It takes a special kind of courage to stop climbing the success ladder when you have spent over two decades crafting the steps to the top. “That’s the exciting part, no?” says J.J. Valaya. “That’s how you push yourself out of the comfort zone.”
Towards the end of 2017, the couturier decided to take a hiatus after celebrating 25 years of JJ Valaya, the brand. People thought he had run out of steam. But he remained undeterred, closing down the business almost completely for two years. “I was just so bored. As a dear friend said, it was like all the rats were running but nobody was really winning,” he laughs.
Today, as we chat in his suite at Delhi’s JW Marriott Aerocity—where he and his team are preparing for the 14 February launch of the Ottoman empire-inspired collection Bursa: The Second Chapter exclusively on Instagram—the designer says he’s glad he took the plunge. “It was my life’s second-best decision.”
The first was when the 20-something Valaya sold his accounting books for ₹246 and gave the money to his mother, saying: “This is to tell you I now know what I don’t want to do. I have no idea what I want to do.” His mother replied, “Yeh beta hamara naam roshan karega (This child will make us proud).” It was meant sarcastically, little did the family know it would eventually turn out to be true.
Valaya chose fashion, owing to “family genes; my mother used to make frocks for little girls”. He was among the early students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, set up in 1986, which turned out 23 designers every year in the late 1980s from its lone campus in Delhi. It was a time when there was no real concept of stores or fashion as we now know them. He started in “utter virgin territory”. “We did everything on our own. Learnt from our mistakes, crawled, walked, ran, stumbled, got up again. I felt the same after I returned in 2019—like a newborn.”
Back to work
After spending his sabbatical doing a lot of introspection and restructuring his business, he came out in 2019 with Tabriz, a collection that reflected his love affair with couture. Inspired by the Persia of the 16th-19th centuries, his work showcased all that JJ Valaya is famous for—grand garments in silks, velvets and tulles in deep colours like midnight blue, adorned with crystals and using age-old crafts like gota patti and metalwork. It was a familiar montage of raw yet refined elegance. His love for Art Deco hadn’t changed.
Even his forthcoming Spring/Summer collection is an ode to the brand’s old tag line, The Royal Nomad. Playing with lighter silks and organzas, the new offering has the traditional Valaya designs along with a range of modern cuts and styles, like the use of faux leather and velvet patches on silk.
The brand is now working towards launching an experience space where you can buy clothes and photographs (photography is his other love). “We have become more social media savvy but aesthetics wise, I like the 1920s. The Great Gatsby sort of thing,” he explains. “I am totally enamoured by the past. There’s so much over there which people have forgotten about because of technology. I love bringing back things from the past and reinterpreting them for the current generation.”
The virus effect
When the covid-19 lockdown was announced last year, Valaya thought of the initial 15 days as a holiday. Soon, however, fear set in, especially because JJ Valaya 2.0 was just starting to spread its wings. “There are only two ways to handle things beyond your control: Either you stress out and ruin every molecule inside the body, or you tell yourself it is the way it is. When the going gets tough, leave things to God. He’s a super-cool dude. He looks after you, if you remember him. But it definitely wasn’t easy.”
As with most brands, sales dropped. People were not buying lehngas or sherwanis. Slowly and steadily, however, the buyers have returned. Valaya doesn’t part with numbers but claims sales have almost returned to pre-covid levels. “There are lessons to be learnt,” he says. “Establish yourself fully in what you do best. You need to build your core. People can find clothes somewhere else, but they are coming to you with a belief and a signature. And that’s how you know you are doing something right.”
As we near the end of our conversation, Valaya offers to send me a gratitude journal, a practice he has been following for some time. “Someone once said to me, ‘Gratitude is the prayer.’ That’s a very loaded line,” he says. “Every day something happens that you are grateful for, but you take it for granted.”
Then he tosses out another “loaded line”: “Never lose focus of excellence. Our job, your job, everybody’s job should be to focus on excellence. It’s excellence, not perfection, that really counts. Excellence means you have done something from your heart.”