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September 3, 1997


Once upon a dream

Wendy J Bisht

A J J Valaya creation In 1988, he was your average joe, living a ho-hum life in Le Corbusier's meticulously designed Chandigarh, the capital city that two states wrangled over. He had average ambitions and was studying to be a chartered accountant. Life was hunky-dory, predictable and uneventful.

Until, one morning, he had an incredible thought, "I just don't want to go to class -- today, the next day, ever." Call it impulse, call it divine intervention. He quit chartered accountancy and, for a year, did nothing. In that suspension of time, he lost the course he had charted through life and gained a dream. But he didn't know that then.

Divining artistic talent in the oil canvases that he painted, his uncle suggested Jagatsharan Jit try for a course in design at the newly opened National Institute of Fashion Design in Delhi. He came to came to the nation's capital for the entrance examination that would seal the fate of about 12,000 other hopefuls. It was only then he realised he had a dream -- to become a top Indian fashion designer.

The competition was stiff, only 20 of the thousands who took the examination would gain admission to the institute. "That was one of the most tense periods of my life. Because I had realised, by then, that this is what I really wanted to do. When I went for the interview there were all these hip-hop people -- and there I was in coordinated clothes, maroon all the way, mind you!"

This is a man who is not afraid to laugh at himself. "I was one of the worst dressers ever -- sloppy and careless." But, in a sense, clothes don't make the man, for there is more talent in one of his stubby finger tips than there was in all the hip-hop people put together.

It wasn't long in the showing either. In 1990, he became the first Indian to win the Prix d' Incitation, or the Air France award in common parlance, for the best Indian entry. The short physical journey from Chandigarh to Delhi proved to be a much greater one in mental and creative significance.

"It wasn't just one thing; there were a number of factors playing -- the oils I painted, the Air France Award was a mega booster -- that made me become a fashion designer." And the capstone to all these factors; J J met Rohit Khosla with whom Indian fashion first gained definition. "Nobody has his style or panache. I became his first assistant and trained with him. Rohit was a major influence in developing my design sensibilities."

Heads I win!

A J J Valaya creation Come 1991 and, on the flip of a coin, he launched the J J Valaya label. "My friends were horrified. They pointed out that there was no chance I'd make it with all the big fish around." For a decade and more, the top league of designers hadn't changed and it made empirical sense that J J's designer label didn't have a whisper of hope. J J, though, had confidence in his dream, "I knew the odds but I decided to take a chance. I think it's a Surdi (Sardarji) attitude!"

It was a "Will it? Won't it?" on his lips that he launched his first commercial collection in Calcutta in 1991. There were hard lessons in store. "It was a total disaster. Not a single piece sold." The magic carpet ride ended with a thud.

He realised his head-in-the-clouds student days were over, this was the real world. It was not enough to pour heart and soul into design. He had to make his label sell. With his first cheque amounting to only Rs 2,000, the passport to his endeavour was stamped with `welcome to reality'. He displayed his designs through Ffolio in Bangalore, and they sold well.

With one master cutter, one tailor and one embroiderer he started his first workshop in Vasant Kunj. By now, J J realised he needed somebody to handle the nitty-gritty of the business. Someone with organisational and financial ability, someone he could trust. He turned to his family. In 1992, his brother, Major T J Singh quit the army and took up the administrative and financial reins of the J J Valaya line, leaving J J free to lavish all his attention on creating and design.

Fashion forever

val A Fashion is more than mere statement for J J. It is the reflection of a way of life. "For me, fashion is an attempt to make something immortal -- therein lies the difference between fashion and fad. I am not interested in creating something that is in today and out tomorrow. A garment must exude some character."

Rich silks embroidered with zari (gold thread), gossamer-thin chiffons and georgettes, intricate weaves, saturated colours, a mosaic of prints; the exquisite trousseau of a radiant bride today, becomes a legacy for her daughter 20 years later and maybe.... with the passing of another 20 years, is handed down to her granddaughter along with generations-old rubies, flashing immortal fire.

This is JJ Valaya's vision, to create not just a piece, but a durable, refulgent masterpiece that is handed down from one generation to the next. And each creation, like brilliants, jewellery and all great art, should be forever. "If I can do that, I've achieved my goal."

Stirring influences

His creations are a revival. "Of course, to make a statement, you need enough people." In the immediate background of grinding poverty, dirt, and pollution, we lose sight of our rich traditional inheritance. But J J, through his creations, opens that lustrous page of history peopled by richly-clad royalty. "I call it my modern maharaja look," he quips.

He is inspired by the grandeur, the opulence of the period characterised by the burnished silks and velvets, shimmering satins, encrusted brocades, the exquisite legacy of a bygone age. "I haven't been influenced by travel -- not yet. But books are a major passion. I don't mean reading, but books that speak to me through rich and varied images." The visual is a powerfully animating element and part of his creative bent emerges through his keen interest and involvement in photography.

