

Well, my name was actually Jagsharan Jeet and there was of course the ubiquitous Singh. And Ahluwalia became Valia. In those days, when you are in design school, you lie back and dream of what your label will look like, what it should look like. That's how the JJ Valaya label was born.


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