February 7, 2024
Fashion & Beauty
The world of Ahluwalia has an air of nostalgia; 70s swirls and tie-dye meet 2000s denim, while tailored tracksuits, disparate patchwork, preppy knits and collaged pop culture references string collections together. At the nexus of this brand’s success is Priya. As a homage to her mixed heritage, she continuously weaves snippets of Nigeria and India through her clothing, all the while designing for an industry she’s adamant to breathe both diversity and sustainability into.
Ahluwalia dress & shoes
Ahluwalia cardigan, T-shirt, trousers & shoes
“It’s pretty amazing being Indian and Nigerian because the depth and the breadth of the history and culture that I come from is unbelievable,” says Priya Ahluwalia, discussing her heritage and its integral role in her clothing brand, Ahluwalia. “It’s like having a never-ending pot of history, art and culture to lean into and learn about,” she adds.
We’re speaking over the phone, and Priya is in the absolute thick of a cold. She laughs, insisting it’s not a great advert. But her brand is her lifeblood, and nothing could stop her from speaking about the stories, journeys and experiences that brought her to this point in her career. Since launching Ahluwalia in 2018 – which was originally menswear but has now expanded to encompass womenswear, too – the 30-year old’s recognition in the industry has risen exponentially.
In 2019/2020, she was a British Fashion Council NEWGEN recipient, and then in 2021 she won the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for Fashion Design. In 2022, she took home the ‘Leader of Change award for ‘Environment’ at The Fashion Awards, and most recently, she was honoured at the CNMI Sustainable Fashion Awards, winning The Bicester Collection Award for Emerging Designers. “It’s really nice to be was really important for political freedom. I love history and am quite a nerd, actually. recognised,” she shares, reflecting on the win. “It sometimes works as an affirmation for the work you’re doing, and it’s also exciting because you get to be introduced to lots of new audiences as an extension of winning that award.”
The authenticity of Ahluwalia’s designs is rooted in Priya’s deep love for her background. Growing up in South London with Indian and Nigerian heritage, the wide tapestry she’s able to draw from in her work is unending. Her collections reflect this; there was a collection that referenced Bollywood and Nollywood films, one that responded to the Black Lives Matter movement, and another that honoured the artistry in Afro Caribbean hair.
Priya’s most recent collection, titled ‘Symphony’, sees the designer rediscover the music of her youth. Soundwaves inform motifs on the clothing, referencing Bollywood soundtracks and 90s and 00s hip-hop, alongside Priya’s current love for afrobeat and neo wave R&B.
Priya’s research process is rich in detail and is as much for her nourishment as it is for her collections. “It’s really fun to explore and learn more about different art movements. For example, I was at an exhibition learning about a particular art movement in the 70s in Lagos that was really important for political freedom. I love history and am quite a nerd, actually.
“I’m a pretty academic person, so I always start my projects by writing a lot. I write a lot of ideas or things that I’m curious about, and then I get to delve into that and discover people who have made huge contributions along the way. My team thinks I’m mad because I always say I want to go back to uni and do another degree, but this is my way of doing my degree – self-directed research is my way of learning more things and discovering more ideas.”
For her SS23 collection, titled ‘Africa is Limitless’, Priya explored how the West refers to Africa as a homogenous continent, with little understanding of the cultural differences between nations. “If you watch a Hollywood film that’s based in Africa, they all have different accents, even though they’re meant to be from the same village. It’s ridiculous,” she says.
To expand her knowledge of Africa, she started with a meticulously researched mood board to shape the collection. “It was split into the nations of the things that were speaking to me the most and it became more intuitive,” says Priya. “I learnt so much about Mozambique and all these different places. The opportunity to go to work and learn the things I want to learn about and the things that surprise me is such a pleasure and really such a privilege. It makes me feel so excited to do what I do.”
Ahluwalia’s broadening of the fashion spectrum resonates strongly with people. For her ‘Bollywood and Nollywood’ collection, this resonance was powerful. “I can’t tell you how many people identified with it,” she says. “There was a particular shirt that had Nollywood and Bollywood babes on it, and people were begging me in the DMs to bring out more of the shirts.”
As much as it broadens the Eurocentric perimeters of fashion, Ahluwalia also takes meaningful steps towards sustainability. This interest in sustainability began while Priya was at university, and she visited family in Lagos, Nigeria. She discovered the Aswani market, which is brimming with unwanted clothes from Europe and the US. Diving deeper, she learnt about Panipat in India, one of the biggest hubs for textile recycling in the world. Inspired by the possibilities she witnessed, Ahluwalia’s clothing is now made using surplus and post-consumer fabrics, alongside vintage and recycled fabrics.
Left: Ahluwalia coat, top, trousers & shoes; right: Ahluwalia coat, top, skirt & boots
Left: Ahluwalia top & skirt; right: Ahluwalia jacket, shirt & trousers
‘Sustainability’ is a word Priya uses carefully, ensuring she doesn’t further taint waters made murky by greenwashing. “The reason the word ‘sustainability’ doesn’t hold much weight to me is because when people talk about the fashion industry, they are discussing a range of businesses that couldn’t be any more different to each other,” Priya explains. “Someone could be talking about the fashion industry and in that sentence be talking about Shein and me. The way that fashion is berated for its problems is because you’re talking about Misguided or Boohoo in the same conversation as you’re talking about Gabriela Hearst. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Priya hopes that change can come from the big industry players, but she is also mindful of the small role her brand has. In addition to using recycled fabrics. Ahluwalia also stresses the importance of a circular economy. “Sustainability is about the health of people and the planet. So for us, as well as material choices, we’re also working on preserving cultural histories and improving social impact.” Part of the brand’s material efforts is an initiative called ‘Circulate’. People can upload a photo of the clothing piece they want to donate via Ahluwalia’s website, and if it’s accepted as a piece that’s fit for use, the item can then be sent to the brand. The customer receives points which they can redeem on purchased items.
Instead of the onus being on customers to shop better, Priya wants brands to do better. “What bothers me sometimes about these conversations is that people will say, ‘Customers need to make sustainable choices and not shop these cheap things’, but for me, I always think, ‘What if someone is a single parent on a low-income job and they’ve got three kids?’ They shouldn’t be expected to be bloody researching, ‘Oh is this recycled fabric?’, like get a grip. It’s not realistic, it’s not supportive, and it’s really classist in my opinion.”
I ask Priya what her vision is for Ahluwalia, and who she wants to cater to. “I want the brand to get more recognition globally, but I think it’s for people who feel something for it, whether that’s the designs, the campaigns, or the storytelling. Hopefully, people from all walks of life will resonate with it.” She’s pragmatic, though, aware the price point isn’t for everyone. “I’m obviously a brand that’s doing contemporary luxury, right? So as much as I’m saying I want everyone to wear the brand, people need to have a certain amount of money to buy it and I know that and I’ve always wanted to do luxury,” she says. “But I think it’s really important that we have more Black and brown creators in the luxury space because for so long it’s been exclusively white.”
Ahluwalia shirt, trousers & shoes