JJ Valaya: Drama king
The man who never fails to overwhelm with his ramp shows. High on drama and larger than life.
- Published 28.03.20, 7:42 PM
- Updated 28.03.20, 7:42 PM
- 8 mins read
He is a maximalist at heart. Much like our country — vibrant and culturally flamboyant. Well, flamboyance can easily be his middle name. JJ Valaya. The man who never fails to overwhelm with his ramp shows. High on drama and larger than life. It was at one such show in Mumbai last month that The Telegraph caught up with the veteran designer backstage. Excerpts from the chat…
You have completed three decades in fashion. Take us to the very beginning and tell us how it all started...
I was always very good at art. Since school, I was always the best artist all years running. After that, in the 80s nobody thought of fashion as a career. When you get out of school, you either do an MBA or become a doctor or an engineer or a chartered accountant — there were these four professions. So, I did my B.Com Honours and grudgingly got into CA and one day revolted and went and sold all my books. I came back and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do know what I’m not doing!” Then an uncle from Delhi visited and said something new called NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) has opened up. That’s it, it was love at first sight in 1989. I was just telling a friend yesterday that including my NIFT years, it has now been 31 years in fashion.
That’s a long time! How were those initial years in fashion in the 90s like?
Oh, those were beautiful years! It was so different; we were just like five or six designers in all. I think one of the first stores that opened and started selling fashion was called Ffolio in Bangalore and in Delhi was Signature and then Glitterati, then Ensemble. These four or five stores came up literally while we were starting our careers. It was great, the community was very closely knit. It was a much warmer environment; it has become a bit bland now and regimental. If you talk to the older lot in any profession, they’d say, ‘Humare time mein toh…’ and I’m not implying that. But I’m saying that the DNA of the profession has significantly changed. To me, it’s as exciting today as it was then. As a matter of fact, the kind of excitement that’s there in me at this point of time is probably equivalent, if not more than what I felt when I was 22.
Do you remember your first big break?
Yeah, my first big break was selling my chartered accountancy books! I took a stand and had I not taken that stand I’d have been the most sulky man for many years to come. Then, NIFT happened, which was life changing. Then I became the first Indian fashion student to win a major award in Paris in 1990. It was also the year I met Rohit Khosla, who I still think is the father of modern Indian fashion. Then, of course, my final decision sitting on the steps of NIFT flipping a coin and deciding if it’s heads I’ll launch my label and if it’s tails I’ll go work with somebody. And heads it was, so I launched my label. There are so many beautiful moments, I can just go on and on (smiles).
Do you feel that being an army kid and staying in different cities as a child helped you in your creative growth?
It definitely helped me in my growth, creative is part of it. I think fauji kids generally turn out more robust and much more solid. They’ve seen the world, they’ve adapted, they’ve left old friends behind, they’ve gone to new places and made new ones. I think all that makes them more robust and there’s an atmosphere of discipline all around. It’s something that you imbibe. Being an army kid is a huge leveller. It makes you humble, it doesn’t make you fly. I think that’s very important for success. You can achieve as much as you want but you should be as grounded as possible.
What matters to you most as a fashion designer?
I like to look at my collections from a viewpoint of art, whether it’s fashion or interiors or even my photography. So, I try and keep an artistic perspective in mind because I think that endures. Anything gimmicky is too short-lived and utterly boring. I don’t want to look back any more at my work from a few years ago and wonder how I did it. So, I’d rather focus on creating things now that give me joy and will give others joy for years to come. It’s quite amazing because we have our brides from 25 years back coming to us now with their daughters who want their mother’s wedding clothes altered to their sizes. That’s an incredible feeling. Okay, fine, it means I’ve gotten old, but it also means that the clothes I made are relevant and I think that’s fantastic.
Does the photographer in you help the designer in you in some way?
There are no lines that I draw, there are no Chinese walls either. It’s the same spirit, the spirit of experimenting. I could be sketching a piece of furniture one moment and sketching a lehnga with beautiful embroidery the next moment and then thinking of my next frame the third moment. So, it’s all kind of interlinked. I think that’s the core of any creative spirit, that you don’t draw boundaries around yourself. You knock them down, you walk across, you never sit on a fence, what you want to do, you need to do. Basically, enjoy life.
You’re known to spend a lot of time on research...
I’m the kind of guy who researches like crazy. I’ve the biggest library that a lot of people are probably envious of, but I don’t read a single book. I’m a visual guy, so I take in visually. I don’t believe in getting into the intricacies and the history of the yarns and fabrics and who wore it. My role as a creator is to make people look fabulous and feel great about themselves. When I make something stunning, in the end the thing that really matters is how he or she feels wearing that garment. My research is purely linked to authenticity. When I research and get into a region, say Persia, then I get into layers and layers of Persia — but more from an aesthetic and visual perspective as opposed to a literal one.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever got from a bride who wore your creation?
I know that most of them have been extremely happy with what I did for them. I’m not very good at accepting and taking compliments and I feel a little embarrassed. But I guess I’ve done something right because I’ve lasted 31 years and people still want to wear my clothes. I’m feeling good about everything that I’m doing, so I think things are okay.
