IF PRIYA AHLUWALIA subscribed to an aphorism it would be “knowledge is power.” Throughout the course of our conversation at the designer’s central London studio, she frequently reflects on her lust for learning, whether that’s to better understand the day’s headlines or to research concepts for her rich and storied collections. This natural tendency for nerdiness, or what she calls being “a curious person,” has helped fuel Ahluwalia’s rise to becoming one of the most sought-after names in fashion.
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In little over three years, she has gone from completing the MA Menswear program at the University of Westminster to winning some of the most prestigious accolades on offer to young designers, among them the BFC/GQ Designer Menswear Fund, the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, and the LVMH Prize. Plus, the likes of Adidas, Ganni, Mulberry, Gucci, Dropbox, and Microsoft have lined up to collaborate. All that and yet the first thing the 28-year-old tells me when we settle down to chat is, “I still live with my mum.”
Ahluwalia grew up in southwest London among a nurturing family — her mother is Indian, her father is Nigerian, and her stepfather is Jamaican. “I was always the fashion girl. In primary school there was a competition, and I was voted most fashionable,” she recalls, laughing. “I started buying vintage really young and read fashion magazines from front to back.”
A “high achiever” throughout school, it was during her post-graduate studies that a trip to Lagos to visit her father proved pivotal. “While in the car, I noticed all these hawkers wearing secondhand Western clothing, so I wound down the window and asked them about it. They told me about Aswani Market. I learned about the West selling clothes given to charity for profit, which ends up being dumped or recycled in other parts of the world.” From there, she traveled to Panipat, the city north of Delhi often dubbed the “cast-off capital of the world,” and created her first photo book, “Sweet Lassi.” “I knew then that I wanted to work in a responsible way. My SS19 graduate collection was an exploration of that journey and of my dual heritage. That became the founding principles of the brand you see today.”
Her innovative practice is wedded to being environmentally and socially conscious. She only uses surplus, post-consumer, recycled, and organic materials. Garments are made in women-owned factories and with social enterprises. Her team is predominantly Black women. This way of working speaks to the global fashion industry’s post-pandemic rush to present itself as more mindful, but for Ahluwalia it’s a given. “I do it because I believe fashion could be a real force for good,” she reflects. “But my contribution is miniscule and we’re fighting a losing battle unless the fast-fashion businesses get on board. I just hope that as new generations come in, attitudes will change.”
Above all, Ahluwalia is about handsomely crafted clothes steeped in meaning. Each season her mood boards overflow with inspiration drawn from heart and home. The resulting collections are often accompanied by short films that expand the narrative, as is the case for FW21, the film titled “Traces.” Drawing on Yaa Gyasi’s masterful novel “Homegoing,” the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, and the Harlem Renaissance, “Traces” is a meditation on syncretism — the magic that happens when cultures collide. Eminently wearable menswear pieces nod to soccer uniforms, workwear, and relaxed tailoring realized in an earthy color palette. Her signature pipe-seamed patchwork of fabrics reference migration maps, and the central print is made up of a compass of Afro combs. Meanwhile, her film with director Stephen Isaac-Wilson, featuring cktrl, a multi-instrumentalist artist, is a salute to brotherhood and unity through movement and jazz. It’s the full package — cerebral clothes, made with love, that men yearn to wear.
For SS22, women get a piece of the action too with Ahluwalia’s first collection for him and her, accompanied by “Parts of Me,” a film directed by Akinola Davies Jr. For this project with Mulberry, she reached for a sketchbook she’d long been compiling on Black and South Asian hair. Think U.K. garage ravers meets the photographic archive of J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere. These are translated into wavy prints and embroideries hailing the artistry of braiding across figure-caressing silhouettes. “I was thinking about the female form. I wanted them to be clothes you could be comfortable in, and feel sexy in, and feel confident in,” she says. Today her own gloriously long braids are tied back nonchalantly and she’s wearing a mint-hued tracksuit that certainly means business.
London’s menswear scene is leading the world thanks to the accomplishments of designers of color such as Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner, Nicholas Daley, Saul Nash, and Bianca Saunders. Ahluwalia is proud to stand alongside them and to be the role model she never had. “When I was growing up, other than Joe Casely-Hayford and Ozwald Boateng, there was no one in fashion who looked like me,” she says. “My generation is totally different. It’s beautiful, it’s vibrant. All of us explore our heritage in different ways — and look how different our brands are. So that shows you just how much there is to unpack through authentic storytelling.”
Last year Ahluwalia’s second book, “Jalebi,” saw the designer respond to the growing hostility in the U.K. against migration writ large by the Windrush scandal, Brexit, and Black Lives Matter protests. A collaboration with photographer Laurence Ellis, it’s an ode to Southall, home to London’s Punjabi community. Similarly, “Joy,” her film commissioned for GucciFest and directed by Samona Olanipekun, celebrates the Black experience in the U.K. From carnival to the boxing ring, church to the dinner table, Zimbabwe to Trinidad, a chorus of intergenerational voices shares the importance of performing Afro-Caribbean rituals as acts of self-love.
“‘Joy’ was inspired by the book ‘The Black House’ by Colin Jones about the lives of Black youths in the 1970s,” Ahluwalia explains. “That led me to speak to Jackie and Natania Boyce about Rupert Boyce, who was one of the Mangrove Nine,” a group of Black activists who were tried and acquitted for inciting a riot in Notting Hill, west London, in 1970. It became a landmark case recognizing racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Ahluwalia pauses, takes a breath. “I’ve got goosebumps. It makes me feel really emotional …” Her eyes begin to glisten as she takes another beat. “I remember being on set and thinking, I need to take in and remember every detail for the rest of my life. It was just one of the most important things I’ve ever done. I feel like I’m going to cry …” And she does, just for one moment before wiping a tear away and continuing: “My stepdad had passed away five months before, so it was a tribute to his life. Conversations that I’d had with him were instrumental for the film.”
Having accomplished so much so swiftly, and with the support and mentorship that has come with the awards she’s won — not to mention having a finance director for a mother — Ahluwalia is primed to realize her wider ambitions in the long term. “I want to walk into a house with an Ahluwalia sofa, Ahluwalia candles, and Ahluwalia makeup, where you can moisturize with Ahluwalia Skin and wear Ahluwalia shoes,” she quips, smiling brightly now, and thinking blue-sky. “I want to do everything. I want a nice life!” If anyone can make the dream a reality, it’s this whip-smart and genuine artist.
Helen Jennings Writer
Helen Jennings is a London-based writer and the editorial director of Nataal, the digital platform and magazine celebrating global African creativity. She has contributed to publications including Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, AnOther, Newsweek, CNN Style, and Apartamento. She also penned the book "New African Fashion" and has written essays for several other books, most recently "Africa Modern" and "Fashion & Post-Colonial Critique."
Laurence Ellis Photographer
Laurence Ellis is a London-based photographer. His work has appeared in T Magazine, More or Less, Document Journal, M Le Monde, i-D, Fantastic Man, and Interview.