“I want to show you something,” says designer JJ Valaya as he takes his phone out of the pocket of his uniform bandhgala jacket. He spends a couple of minutes searching, his thumbs incessantly scrolling, and, at last, he finds it. It’s an image of Sushmita Sen from her pageant days, sandwiched between two other models wearing JJ Valaya’s clothes, which was featured in Healthntrends. The couturier who is celebrating three decades in Indian fashion this year has a longstanding relationship with us.
We are seated on plush sofas in Le Salon du Musee, a private lounge of sorts on the lower ground floor of his new flagship store in New Delhi’s Aerocity, aptly called the World of Valaya. It houses one-of-a-kind pieces of precious jewellery he’s designed, and is adorned with breathtaking frescos that speak of his obvious fascination with the Art Deco period. In this room that also moonlights as the entrance to the museum where fashion enthusiasts can marvel at his single-edition masterpieces, he plans on hosting the brides who come to him with aspirations of wearing his modern, maximalist lehengas and saris on their big day.
While most know Valaya for his exaggerated surface embroideries and dramatic bridal couture, we’re here to talk about his pivotal new brand, JJV, that made its debut at the FDCI X Lakmé Fashion Week this season.
Valaya defines JJV as a “bridge-to-luxury” brand that arose out of the sartorial needs of his nomadic customers, partially inspired by his own travels. “I realised that when people travel, they pack basic clothes,” he says. “But, as I’ve seen on my own travels, special occasions pop up almost always, and, at that moment, people scurry to buy something suitable. I wanted to create an occasion wear line for travel where I could juxtapose my design ethos with a lighter, easier-to-wear collection.” Indeed, the titular collection, Rumeli – The Summer Story, packs his signature motifs on silhouettes that are a curious hybrid of ready-to-wear and resort clothes. Made with TENCEL™ Luxe filament yarn, they are almost featherweight. Kaftans are adapted into flowy maxi dresses that can be worn both with and without belts. There are tops with diaphanous leg-of-mutton-like sleeves that have been paired with lightweight lehengas in some places and palazzo pants in others. The collection is inundated with saris.
Throughout the runway presentation, there were multitudes of men with turbans of printed fabrics that feature the signature Valaya shifting leaf chevron pattern. They wore impeccably-tailored trousers and button-down bandhgala jackets over shirts or kurtas that subverted the traditional construct but remained widely Indian in its appeal. The Sikh inclusion, he tells me, was intentional, too. It was, in fact, an homage to Valaya’s forefathers from Kapurthala in Punjab, and especially to its ruler, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh, whose avid travels brought the world to his people and stirred up his own wanderlust. “Travel is at the core of everything I do,” says Valaya. The designer even sums up his brand’s aesthetics with the help of a fictitious traveller he calls the Royal Nomad. “The Royal Nomad wanders, goes from one civilisation to another to discover culture and nuances from that era, brings them into the modern time, and makes them relevant and modern,” he explains. For this collection, the Royal Nomad travelled to Rumelia (now the Balkans) at a time when it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire to bring back quintessential Turkish design elements.
Entering the ready-to-wear market is a rite of passage for most designers, and so it was with Valaya. “We had two pret lines before JJV: Studio Valaya and Valaya Quantum,” says the designer without being too specific about when these occurred in his 30-year-long timeline. “I discontinued them because they didn’t work out. The designs were way ahead of their time. I should have waited a bit – maybe not this long, but a bit.” Valaya credits the advent of the digital era, more specifically social media, with bringing more awareness among his audience that is no longer limited to brides. It’s these fashion enthusiasts who will appreciate the free-spiritedness of JJV.
The one thing Valaya makes no effort to hide is his honesty. It is also something the designer tells me has helped him stay relevant in Indian fashion for three long decades despite competition from not only emerging Indian brands that feel more new-age but also international fast fashion brands that have become everyone’s go-to in the last few years. “There was a time when I slipped because I was trying to please everybody,” he says. “I’ve realised that, when you’ve identified your strength, you should just work on taking that to the ultimate level rather than doing many things at once.” And what would his strength be? “Maximalism,” he says at once. His aesthetics can seem ostentatious to a generation that’s trying to embrace minimalism to seem sartorially woke at a global level, but Valaya believes that we are a country of maximalists and, sooner rather than later, we will embrace our penchant for being “too much” again. “I know a lot of people don’t like what I do,” he says with the kind of self-assuredness that comes from spending so much time in the business. “But a whole lot of people love what I do, so I have to focus on them and create for them. I am a maximalist at heart and that’s never changing.” As he sits contentedly under the biggest chandelier I’ve ever seen on any ceiling, there can be no doubt about that.