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Your Space Or Mine

Breakthrough designer Priya Ahluwalia is honouring the strength and beauty of community

Designer Priya Ahluwalia is on a high from the release of her short film Traces, which features her AW21 collection alongside an exclusively composed score by London musician cktrl. After reading Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 novel Homegoing, the London-based founder and creative director of fashion label Ahluwalia was inspired by themes of family migration, ancestry and intergenerationality for her latest collection. She also draws from the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, reviving imagery from Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series and the distinctive primary colour palette of Kerry James Marshall.

The concept of gathering stories from past and present global histories comes naturally to Ahluwalia, who grew up a kid of the diaspora with Indian and Nigerian heritage. As a native southwest Londoner she remembers being surrounded by hubs of migrant communities in the 90s, going to Tooting to get her hair done and travelling up to Southall with her family to go to the butchers.


Words by Sana Noor Haq

These cultural institutions crop up throughout her body of work. In her 100-page photography book titled Jalebi (2020) she creates a collage of archival photos and present day pictures in an ode to Southall. Flecked with vibrant markers of Britain’s first Punjabi community, Ahluwalia melds together family photos from the forties, an interview with her maternal grandmother and staged photographs shot by Laurence Ellis. Three years earlier she released her first book Sweet Lassi, which charts a 2017 trip she took to visit family in Lagos, Nigeria. From wearing velcro-patched bomber jackets to giving her friends styling tips, Ahluwalia always knew she wanted to work with clothes and fashion.

After graduating from the MA Menswear course at the University of Westminster she launched her namesake brand in 2018, winning the H&M Design Award a year later. Since then she has expanded her cultural footprint in the fashion industry. In 2020 she became one of eight designers to win the highly esteemed LVMH Prize. That same year she was approached by Gucci to contribute to their digital week-long festival GucciFest, which showcased films created by young designers and handpicked by the creative director Alessandro Michele. In her part-documentary part-feature film Joy, she pays homage to the strength and beauty of Black existence.

Sweet Lassi (2017) by Priya Ahluwalia
Joy by Priya Ahluwalia

BUILDHOLLYWOOD are excited to be collaborating with Ahluwalia as part of their Your Space Or Mine project as it begins a new fashion focused program to support emerging designers by giving them the opportunity to use their poster space to promote their work. The collaboration with Ahluwalia will showcase her SS21 collection, titled Liberation and will be displayed in cities across the UK including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

The process behind the collection began by Priya looking beyond what’s outside her own window and reflecting upon global culture at large. This season, she partnered with Dennis McInnes, a Lagos-born British graphic designer, as the two researched archival posters, newspaper clippings and photographs from protests in 1960s Nigeria which became the visual foundation for the garments. Colours, fabrics, patterns and positive messaging from the imagery combined with the influence of modern-day Black Lives Matter protests were developed into a line-up of looks that represent the most toned-down and focused version of Priya’s world yet. Punchy colours always bring the party at Ahluwalia, but this season was about juxtaposing the vibrancy against earthy nudes and neutral greys. Even the yellows, greens and oranges are muted, representative of the designer’s own emotions which evolved through the course of designing the collection.

We caught up with the rising star to chat about the creative inspirations behind her collections, what drives her to create sustainable and ethically sourced clothing, and why community-based storytelling is at the heart of her work.

Priya, you grew up in southwest London. What was it like growing up as a kid of the diaspora in the 90s?

I grew up with such a wide array of different experiences around food, music, TV, film. Obviously, I’m living in London and I went to school with classmates from all around the world. I didn’t feel like I was sticking out. I was fortunate to grow up with people from all different backgrounds and that really navigated how much I learned about people and society growing up, and about acceptance and understanding.

Your studio is close to Tooting, and for your SS21 collection you sourced material from Tooting Market. Can you tell us about the cultural institutions that shaped your adolescent years? 

Tooting has always been really important. I’ve always had my hair done there since I was a kid. Also, Southall, we went there a lot, it’s the biggest Punjabi community in the UK, so I went there a lot as a child with my family to eat. Whether it was that we had an occasion or a party, we’d always get our outfits made there. We went to Richmond College and we’d go all the way to Brixton just to get our nails done. I went out a lot in Brixton, Camberwell and East London as well. As a teenager, I wasn’t exactly sticking to the rules, so I’d go wherever the party was.

In your book Jalebi (2020) you focus on London’s Southall. What was it like putting the project together?

For Jalebi I worked with Laurence Ellis, he is a photographer who grew up in Hounslow, so he was really familiar with the area. We went on these recces and I was showing him what I felt about Southall, what was important to me. We worked with Troy Fearn for the casting, and he also went out separately talking to different people that were in Southall about whether they’d want to be involved. There’s a section that’s archive photos with my family. All the photos that are scanned are family photos that date back to the forties, so we included those as well.

Jalebi (2020) by Priya Ahluwalia

You use a lot of photography across your work. What function do you think photographs serve for migrant communities in Britain?

