Design maverick JJ Valaya stepped into the nascent fashion industry in India in 1989, as a student of NIFT. He enjoys the privilege of being a part of the pioneering group of Indian fashion designers and his journey has earned him the title of the ‘Czar of Indian Couture’. Today, JJ Valaya is known for his grand haute couture with special emphasis on Indian bridals and luxury home designs. With its larger-than-life approach to fashion and lifestyle, the design mogul considers himself a ‘royal nomad with a penchant for all things art deco’.
Excerpts from the interview:
How would you describe your journey in fashion?
Absolutely exhilarating, full of ups and downs, and that’s what’s made it more magical. I think the magic always lies in knowing that you have the ability to create something absolutely new every few months, which excites you as much as an audience that loves you, adores you and follows you and of course, buys you. That journey has been brilliant. We were very fortunate to be a part of the pioneering group of fashion designers who created the industry in India and I think that’s a high which a very rare few enjoy. I think just six-seven of us. The whole journey of learning by oneself because we had no benchmarks to follow.
Do you get overwhelmed looking back?
Yes. It’s a perfect play of a lot of hard work with a lot of luck and some wonderful people along the way to help you reach where you have. It is overwhelming because when I think of it, I still remember when I came from Chandigarh for my interview for NIFT to Delhi and I was absolutely odd by just the scale of things. Remember, in the late 80s, moving from Chandigarh to Delhi was akin to moving to Manhattan. I was starting to be a chartered accountant and then suddenly I just decided to quit because my creative juices overflowed. And I guess I needed to do something which took care of that. But I was fortunate to be there right at the beginning, get into NIFT, and be the first Indian student to win a major fashion award in Paris in 1990, and to have interned with the late Rohit Khosla, perhaps the most brilliant designer. I flipped a coin and decided I want to launch my own label and not work for anybody. At this stage, all I have is gratitude for being able to have made this journey and for being in the thick of it right now and only looking forward to much more.
How did you rise up from the times you were let down or felt low?
I’m a Fauji kid and we are brought up differently. We live in cantonments all our life. We see discipline, a different mindset, and I suppose that held me in good stead. There have been difficult times, of course, and there was a time in 2017 when I took off on a sabbatical for two years. There were plenty of doomsayers around, but we’ll let them rest now. And 2019, when we sort of, you know, did our show in Delhi, suddenly everything else just fell back in place. These moments of ups and downs are a constant in life, be it creative or otherwise. One has to learn how to accept, understand, never rest on the laurels, and move on. That’s the only thing you can do. And it’ll be a pity if we don’t celebrate life the way it’s meant to be.
What has been your biggest milestone?
As humans, we are dreaming and hoping at all times. What we think more than what we speak, is the language that we are throwing to the universe. The universe listens. So, you have to be very careful of what you think and speak. My dream was always to create a brand that would be loved and accepted across India and internationally. We’re on our way there. We’ve achieved a lot. But there’s so much more to do. I’m a man of the present today, so currently the entire focus is on putting together a fantastic couture show at India Couture Week to unveil a lovely collection.
Your favourite muse in Bollywood and why?
So many of my models, dear friends of mine, are now top film stars. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sushmita Sen, Lara Dutta, Deepika Padukone, John Abraham, Katrina Kaif, and many more. So they were, in a way, already muses, now they just happen to pop up in Bollywood. I really don’t pick on anyone because I strongly believe that there are so many people working on themselves, their image, and the way they come across, that it will be almost unfair to single them out. I am just happy that I get to work with most of them.
Could you elaborate on the design process of creating costumes for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever?
Ruth E. Carter and I had already worked together for Coming 2 America. The original thought and sketch came from Ruth. We had several discussions. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic so travel was not really possible. It was a series of Zoom and telephone calls. Once we got a sense of the direction she was looking for, we started developing the textiles, unique colours, prints, and embroideries.
How would you describe the current state of the fashion industry?
Very buoyant to say the least. Nearly 60-70 per cent of the top brands are being bought into by corporates and it has kind of changed the game. It gives you the opportunity to take your brand, product, and name to greater heights. In the next five years, I am personally very keen to see what happens with such associations. There’s lots of talent, so let’s enjoy the moment.
Fashion is more inclusive now than it was before... your opinion?
It was always inclusive. We never spoke about it. Now we have social media and content creation is a huge thing. Suddenly everybody is constantly thinking of newer things to do to create that buzz. One person who would many years back spoken about inclusivity and then it trends like wildfire. And now everybody wants to be a part of that story. But the reality is that we’ve been very open to inclusivity ever since we launched our label. I am glad it’s more acceptable because it’s almost fashionable now to say that you’re inclusive. However, we do not have the right to differentiate and be picky and choosy.
What does the future hold for fashion?
Your guess is as good as mine. We’re all in various fields trying our best to do something beautiful and special. When you genuinely put in a lot of hard work and do something which is credible, the future is always bright. That’s the direction in which we’re all headed, and hopefully, there’ll be a lot more fashion moments coming our way.