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Weddings make couture tick, says JJ Valaya

In an interview with Lounge, the couturier talks about his design journey of 30 years, fashioning fantasies and India Couture Week collection

From JJ Valaya's showcase at the India Couture Week 2022. (JJ Valaya)

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J.J. Valaya's dazzling designs never fail to delight. Relentlessly expanding the definition and ethos of couture, rewriting the physics of a dress and redefining the symbolism of motifs, his creations have always been chic and timeless. That's what also came across during his Sunday showcase as part of the ongoing India Couture Week (ICW) in Delhi. 

As his brand celebrates its 30th anniversary, Lounge spoke with him about his journey, his ICW presentation and his future vision for the brand. Edited excerpts:

Also Read: What we do is true Indian couture, says maximalist JJ Valaya

Congratulations on completing 30 years. What’s the next phase for JJ Valaya couture?

My journey began in 1989, when I got admission in NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology). Life was never the same. After 30 years, it almost feels like I am still in design school, learning, growing, evolving every day. Loads of ups and downs. Now post pandemic, followed by the launch of the new flagship store in Delhi, our bridge-to-luxury label JJV, Valaya Homes, and JJ Valaya fine jewellery, it's been an exciting phase. The way forward for the brand will be to create products realised to another level of perfection and with absolutely fantastic details.

Over the years, the brand has become more print oriented. Was it a conscious move?

Design is a beautiful journey of evolution. When I had graduated from NIFT, I did a collection in ivory as I loved the colour so much. I showcased it in Kolkata with designer Rohit Khosla (with whom I had interned with) and Rohit Bal, who was new at that time. I was a new entrant into the game as a commercial designer. The ivory collection went on sale the next day and it was a complete disaster; nothing was sold. I didn't give up and came back and then I did a complete collection in black and white, which was a sell out in Bengaluru. Coming from neutral shades to hardcore colours, crafts and embroideries, which we are known for, print was a natural evolution. It creates textural interest for me. Prints lend themselves to my bridge-to- luxury line, JJV. However, couture is still focused on embroideries.

The Indian fashion landscape has changed considerably over the past few years. You were one of the earliest couturiers. When you look back, what are the things you miss?

I was fortunate to be there when Indian fashion was taking birth. Imagine an era where there were no complications, there was no Internet, one odd retailer, no TV other than Doordarshan, no design institute other than NIFT and no fashion weeks. There were a handful of us who were instrumental in taking these first steps, which have paved the way for innovation and evolution. Six-seven of us used to meet and speak about the need for having a fashion body and then the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) was created. I feel privileged that I was one of the incubators of the idea.

There have been new fashion weeks coming, fashion bodies splitting and then coming together. We came from times when brands didn't exist, now brands are getting into corporate mode. It's been a wonderful ringside view of the process. Whatever has happened or whatever will happen will be for the betterment of the industry. It's good to see a large number of brands being backed by corporate entities.

Also read: Flamenco in a sari? JJ Valaya makes it possible

Over the decades, JJ Valaya, as a design house, has repositioned and restructured itself. A few years ago, there were reports of your brand not doing well…

The past four-and-a-half years were wildly exciting. I went on a sabbatical in 2017. Right after the 25th year celebrations, I took a break, which was the best decision and enlightening. It helped me realise how to take the brand forward. I did a design project in Bahrain with local artisans there. These years were like a cleanser. The pandemic was a mixed bag; many utilised the time to really think and find new opportunities for growth. I did that as well. 

In your new flagship store, there’s a section dedicated to home and decor. How does it resonate with your core aesthetic?

Globally, top fashion houses like Fendi, Versace and Armani have an equally strong interest in their decor lines. Interiors and furniture design have been my passion for  years. We are doing something special, signature tapestries, over the past 20 years. The Leela Palace hotel commissioned those when it happened. Today, we are largely focusing on interior projects, Valaya Homes, a line of luxury products. Then there is a line of tiles and soft furnishings. Home and fashion go hand in hand, and for any progressive fashion house, ethos should be split into these areas.

This Sunday show was your first physical showcase post pandemic. How did it feel? 

Couture has got to do with experiential spaces. How one deals with customers and how they feel and how it resonates with the DNA of the brand. Fashion presentations are imperative and we work for 10 months to showcase a 25-minute presentation. This season, I was inspired by Spain and went back in time and brought back 42 independent, individual pieces.

Recently Gaultier and Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing collaborated during Paris couture. Do you have any young label on your radar with whom you’d love to collaborate?

I'm not sure how it works. I must admit I have had it on my mind for nearly 10 years, but never implemented it. I remember talking to Rajesh Pratap Singh, he was telling me, 'Let's do a collection with your construction and my embroidery and prints'. Maybe someday. I'm eager to see what happens with such collabs.  

What was the high point of the ICW 2022 collection?

It's called Alma, which means “soul” in Spanish, and it truly depicts the soul of Valaya. There's an underlying Spanish current that runs through the line. Each piece is a collection in itself, little nuances, motifs from our past collections. There are 42 pieces, spread between menswear and womenswear, with a focus on bridal couture. Weddings are what makes couture tick. The longest time one of our museum pieces (took eight months) was from our JJ Valaya Muse. Every panel of this lehenga has a different design, from research to the preparation of the khakas to experimenting with embroideries. There are 47,000 crystals and a lot of patina and antique gold work. A true masterpiece.

Also Read: JJ Valaya's new brand is for the luxury traveller

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