The dynamics of fashion

A J J Valaya creation "I compete with myself. Every year, it is important for me to like the show I'm doing better than the one I did the year before. The day that doesn't happen, I'll die a mental death. I'll know it's all over. In this business, it's a race against yourself. Last year's showing contained all the elements of my upswing mood -- things were going well, I was going to be married... The joy and happiness in the colours, the concepts all make for potent fashion. Sometimes, I can clearly see a show in my mind's eye. The concept for this year's winter collection was actually born last year. I could see the whole show happening in my mind. Yet, at times, I draw a blank... and there could be only two months left for the show. By its very nature, design is erratic and, hence, fun."

Despite the fact that summer is a lean period in the fashion world, J J held a summer showing in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industries on February 9. "By and large, summer fashion is ill-defined. The summer showing was a success largely owing to good timing. The weather was great and coming out early gave us a lead on the season."

The collection featured five distinct styles. One had, as its inspiration, the Uchkur, a Turkish drape. The second perpetuated the Japanese legend of Tanabata. The accent was on minimalism, in colour, fabric and furbishing. "A deep blue-black was offset by cream to create a lot of character and give a more saturated look than simply contrasting a stark black and white. Foliage embroidery, with just a hint of peach, created a delicate harmony."

The third was shadow work from Awadh on sheer georgette. The fourth, prints on lightweight crepe de chine. The fifth was an experiment with antique anarasi borders used with chemically treated metals on a neutral palette of old rose, grey, midnight blue, cream and smoke blue to create an `heirloom look'. A reluctant description, for J J feels, "Some things can't be put into words."

The fabric of life

"The sad part to do with glamour is the total lack of values, genuineness and business ethics. Sometimes it gets so fake, people forget what they really are. You need to create your own world." And J J's Defence Colony apartment in New Delhi is such an oasis of calm. Here he can sit sipping tea surrounded by the cool green of his terrace plants; he can lose himself in the jewel tones of his softly carpeted living room. That for him is the most wonderful part of being married, to have somebody who is always there for you, " matter if I'm good, bad or indifferent."

With J J Valaya Life, he has gone beyond mere clothes. "While fashion will always be the mainstay, I've gone into the whole business of roti, kapada aur makan (food, clothing and shelter) -- on the high end, of course. Because that is the stuff that life is made of. It was a dream that was conceptualised over two-and-a-half years."

Spread over an acre-and-a-half, J J Valaya Life opened in Chhatarpur in October 1996. It provides everything from home furnishing and art furniture to haute cuisine. Cafe Ella, named after Ella Fitzgerald, features South European cuisine and blues music. "It's the synergy of a lot of talents wherein we promote artists from different fields. I work in tandem with them." That includes everything from planning an exhibition of art furniture to tasting sessions with the chef to decide on additions to the menu. From intent to reality. J J Valaya has succeeded in creating his own world.

On fashion, frustration and fellow-men

"Since fashion has everything to do with society, there is bound to be a rub off. It can get taxing and it is a terrible drain dealing with the la-di-dah society types. I agree completely with Rohit Bal -- it's time Indian women stop thinking of Indian designers as their private couturiers." Having said that, he does admit that, in some ways, this is a symbiotic relationship. The buyer tries to impress upon the designer her wants and musts as an expression of her individuality. And the designer imbibes and accepts the creative challenge of creating for an individual.

"According to an article in A&M, fashion worldwide has the highest estimated manpower, both direct and indirect. Of course, ours is a fledgling industry born in 1987." The lack of recognition and respect for the fashion industry is a constant irritant. "A lot of people think fashion is a joke." This inability to take another man's labours seriously and view his achievement with respect came home to him recently on his honeymoon in Australia. "It doesn't matter what you are, a bus driver, a life guard or a gas station attendant as long as you do your job well. The Aussies are great."

Coming back to what irks him most, "Another vice of the Indian mindset is to pull down others who are on their way up. Have you heard the joke about the crabs?" And he gleefully expounds, "A man once went to a seafood restaurant and asked for crabs. The waiter rolled up a trolley lined with dishes. Whisking off the cover of the first he said, "These are Polynesian crabs." Whisking off the next, he said, "These crabs are the finest Hawaiian." Lifting the cover of the third with a flourish, he announced, "These are Australian crabs." Coming to the last uncovered dish he said, "And these are Indian crabs." At which, the diner said, "Why aren't they covered like the rest?' And the answer was, "Because when one tries to climb out, the others pull him back."

"I wish the fashion community was more knitted. There is a real need for a guild. We've been talking about it for the last four years, but nothing has happened. It's a case of belling the cat, somebody has to take responsibility."

About his work in fashion design, J J says, "The brand has reached where it had to, in terms of goodwill. In the coming year, I plan to make the label global. I believe in destiny -- if it is meant to happen, it will. It all begins with a dream, and I've been dreaming a long time."

OTHER LINKS: India Fashion Gallery

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