Priya Ahluwalia is the Founder and Creative Director of fashion label, Ahluwalia. Despite being only a few years into her career she’s racked up an impressive number of accolades — from getting onto Forbes’ 30 under 30 European arts and culture list 2020, to winning both the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design and the GQ/BFC Designer Menswear Fund in 2021.
But she’s not done yet. In some ways, she’s just getting started. In this interview MediaCat Magazine’s Editor, Mike Piggott, chats to her about building her brand, learnings as a leader, fast fashion, collaboration and toxic masculinity.
For someone a mere three years into your career you’ve come out, guns blazing. What’s been your highlight so far as a business leader, and a founder of a fashion brand?
There have been so many highlights and it’s been an incredible journey. It’s amazing when I look back and think about what we have managed to achieve over the past 3 years. I’ve got so many highlights, but I think one of the main ones is the day that I launched SS22.
It was the first time I launched Ahluwalia womenswear. I also launched my Mulberry collaboration, and in the evening I went on to win the GQ menswear fund. I think that was one of the best days of my life, as well as my career.
Speaking of Ahluwalia, what key things have you learned about running the business since you started?
I’m a pretty inquisitive person, so I ask loads of questions. Whenever you’re in a space with an expert in their field and an area you’re as well versed in, it’s best to ask questions. Also, what’s really important is to hire people with the skillsets that you’re less strong in, or that you simple don’t have.
Building a team is so important; as you start to bring in expertise from all sorts of different areas, not just design. Being inquisitive, asking questions and building a team. It’s all really important.
Is it fair to say that the fashion industry feels like it moves both fast and slow? In that it’s constantly changing, but also a lot of it stays the same and refuses to change?
I guess you could definitely say that! The thing is, it’s really funny because when you’re in it and you’re working on your own brand and own projects with your own team, you’re not necessarily really looking at what everyone else is doing all the time.
I guess I don’t notice that we are all doing the same thing, but I do feel like it’s an exciting time. The pandemic has really pushed everyone to experiment with digital platforms for example. I really do feel like younger brands and emerging brands are having a moment where they’re able to be supported, seen and heard.
I think that there’s change coming, but it’s difficult and hard to change a whole capitalist structure, I mean it’s the same in a lot of industries. I’m sure the automative industry hasn’t really changed that much either. There are changes in fashion, but I know there’s still more work that needs to be done.
In your mind, what can be done to drive meaningful change, and what change would you like to see happen?
Well in my mind, to be honest, big corporations are the ones with the power. So big businesses really need to have a look at what they’re doing in their supply chain and how they’re treating people. It’s great for brands like myself and other emerging brands to be spearheading conversations, but at the same time our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet is minute.
We need the businesses that have a real impact on the planet to step up and make big changes. Without that I don’t know how huge a difference there will be. I’m not someone that loves government intervention, but without regulation around how people manufacture stuff, I don’t see things changing. Businesses are more concerned with profit and the bottom line and change needs to happen at the top, with real power holders.
Let’s talk about collaboration. In the last few years and particularly with the pandemic, we’re seeing more cases of brands from different industries and disciplines work together. Are there any interesting brands from outside of fashion you’d like to work with? And why those?
Collaboration can be really fun and the best thing about collaboration, in my opinion, is that you learn so much from the partner that you are collaborating with — that’s why I love doing them at Ahluwalia. There are definitely loads of businesses that I’d like to collaborate with, but I’m reluctant to talk about them because I don’t want to jinx it.
I know it sounds really silly, but I believe in jinxes. There are definitely different areas that might be within scent or home, or different product categories. I would like to be able to expand Ahluwalia out past fashion in the future.
There are definitely some interesting ones and the reason I would want to do them with particular brands is because I feel like our values align. I feel like myself and my team would learn so much, and that’s really important.
Also, have you seen any interesting collaborations between brands that really caught you eye in the last few years? What did they do that impressed you?
A collaboration I love was the Telfar and Ugg collaboration, it was genius. The Virgil Abloh and Ikea collaboration was also incredible — and I think a catalyst for young designers to start experimenting outside of fashion.
Let’s talk about men. In a GQ interview you said you want to push boundaries and get men wearing more colour. Is it fair to say toxic masculinity is one of the main reasons why men don’t experiment much with clothes? And if so, how would you like to see the industry break this down? (If we’re arguing fashion brands are best placed to do this.)
I think there are a number of reasons: it could be toxic masculinity. It could be men are creatures of habit. I think there is a number of things. I think that change comes from so many different places and it’s nice to give men a choice.
More brands are giving men choice now, and as I think the more that people in general start wearing more diverse and interesting wardrobes, the more men will also adopt them too. I don’t think it’s just necessarily just designers, but when tastemakers and VIPs and influencers within media start experimenting, it will inevitably trickle down.
On change: are there any trends or interesting things you’re seeing at the moment that excites you about the future of fashion?
Something, and I wouldn’t want to call it a trend, but I think I’d say a shift that’s amazing in fashion at the moment — and in creative industries at large — is that the leaders, the people making decisions and heads of brands, are becoming more diverse. There are so many Black female businesses in London now, and South Asian-owned businesses.
I think what that means is the narrative and the stories being told are getting more diverse and are not so Eurocentric. There is a wider array of brands, which I think is so good, because it means it encourages people to be themselves. If you see yourself reflected back it helps your self esteem. That’s my favourite thing: the shift in seeing that there’s real diversity in the industry.
And finally, perhaps a slightly easier question to end. What excites you most about the year ahead for Ahluwalia?
This year we have so many interesting projects and collaborations coming up. We’re expanding our womenswear. I’m also building my team, which will give me more time for creative thinking.
The world is opening again, so hopefully I’ll be able to do more travelling for more research. Hopefully I’ll get back to India and Nigeria. I think the thing that excites me most is how much opportunity there is for us to explore, create and grow as a team.