A talk with JJ Valaya

Haute couture in India isn't a contradiction - it's mainstream

By Mian Ridge
October 12, 2008
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DELHI - One of the star turns at India Fashion Week in Delhi next week will be the self-styled "maverick maharajah," JJ Valaya. The designer's ascendancy in India's fledgling fashion industry was established last month when he opened a boutique in Emporio, a swanky Delhi mall dedicated to luxury brands including Gucci and Christian Dior.

As India rushes to embrace globalization, its fashion industry is no exception. Only eight years after the country held its first ever fashion week, several dozen buyers from boutiques around the world are expected at Delhi's spring-summer 2009 shows, organized by the Fashion Design Council of India - of which Valaya is a founding member - to push home-grown Indian designers onto the global stage.

There were no Indian fashion designers when Valaya was growing up. Indeed, he was training as a chartered accountant when he decided to apply to the country's first fashion college, established in Delhi in 1986. His army officer father recovered from his bewilderment when Valaya emerged as one of India's biggest - and most expensive - designers. Today he is known for the exclusivity of his designs: one-off pieces in his Muse line start at $25,000.

While many Indian designers have set out to appeal to the West with minimalist, often anodyne silhouettes, Valaya has stuck to what India still does best: opulence. His designs - commonly featuring silk brocade embellished with beadwork, embroidery, and crystals - also have an edginess: At India's first Couture Week, which took place in Mumbai in September, Valaya put male models in floor-length skirts teamed with wide belts. But even his more restrained Western-style collection - Valaya is as ambitious as any designer for global stardom - is on the sumptuous side, from mini-dresses with regal red piping to drainpipe button-up breeches.

The love of the imperial and majestic that runs through Valaya's work is based on fantasy rather than lineage, the twinkling, tubby designer admits at his Delhi headquarters, a whitewashed concrete building filled with antique teak furniture. The "kingdom of Valaya" crest stamped on everything, including the dainty teacups and saucers in which visitors are served spicy Indian chai, Valaya designed during a boring class at school.

IDEAS: Haute couture is often described as dying elsewhere in the world. Do you think it will survive in India?

VALAYA: Couture remains mainstream in India because we have the big, fat, enormous Indian wedding, for which people want customized clothing. You know, here, if you've got the bucks, you really do buy the works. For one wedding, you might get 40 family members ordering five elaborate outfits each.

India's market for couture design, which is about 20 years old, is getting more defined, more stylized as we speak. But it's amazing what we've spawned in the way of copies. Go to Chandni Chowk [a big road in Old Delhi] and you'll hear shopkeepers calling out "JJ Valaya designs!"

IDEAS: How has the Indian couture business changed in the last two decades?

VALAYA: One of the greatest changes is how men dress. Brides have always wanted to look pretty. But the guys: when I started out they all wanted sober three-piece suits. Now they want to dress up, too, in traditional, colorful Indian outfits, and they don't care if they outshine their bride. The whole sentiment is one of being Indian.

It's partly because designers have come on the scene: before, Indians just went to their tailor. But designers introduced chic, and men suddenly realized that they could look like modern maharajas. The whole ambience of these weddings is over the top - elephants, trumpets, drama - and men want the clothes to go with it.

IDEAS: Tell me about your more Westernized, ready-to-wear collection.

VALAYA: The ready-to-wear thing began at India's first fashion week in 2000. Often at fashion week here, styles get jumbled up: one minute you see something opulent, traditionally Indian, and then a very clean, Western-style design; there's no coherence. Two years ago I separated our Indian and Western lines and decided that fashion week was the time to show off the Western wear.

IDEAS: How important is global recognition to you?

VALAYA: Indian designers have a difficult choice at the moment. Do they try to break into the rest of the world while it's in recession or do they stick to this side of the world - India and China - which is experiencing a boom?

I think it's important to get established in Europe and America. Later this year I'm opening a couture boutique in London's Mayfair. We'll look at New York next. And for couture, one has to have a presence in Paris. If Paris can do couture I don't see why India shouldn't.

IDEAS: Do you think traditional Indian garments like the sari will one day be, like the kimono, like museum pieces?

VALAYA: There is a definite shift to Western dressing in India. But these are the years when designers are defining the modern Indian look, something that will please Indians and excite foreigners. I believe the really serious guys believe in the spirit of India: its fabrics, its crafts.

My inspiration is India. I was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan - that's where I get my love of royalty, of the imperial. But there is beauty and style everywhere here. On my way to work today I saw a nomad woman grazing her sheep on the side of the road and she was so unbelievably well put together, so stylish, I can't tell you. She was wearing baby pink and orange - what a combination, few would think of it - with a sari sort of wrapped around her legs, a big metallic necklace, and her hair in a plait. It was brilliantly done. I could never have created it; John Galliano could never have created it.

Mian Ridge is a British journalist currently based in New Delhi.

A creation by Indian designer JJ Valaya shown at India Couture Week in Mumbai. (Reuters photo) A creation by Indian designer JJ Valaya shown at India Couture Week in Mumbai.
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