© JJ Valaya

JJ Valaya Looks Back On 30 Years In The Fashion Industry

Salva Mubarak
Senior Features Writer

Designer JJ Valaya can be credited with being one of the few visionaries who have shaped the Indian fashion industry and introduced maximalist couture to the masses. Over 30 illustrious years, Valaya has weathered through changing cultural landscapes and shifts in sensibilities but somehow managed to stick to his guns about maintaining a deeply Indian aesthetic that’s rich, timeless, and sophisticated.

So as FDCI’s India Couture Week celebrates its 15th anniversary, Valaya has put together a show that presents three decades worth of hard work, growth, and inspiration into a collection that he likes to call a ‘non-collection’. The showcase, titled ‘Alma’, has been inspired by Spain and its intense and deep history that has been shaped by a myriad of influences. As ICW kicks off (Valaya’s ‘Alma’ is scheduled to be introduced to the world on the third day of the 10-day showcase), we managed to corner the designer into sitting down with us for a chat about completing 30 years in the industry, the lessons he’s learned, and so much more. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation…

H!: How is the energy different this time of the year, with India Couture Week returning in its physical form after two years?

JJV: Considering the fact that a physical couture week is happening after a gap of nearly two, actually two-and-a-half, years. The energy and excitement are like never before because a couture presentation truly blossoms when it is shown in its full splendour, in a unification of its collection and with its entire gamut of sets, sound, light, make-up, hair, and styling. There’s so much that goes into putting eight to ten months of hard work into 25 minutes. So that energy is buoyant. For us, this is even more special because we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this time and it means that for three decades we’ve been enjoying this wonderful world to the fullest. Strangely enough, I still feel like I’m a student and I’m still looking forward to many, many more years of collections.

H!: Have you noticed any shift in your design philosophies post-pandemic?

JJV: Not at all. My design philosophy is evolutionary. With every passing season, the only thing that shifts is in a positive way, it’s my self-criticism. I go back to my collections and analyse them very critically to understand what needs to evolve, and what needs to change, and I try and incorporate that into the next collection. If anything has changed, post-pandemic, it’s human psychology. People are more grateful and convinced that life needs to be lived in the moment and every moment needs to be celebrated.

H!: What are the top three lessons you’ve learnt as a designer in your 30 illustrious years?

JJV: The number one lesson would be that know your strengths and only focus on them. One of the most important things to do. Keep working on it. The second lesson is never rest on your laurels. You may be amongst the best, but there are better people being created every moment. Always compete with yourself and never think that you’ve arrived and that you’re the best. The third thing would be to balance your life. Some people tend to submerge themselves into their work. But balance is a must if you want your creative juices to evolve.

H!: Can you recall key milestones that have shaped you as a designer over the past years?

JJV: This is a long list. We’re talking 30 years of being in the Indian fashion industry and being there when it all started. I think this list is too long, but I’d say there were two game-changing steps for me, that were extremely disruptive and unnatural, but ultimately great for me. The first one was quitting my charted accountancy at the age of 21 and deciding to do something creative without really knowing what I wanted to do. It was then that I discovered NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) and became a part of this beautiful world that we belong. Everyone was shocked and worried but it all paid off. The second decision was in 2017 when I decided to take a sabbatical for two years and completely reshaped and realised who I truly was, both personally and professionally. It was a hard reset that I really needed.

H!: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome?

JJV: Challenges are a part of life and they’re essential to growth. Mistakes and challenges are often your best teachers. Remaining focused on what I do best is something that I’ve always thought of as a challenge. It’s very easy to get carried away with everything that is happening around you and try and fit into every mould. But you have to realise that you’re unique and you fit in one mould beautifully. Now, I’m very sure what JJ Valaya stands for, and what our ethos is.

H!: For this collection, how did you settle on Spain as an inspiration?

JJV: I’ve always been fascinated by the spice route, and the Silk Route, especially countries with an intense and multi-layered history. Spain has a fascinating history because it shuttled across various DNAs, from Islam to Byzantine influences. This is my second inspiration from Spain, a few years ago I was inspired by the country for my collection ‘Maharaja of Madrid’. You can never extract everything you want for one single collection. This is why we’re coming back to Spain for ‘Alma’, which means soul in Spanish. This collection is also special because we’ve also picked up nuances from our previous collections as well. So in a way, this is the first time I’m doing a non-collection because this is a culmination of various facets of my existence as a couturier. It’s all coming together in one collection, under the umbrella of a Spanish interpretation.

H!: In three words, what can people expect from this showcase?

JJV: We have a byline that goes ‘The royal nomad with a penchant for art deco’. So this is exactly what one can expect from, not only this but, all my collections. Royal elements, nomadic traders, and art deco influences.

H!: What would be your top 3 tips for anyone who wants to embrace traditional fashion in all its glory in 2022?

JJV: Couture, in its very nature, is meant to be timeless and should endure. The idea is to invest in pieces that would be relevant even years down the line. My tips would be to buy only quality couture. Go for the best, and it will endure and be there as an heirloom with you for a long time. Next, always buy a beautiful sari in its absolutely pure form. I’m not talking about sari gowns or the stitched-up saris that you get, I’m talking about a beautiful sari created by any designer with a beautiful blouse. The third thing would be to invest in an Alika Jacket, and I’m going to be a bit biased here, but our Alika Jacket is meant to stand the test of time. It’s versatile and you can wear it over a sari, over a skirt, or even a pair of jeans.

H!: What are you most excited about in the future?

JJV: I have started living mostly in the moment and being grateful for everything that it brings. So if you ask me what I’m most excited about currently, it’s the 30th-anniversary show this Couture Week. You will see some of the most meticulously made clothes on the ramp, with close to 50 models and that’s my high currently. We’ll talk about the future when it happens!