5 Minutes With JJ Valaya

The designer sits down with Cosmo to tell us all about his latest stint in Hollywood, the brand’s journey of 30 years in the fashion industry, the collection he holds the closest to his heart, and why he doesn’t play favourites.

Cosmo: You recently collaborated with Academy Award winner Ruth Carter for costumes in Eddie Murphy’s Coming 2 America. How was the experience?

JJ Valaya: “It was one of the most enriching experiences of my life. A Hollywood collaboration has never been attempted by any other Indian designer. It was magnificent to associate with designers from all over the world and especially with Ruth Carter. Though we never met and all our conversations and decision took place virtually, the similarity in our thought process and what we wanted to achieve for this movie, made the entire project extremely seamless and comfortable.”

JJ

JJ Valaya

C: As a designer, how would you describe your aesthetic? 

JJV: “We, at House of Valaya, are on our way to completing 30 glorious years in the design industry. The brand aesthetic, throughout, has pretty much been a celebration of civilisations. Whenever I come across the treasures of the past, in any part of the world, I feel immensely motivated. All these elements—which come from the past but reside in the present—contain stories that need to be unfurled and recited to the world...and I wish to be the narrator of those. Across all our collection lines, be it fashion, jewellery, accessories, home, we follow three distinct spirits: royalty, nomad and art deco. These three principles have guided our work over the years.”

C: Has there been any change at all through the years?

JJV: “Yes, there are numerous changes that I have witnessed, both as a person and as a brand. For instance, for my NIFT graduation show in 1991, I had done a collection of western clothes, in ivory. At that point in time, I was absolutely certain that I’d continue designing clothes in ivory for the rest of my life. So my first collection as a commercial designer was in ivory, but, this time, I dabbled in Indian clothes. Unfortunately, this collection collapsed. When you are new to the industry—young, with no financial security—such a setback is utterly heartbreaking and discouraging. But I picked myself up and went on to curate a new collection—in black and white, with sequined embroidery—which was an absolute sell out! That is also when my love for jackets came into being. With time, I also began to see the talent and beauty that resides in our country. The sheer richness and detailing of our embroideries and the textiles made me gravitate towards Indian clothes, primarily wedding clothes. Hence, the change has been both internal and external.

The industry, too, has gone through drastic variations—from times when there weren’t many inspirations and mediums, to now when opportunities can be cultivated anywhere.”

C: You have designed for so many women. Who has been your favourite to dress up so far?

JJV: “I don’t believe in favourites, but yes, through the years, I have had numerous muses. What works wonderfully well for me is an individual who is well-read and well-travelled, and understands style and the finer nuances of fashion. Anybody who can put together an outfit which is unique to them is a winner, in my opinion. I like to work and associate myself with people who observe fashion, react positively to change and trends, and adapt them to suit their looks.” 

JJ Valaya

A creation of the designer.

C: And is there a piece—out of all your collections—that is extra-special than all others?

JJV: “The generic answer to this question would be that I design all my collections, so every outfit that has been a part of my 30-year journey is special to me. And this is totally true! However, if I am being completely honest, one of my absolute favourites is the Valaya Shifting Leaves Chevron. What started off as a singular piece and pattern, nearly 11 years ago, was appreciated so much that, today, it is a standalone line within our collection. The Chevron Collection one of our most distinguished and cherished collections. It is also slightly different from our other works—it is more graphic, cleaner, and modern. I enjoyed myself creating it. Currently, we are working on another very interesting concept, Kapurthala, and hope it will be as well-received.”

JJ Valaya

A look from the designer's "Bursa" collection.

C: You are known for pairing Indo-western outfits together—skirts with churidars, lehengas with bomber jackets, saris with belts. What are some fail-proof hacks to teaming the pieces together?

JJV: “I’ve always had an affinity for contradiction—I feel contradiction often births something that is delightful, alluring and leaves a mark. According to me, beauty lies in piecing different elements in a unified story. And it requires practice. It is an art in itself when you can pick up a sari from one place, a jacket from another, and style them together with a belt and accessories, to create a look that’s absolutely unique. However, you need to be careful whilst doing so, as there is enough room for error. Also, it needs to be done in a controlled manner. As long as one does not get carried away, you can mix a lot of different pieces together and come out a winner each and every time.

And while there are no fail-proof hacks, really, to it, you must be absolutely honest with yourself while mixing varied styles together. Also, styling oneself emanates from an individual’s internal style and taste. So it is essential to remember that you are an individual with your own set of DNA, and there is an image that you want to portray. It is important to understand that image and work around it better.”

JJ Valaya

A look from the designer's "Bursa" collection.

C: And what are some must-haves that every woman should possess?

JJV: “A pair of blue jeans, a white shirt, and a beautiful black dress. If I specifically talk about my label, other than being married in our clothes, every woman should definitely possess an Alika or Ika jacket, something from our Chevron Collection, our Phoenix Belt, and our recently launched, Emroz Hairbands. We also have these exceptional dupattas and stoles—I am a firm believer that one must own at least one of them, as they are extremely versatile and can be worn with anything simple.” 

C: In the current pandemic, what has been the biggest learning for the fashion industry—as creators as well as in regards to the consumers? 

JJV: “This has, undoubtedly, been an excruciatingly hard time for everyone, and has thrown up a lot of surprises. However, every challenge has its own share of positives, too. I had taken a sabbatical from 2017-2019. I had completely stopped selling in this period, before presenting my come back collection, Tabriz, in 2019. One of the main reasons for my sabbatical was because I was bored with everything happening around me. You spend a quarter of a century doing something you love, and then comes a time in life when, once again, you start asking the same questions that you were asking in the beginning of your career. And with honest answers, you decide to take a hard stand. That’s what I did. And the sabbatical allowed me to reassess everything...and to create something different. Interestingly, the pandemic has done exactly that, too. It has slowed people down—even those who had been running forever. As a result, we are seeing some major changes happening. 

For one, I don’t think a lot of brands will be coming up with four to five collections every year, anymore. It’ll probably come down to two basic collections each year. If I talk about my brand, we had already decided, much earlier, to run just one collection throughout the year, but interpret it differently for summer and winter. Similarly, I had decided very early on that I would never be part of any race, that I’d do what I want, at my own pace. My blinkers have always been on, with no interest in what is happening around me. 

I strongly believe that if you don’t focus on your core competence and skill, it’ll be very hard for you to reach your goal. The pandemic, thankfully, has made us realise how fragile we are and how grateful we need to be.”