Fashion

How designer JJ Valaya turned a failed first collection into a fashion empire

Completing 25 years in fashion, he gives us a glimpse of both, the journey and the jacket that symbolises it

On a crisp November morning, I visited JJ Valaya at his atelier in Mangalpuri, New Delhi. True to the designer’s opulent aesthetic, the three-storey studio and workshop was filled with decadent armchairs, larger-than-life art, and bookshelves packed with iconic fashion and photography tomes. Stark lights fired up the workshop area, where Valaya was putting the finishing touches to a glittering jacket he would showcase at a gala to celebrate his 25th fashion anniversary the next month.

It was one of a collection of 25 jackets, created in collaboration with Swarovski Elements, and in his signature Alika silhouette, which he debuted in 2010. Loosely drawing its DNA from the traditional sadri, the Alika has a low Chinese collar, full sleeves and a front zipper. “There are only two things that one needs in their closet, a perfect pair of jeans and a jacket,” says Valaya. “These can easily be styled up or down. So, a few years ago, when I felt the need to create something timeless, we introduced the Alika. It is a silhouette that I hope will stand the test of time. It has till now.” 

Alika JJ Valaya completes 25 years

The salient features of the Alika jacket by JJ Valaya

The collaboration with Swarovski Elements was all but a given. The crystal giant and Valaya go way back: he was one of the first Indian designers to work with the brand when it entered the country in 2001. Besides using it on his clothes, he has also had numerous jewellery collaborations with the brand. “Back in the day, the aristocrats would stud everything with semi-precious stones; these are the semi-precious stones of today,” he says.

The result is a collection that embodies everything Valaya holds dear. For one, comfort and versatility: the jackets are all reversible and studded on one side with Swarovski Elements. The use of a mix of smoky, clear and ultra-shine crystals meant it could go seamlessly from day to night. And second, that the collection truly reflects the spirit of India as his work always has. To this end, he invited 24 of the country’s top designers, including Aneeth Arora of péro, Dhruv Kapoor, Suket Dhir and Payal Pratap, to each style a jacket in their unique design voice. Which also means, no two jackets in the collection are alike. Dhir’s black and ivory interpretation with Swarovski Pareina crystals, for example, is inspired by the popular Tintin comic series. Kapoor’s rendition takes its inspiration from his collection, Kashmir, and features coarse thread work on antiquated metallic fabrics.

Shivan and Narresh JJ Valaya completes 25 years

The Alika jacket with an ensemble by Shivan and Narresh

The Alika jacket JJ Valaya completes 25 years

The Alika jacket teamed with an outfit by Puneet Jasuja 

It might be hard for anyone familiar with Valaya’s luxuriant oeuvre to believe that India wasn’t always at the heart of his aesthetic. But as a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, in the early ’90s, the designer swore by clean and crisp silhouettes, short hemlines and block colours. In fact, for his graduating collection, he created an all-white line of Western garments—and styled them with thigh-high boots, no less. It even won him the award for best collection. 

Back then, Valaya was convinced he’d found his aesthetic and began working on his first commercial collection that would be showcased at a trunk show. He’d be presenting alongside veterans like Rohit Khosla (whom he interned with during college) and Gitanjali Kashyap, as well as fashion’s new crush, Rohit Bal. He couldn’t have asked for a better launch, Valaya was overjoyed. And then he failed, spectacularly. Nothing sold; the collection bombed. 

JJ Vallaya completes 25 years

JJ Valaya 

Valaya was dejected for a while after, but eventually returned to the drawing board to try to figure what went so wrong. This time, he dug deep. “I love research, and I always want to be left alone when I start something new,” he says. He studied the market and immersed himself in Indian history, art and heritage. This period of study also made Valaya fall irrevocably in love with the Mughal era, and he wanted to recreate its grandeur in the present. 

And so, over the next 25 years, he became known for casting ancient Indian history into a contemporary fashion mould. The JJ Valaya bride, then, is both: every bit a Mughal princess of yore, and likely to bust out serious moves at her sangeet. 

JJ Valaya completes 25 years in fashion

JJ Valaya styles Neesha Singh in the Alika jacket, paired with a Swati & Sunaina outfit 

Speaking of the modern Indian bride, she’s changed hasn’t she, I ask? She has browsed endless websites, stalked every celebrity stylist and got an over-pinned Pinterest board even before she’s anywhere close to making a purchase. How does he convert this new, hyper-aware bride into a JJ Valaya bride? Easy, Valaya says: by sticking to the classics.

He recounts an incident from a few months ago, where he ran into a couple at a wedding he was attending. “They looked at me and said, ‘You don’t remember us, do you?’” It turned out, they had both worn custom JJ Valaya for their wedding 30 years ago. And that their daughter, who was to marry soon, intended to wear her mother’s bridal ensemble on her big day as well. “They came to me a few weeks later, and with some minor tweaks, the lehenga was ready to be worn again. So that’s the kind of design I believe in,” he says. “Design that will be in fashion today, as well as 30 years later.”