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The Anglo-Indian-Nigerian designer at the vanguard of British fashion

The National logo The National 04/05/2022 Sarah Maisey

“When I was growing up, there weren’t many black celebrities who had their natural hair out,” says Priya Ahluwalia. She felt that only Eurocentric ideals of beauty were promoted, and Ahluwalia’s own identity was somehow not regarded as valid.

Now part of a new vanguard of British designers shaking up the fashion industry, Ahluwalia frames her work around her British, Nigerian and Indian heritage, using her collections to explore and celebrate her diverse upbringing. For spring/summer 2022, she has examined the culture of black and brown hair.

“Black hair is an amazing example of artistry, tradition and beauty,” says Ahluwalia. “With my spring/summer 2022 collection, I wanted to show the beauty of black hair, to flip the narrative, and progress multifaceted representation of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian culture and people in general,” she says.

For spring/summer 2022, Priya Alhuwalia has examined the culture of black and brown hair. Photo: Alhuwalia © Provided by The National For spring/summer 2022, Priya Alhuwalia has examined the culture of black and brown hair. Photo: Alhuwalia

To accompany the new collection, Ahluwalia has made a short film called Parts of Me. Directed by Akinola Davies Jr, it is a story of family bonds, and showcases several styles of black and brown hair.

The aim is to normalise them — in the US, for example, sporting certain traditional hair styles, including locs, cornrows, twists, braids, Bantu knots and Afros, is still considered legitimate grounds for non-promotion in some corporate jobs.

Last month, the US House of Representatives voted to pass the Crown (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act, a bill that seeks to ban race-based hair discrimination in employment. The Biden administration released a statement expressing support for the act, saying: “The president believes that no person should be denied the ability to obtain a job, succeed in school or the workplace, secure housing, or otherwise exercise their rights based on a hair texture or hairstyle.”

Speaking about natural, non-chemically treated hair, Ahluwalia says: “It is often used as the basis of discrimination, and I think it’s important to amplify these conversations to show how special it is and how much respect it deserves.”

Fusing the vibrant colours and patterning of Nigeria with the extraordinary handwork skills of India, Alhuwalia is creating a new lexicon for British menswear. Photo Alhuwalia © Provided by The National Fusing the vibrant colours and patterning of Nigeria with the extraordinary handwork skills of India, Alhuwalia is creating a new lexicon for British menswear. Photo Alhuwalia

Since launching her namesake label in 2018, fresh from finishing a master’s in menswear at the University of Westminster, Ahluwalia has been pushing the boundaries of what menswear can be. Fusing the vibrant colours and patterning of Nigeria with the extraordinary handwork skills of India, she is creating a new lexicon for British menswear.

Despite being such a young label, Ahluwalia’s list of achievements is already impressive. Only months after graduating, she picked up the 2019 H&M Design Award, which supports outstanding graduates.

In January 2019, she made her debut at Paris Fashion Week, with an autumn/winter menswear collection. That same season, she collaborated with Adidas Maker Lab and, a few months later, showed at Arise Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria, and was chosen by the British Fashion Council’s Newgen initiative, in support of her spring/summer 2020 men’s collection.

In November 2019, she launched a 10-piece capsule collection with Browns of London and by March 2020, had been included on the Forbes 30 under 30 European Arts and Culture list. In April, she was named as one of the joint winners of the LVMH Prize 2020, and was then hand-picked by Alessandro Michele at Gucci to contribute a short film to GucciFest, with her project Joy launching in November.

The designer has also moved into womenswear. Photo: Alhuwalia © Provided by The National The designer has also moved into womenswear. Photo: Alhuwalia

“I think my heritage, narrative and perspective on design offers something new to the industry. I am really interested in the clothes people wear in India, Nigeria and England, and I like the nuances between them all. While they have similarities, each country has its own vibe,” she says.

For spring/summer, Ahluwalia has created a co-ed collection with a strong 1970s undertone. Retro tracksuits are reimagined and are now patchworked from circular pieces, to create curved lines that wrap around the body. Knitwear also arrives as patchworked slip dresses, and even denim seems to be cut on the round. Tops and jackets are patterned to mimic hair braids and dresses are emblazoned with bold patterns, sometimes with added embroidery.

Most importantly, each piece is different to the next, something that is vital for Ahluwalia. “In both the countries where I am from — India and Nigeria — you have a local tailor who tailors your outfit, whether it’s for a party or for life or whatever, and I think what is interesting about that is that everyone can be quite unique. My brand is giving that to people.

“With the patchwork pieces I create, for example, none of them are the same. I am speaking to that need for individuality and having something that is unique, so you are more likely to treasure it.”

Priya Ahluwalia was the 2021 recipient of the The Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. Courtesy British Fashion Council © Provided by The National Priya Ahluwalia was the 2021 recipient of the The Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. Courtesy British Fashion Council

Part of that approach is the company’s exclusive use of deadstock — surplus fabric left over from previous seasons by fashion manufacturers. “We work with deadstock materials to repurpose the old into new, exciting clothing, which not only finds new life for these materials, but also eliminates waste.”

For Ahluwalia, this approach is the only credible route to take. “I believe that I can be responsible with business, but still create desirable clothes that are fun and interesting to wear.”

This focus on sustainability has already earned the label The Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, but it is more than a token gesture, Ahluwalia says. “I have done a lot of research and looked into the recycling industry, so I have seen the reality of what we as humans are doing to destroy the planet. Once you have seen something like that, there isn’t any way you can design without that in mind.”

This commitment to repurposing deadstock opened up new possibilities for Ahluwalia last year. This included an expansion into womenswear, via a collaboration with Danish brand Ganni, on a capsule collection made from leftover fabrics. “I had always known I wanted to go into womenswear, and ever since my first show, lots of people had been asking me about it. Having the support of the Ganni collaboration allowed me to do so.”

Now a fixture of the brand, womenswear is instinctual for the designer. “I love to design for women — I actually insert myself into the design process a lot. Thinking about what my friends and I wear, and what we would want to wear to certain occasions, for example, on a date or to the club.”

Ahluwalia presented its autumn/winter 2022 fashion show on the second day of London Fashion Week. AFP © Provided by The National Ahluwalia presented its autumn/winter 2022 fashion show on the second day of London Fashion Week. AFP

Last year, Ahluwalia also won the British Fashion Council / GQ Menswear Designer Fund, which came with £150,000 ($197,960) of funding, and the designer was invited to rework Mulberry’s classic Portobello tote for the brand’s 50th anniversary.

When Mulberry contacted her about the project, Ahluwalia jumped at the chance. “Mulberry is such an iconic brand, one that I have memories of from my childhood, ever since I used to borrow my mum’s bag, so it was an opportunity to collaborate with a brand that is very meaningful to me.”

True to form, the new bags are all made from repurposed leather scraps from Mulberry’s factory. While such thinking is second nature for the designer, it is still something of a revelation for the wider industry.

As she helps redraw how fashion operates, Ahluwalia could be forgiven for crowing about her impact, yet she remains remarkable grounded. “There have been so many highlights and I’m so lucky to have been on such an extraordinary journey.”

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