Fashion designer Priya Ahluwalia’s clothes are a love letter to diversity

A man in a black leather cap and checked shirt against a yellow background

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 a truth universally acknowledged that if there is a commodity that exists on this earth, it can be purchased in the tributary marketplace that is Lagos traffic. Men and women with preternatural grace and balance weave night and day between cars, heavy goods vehicles, and okadas. On their heads and shoulders, they steady everything from shoes and DVDs to grooming products, perishables, toys, and perhaps counterintuitively even, a broad selection of tipples.

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.’
A model backstage in a blue ensemble

Priya Ahluwalia’s designs (Dominika Scheibinger)

A man in a blue suit and checked collar backstage at a fashion show
And indeed, the brand does all this and more. Ahluwalia’s ethos is one of fusion and hybridisation; a proud interweaving of her dual Indian-Nigerian heritage, passionately resonated throughout her work and public life. It’s a welcome antidote to the increasingly myopic, marooned and xenophobic times we find ourselves wed to. ‘When I was growing up watching fashion shows, I loved their craft and the beauty of them [which] were amazing,’ she says. ‘But I was watching shows coming out of Paris, Milan, London and New York, and say they would do an “African” collection, or the “Chinese” collection, or the “Indian” collection, and they would just be like glorified costumes.’ 

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.
a main in a blue suit.
Ahluwalia uses extensive methods and textile techniques to transform and reimagine vintage and deadstock clothing into idiosyncratic and modern menswear pieces, imbued with romance and history. Much like the Aswani market, these adornments are restored into new contexts in which to thrive and house their wearer. ‘Every time someone buys something from us, it’s totally unique,’ she says. ‘So, what I really try and push in the messaging is that I want people who invest in the brand to see it as an investment, and to keep that piece forever or pass it on to someone.’

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’.