Fashion designer Priya Ahluwalia’s clothes are a love letter to diversity
The LVMH Prize 2020 finalist is an undeniable fashion force with her eponymous menswear label. The London member discusses how her collections are a proud interweaving of her dual Indian-Nigerian heritage
By Otamere Guobadia Above image: Priya Ahluwalia’s designs (Dominika Scheibinger) Wednesday 16 September, 2020 Long read
It is in this vast, varied and moveable feast – an almost theatrical overspilling of life – that 27-year-old fashion wunderkind and LVMH Prize 2020 finalist, Priya Ahluwalia, spotted hawkers in surprising apparel. One of these was wearing ‘Leicester Fun Run’ merch, which prompted the menswear designer to roll down her window and ask where he’d acquired such a niche item. It led her to Lagos’ famous Aswani market, one iteration of the ‘bend down select’ market culture, where second-hand clothes – that have often made the long journey from places like charity shops in the UK and further afield – acculturate a new life and unexpected context, furnished by their new owners.
It’s no surprise that providence matters to Ahluwalia. Beyond its undeniably chic apparel, her label possesses a storied sustainability at its heart – ‘First and foremost, I want it to be a brand that people find fun and endearing,’ she answers, when we begin to dive into her work and practice’s impact in the wider world. ‘I want the clothing to address serious issues, but in a playful way. Whether that’s thinking about how we do production, trying to be as equitable as possible or tackling diversity issues, I still want the clothes to be inviting.’
Priya Ahluwalia’s designs (Dominika Scheibinger)
For her, it wasn’t that the clothes weren’t beautiful, but the stories they told were fantasy, divorced from the authentic narratives and cultures they claimed to be representative of. ‘Visually, it was absolutely stunning, gorgeous and amazing,’ she elaborates. ‘But actually, when I was growing up, no designers looked like me. I think it is important that stories are told by authentic storytellers.’
‘My heritage, my lived experience, is really unique to me and I’ve got a different perspective from someone else. It’s basically what I know,’ she continues. ‘It makes complete sense to be able to channel that into my work. I just want to do something more nuanced [than those collections].’ And this is precisely what Ahluwalia’s brand is: hers is a glowingly modern interpretation of her heritage, stories told, authentically and in her own terms. It’s a beacon of possibility in an industry that has, and continues to struggle with, issues of diversity, representation and appropriation both on and off the runway.
But her artistic practice stretches beyond just the clothes themselves. She also recently published her latest book, Jalebi, a gorgeous collection of photographs taken by Laurence Ellis, named after the Indian sweet that’s popular in the Southall Punjabi community where she has roots. ‘Jalebi is about community spirit and diversity,’ she says of the tome, which according to its digital blurb ‘traces several strands of Ahluwalia’s work and what it means to be a young mixed-heritage person living in modern Britain’.