You came back to the ramp last year after a break of three years. What did you do during that time?
Ooh, lots of fun (laughs)! We constructed my life on various fronts. Currently, we are in the process of putting together The World of Valaya that will open in Delhi in about three to four months. It’s going to be a 35,000sq ft space of luxury couture and luxury interiors. So, the focus currently is on that and it’s a big project. So it’s taking its time. And during these two to three years, I was the creative director for an international project with the Queen of Bahrain. We also structured a lot of partnerships and associations, all of which you’ll start seeing in the months to come. A lot of licensing arrangements are already under play, like the Swarovski jewellery line, we did a furnishing line with Tapestry, a carpet line with Cocoon. So between fashion and home, we were just keeping ourselves extremely busy and evolutionary.
Your daughter Hoorvi is also in the fashion industry…
Currently, she is still studying and she graduates in March. It’s funny that you asked me this question because I was just telling her today that I don’t think she realises that the daughter will be showing her garment on the runway as a part of the graduation show of Pearl Academy and the father will be showing another collection in the finale on the same ramp. So, the father and daughter would be showcasing on the same ramp, just a few days apart.
What’s that one piece of advice you have given her when she got into fashion?
Hoorvi has grown up seeing fashion, it’s in her blood. I didn’t have to give too much advice because she has always been a great kid, thankfully. That’s a lot to say in today’s generation (laughs). But she’s very focused, hardworking and she breathes the Valaya look. So, I suppose at some point of time, whenever she plans to do whatever she plans to do… I’m not an enforcer. People evolve on their own, I mean, I did! I’ll probably pack her off for some internship internationally and then she can come back and see what she wants to do. But, as of now, nothing besides being a fantastic daughter.
What does a typical day in your life look like now in Delhi?
It’s quite exciting actually. I get up early at 7am and walk around a little. I’ve been meditating for about 20 years, so I have a meditation session in the morning. Then, I’m off to work, I try to do most of the creative work in the first half of the day. That’s also when I meet my creative team. Rest of the day is for the other stuff of the business, essentially the non-creative but important stuff. Towards the evening, I’m the happiest if I’m watching Netflix but otherwise, I go out socially. The weekend is spent with my daughters — one is 22 while the other is 12.
What are the areas of improvement for Indian fashion, according to you?
To me, India is like a world in itself. That is why I feel whether it’s the number of people we have and, therefore, the potential of our fashion to be accepted, or it’s the DNA of the country itself, that we are maximalist at heart. True, we try to ape the goras and how minimalism is very cool, but look at India! Look at the festivals — Holi, Diwali. Look at our architecture in the temples, those poor guys must have spent a million years carving those stones. Look at our food — complex, spices full of aromas as opposed to the French who pick up a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese. We are essentially maximalist at heart, our festivals and ceremonies are grand and complex. So the clothes also have to speak of that same DNA. While I never criticise anybody doing anything, but being a minimalist is not an Indian signature. So, being an Indian in India, what we really need to work on is keeping our identity intact, but at the same time, continue to strive to be relevant to everybody as much as we can. Some designers are doing a great job of that.
Oh, they change all the time. It’d be so boring to have only one muse and then stick to that. I keep getting inspired and bored of people, places, things. So, it’s ever-changing. Currently, I’m looking for him or her, whoever it may be!
The best-dressed celebrity in the world according to you:
Queen Rania of Jordan, I think she’s fantastic. This is one person I’ve been wanting to dress and I’m sure I’ll get around to it.
One celebrity you love dressing:
I think one of my best experiences was with Cate Blanchett and Joseph Fiennes. I used to do Shekhar Kapur’s clothes and he did this movie called Elizabeth (1998) long back and Cate and Joseph were a part of the star cast. When he was getting them to India, he asked me to do all their clothes. It was a beautiful experience working with those guys and also a lesson on how international celebs are so much more sorted as opposed to a lot of Indian ones. That was an easy and a refreshing experience. Otherwise, courtesy this profession, I’ve had the privilege of working with kings and queens, actors and other prominent people. It has been a pleasure and I can’t thank God enough for giving me these opportunities.
Your personal style:
I live in a uniform. For shows, I generally wear black. Leather jackets never leave me, my breeches never leave me. I like socks and cool shoes. I love my chevron turban that I’m wearing right now.
Your favourite among your peers:
Rohit Bal, for doing his voluminous beautiful ivories, consistently, year after year, as beautifully. Shahab Durazi has been extremely low-key but probably has the best construction of garments in the country.
An international designer who’s your favourite:
My favourite was always Karl Lagerfeld and I have many reasons for that. He was a great photographer, so I gelled with that. I think the Chanel shows were landmark shows, he was the only guy who continued to do fabulous shows. I marvel at the fact that he was the main creative director of two brands, besides his own, for over 30 years.
One fashion trend you’ve never understood:
I appreciate trends but I do not agree with people blindly following them. I always feel you must have your own signature and then pick up a few trends and adapt them to your style and create your own little statement. I think any trend can work that way as long as you’re being honest with yourself.