Photos can be a weapon, or they can be a tool. I think it depends on who’s taking a photo, what the context is, how it’s created. I recently read two really interesting books, one is called The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our Museums & why we need to talk about it and one’s called Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. It’s about how the person creating the image’s gaze affects the subject. That’s something really important to Laurence and I. Lawrence does a lot of projects with different communities, and he’s always trying to figure out ways that can be a collaborative process. It’s about making sure that the people in the photos are happy. Do they have any ideas that they want to bring to the table? Do they want to stand somewhere in particular that is important to them? I think a lot of past photography has been taken of different communities through a gaze that’s not their own, so it hasn’t been representative.

Tell us about what it was like working on your first film Joy (2020) as part of Gucci’s film festival? 

Doing a film supported by Gucci means that the film is on a global stage. I was thinking about what I would want to say with such a huge opportunity. When I linked up with Samona Olanipekun, the director, we wanted to show the amazing efforts of people that come before us in terms of fighting for liberation and equality, and how that allows people’s lives to blossom now. Even the fact that I get to make the film, that’s because people before me fought for me to have the right to say what I want, so that was why I wanted to make a film about it.

I’m really close to my Mum. She worked so hard to take us from nothing to something when I was a kid and I’ve always found that really inspirational. I think why I am the way I am and why I find work ethic really important comes from her. One of the women in the film, my Auntie Lola who’s singing, is my best friend’s mum, so I’ve also grown up with her and had cooking lessons with her and chatted with her and lived with her as well. I’m fortunate to know lots of different women from different walks of life that are incredible in their own ways. I’m inspired by them as who they are, whether they’re strong or whether they’re open about their feelings, which is a different type of strength.

Why are you particularly drawn to the idea of telling stories, whether they’re from the past or from the present?

I’ve always loved reading. I’m someone that has always had an affinity with stories and novels. I think fashion has been pretty Eurocentric for a while. There are other stories that could be told and other experiences that can be shared. I quite like the fact that I’m able to do that from a place of authenticity.

What was it like creating the short film Traces to showcase the AW21 collection?

It’s a real team effort. I think there were 40 people that worked on it. I worked with Stephen Isaac-Wilson and said I had this initial idea where I wanted cktrl to be in the film as a central figure and have this group of models that work around him. Stephen read all my notes about Migration and Kerry James Marshall. With the lookbook we worked with a set designer, Chris Melgram, who we sent the research to and he developed a set for the film. We took some elements from the set and moved them into the lookbook. The makeup was done by Bari Khalique and it was inspired by Kerry James Marshall paintings and how he highlights people’s faces in his paintings, then we put our own spin on it. The A emblem in the backgrounds of both the film and the collection comes from a new emblem we developed this season. I said to Nell Kalonji who did the styling that although the collection is filled with different colours and is very varied in terms of texture, I really wanted it to feel quite uniform in a way. I think she did that so successfully. I said to Laurence that I would love him to shoot the lookbook. The music that Bradley aka cktrl was him essentially reading my research and responding to it. It’s a big discussion with every creative.

Traces AW21 Film, Photography @laurenceellis
@Ahluwalia Spring Summer 2021, Photography @laurenceellis

Your brand is so recognisable because it is eponymous, was naming your brand after your family name a conscious decision?

When I was growing up and saying I wanted to have my own brand, all my family said not to call it our name because people won’t understand, and they won’t be able to say it. As I got older, I realized that’s actually a really awful symptom of white supremacy. I’m really proud of where I’m from and I like my surname, and I’m not going to bend to Eurocentric ideas of what a name should be. I would never have thought that when I was a teenager. Even though I grew up in a very multicultural city, ideas of whiteness still prevailed. Beyoncé always had straight hair. I still felt like I had to conform to something, which now I don’t. But that’s because I’ve got the privilege of having a platform where I can be brave enough not to.

Why is it important to you that your brand promotes sustainability and ethically sourced clothing?

There’s so much shit going on in the world with how much crap is thrown away. I decided that if I was going to do a brand, I would want to try and do it in a better way. We’re not perfect, it’s completely a learning curve. We have to keep checking in with ourselves and wondering, are we doing in the best way possible? I feel like there is a better way to do it than what we’d been doing before. We could make clothes with less of an impact on the planet and a better impact on people. The goal is eventually when I have more resources for team members, we’d like to build a regenerative brand that gives back.

Do you think that fashion can be a force for change?

I think fashion can be a force for change because most of the whole world interacts with clothing. Through my brand, we’ve been able to bring awareness and have conversations, but I think that at the same time, what needs to change is government policies and the education system and the prison system and the hospital system. I find that we’ve got this really weird thing of putting the pressure on designers, musicians and actors to change the world, when really, we’ve got a bunch of politicians that are meant to be doing it, that can actually affect laws. I think we can raise awareness, but I don’t think we should be used as an alternative to applying pressure on parliament.

What would it mean to you to have your work showcased across posters and billboards across London? 

It’s a dream come true. I never ever thought that I would have a billboard. It feels so surreal. I think I’m going to be overcome with emotion when I see it, I’m a bit of a cry-baby anyway. I feel really excited. We’ve had such a good start to the year already. Last year we ended on a high winning a fashion award, and releasing a new film, which I really am so proud of. I hope I get to continue to learn and grow and keep checking in with ourselves about if we’re performing at the best and most responsible way that we can, and how we create projects that make people feel connected to the brand. I would like to get some more accounts in different territories. I want to grow brand awareness, and that’s why these billboards are going to be amazing.


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