JJ Valaya is one of India’s finest fashion designers and couturiers. The House of Valaya recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a cocktail dinner and fashion show in the city of Toronto, Canada. Also gracing the occasion were the Royal family from Jaipur: HRH Princess Diya Kumari and Maharaj Narendra Kumar. Minority-Review’s Swati Sharan got a chance to meet JJ Valaya in Toronto where they discussed fashion, life and success.
Huddled in a room that could be described as a fairytale of clothes, I sit in awe not just because I am about to interview one of India’s most famous fashion designers but more so because of how down to earth and sobering his approach to life and people are inspite of this. Within moments, I am guided down the hall of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto where JJ Valaya helps me find a place that’s comfortable for doing the interview in.
He had just earlier heralded the 20th anniversary celebrations for the House of Valaya with a fashion show, gala and polo match chaired by the Rajasthani royal couple Maharaj Narendra Singh and Princess Diya Kumari (daughter of the late Sawai Singh). The match was played between the Jaipur Royals with Maharaj Singh in the lead against the Toronto Polo Club.
In Valaya’s soothing and relaxing presence then, I commence to learn much about not just him but also about his approach to life.
I ask him about what brings him to Toronto and he answers, “I was invited here.” He further elaborates about how Ayesha Mawaz-Khan, the event organiser invited him to have his 20th anniversary celebrations for the House of Valaya here.
As for showcasing, “It’s the anniversary collection, which was also displayed at the Wills Fashion Week Grand Finale earlier this year. Whereas in my earlier collections you may have seen me dealing with more traditional approaches, this time we’ve tried to go for a fusion look which I think is also fitting for here as well because it’s a blend of east and west.”
As for whether he thought this was his best collection, Valaya begs to differ though he does admit it was amongst his better ones. “It’s really an evolutionary process where you try to do a better job than what you have before though each collection may be good in its own right. It’s all in the spirit of competition.”
I think to myself for a moment and say, “It really sounds like you’re competing with yourself.” To which he remarks with a smile, “It’s the only way to truly grow. You can’t get caught up in what other people are doing. You just have to focus on what you’re doing and find ways to improve on what you’ve done.”
In terms of how the designer got his break, Valaya speaks about how 20 years ago in India, there was no fashion industry. There was no structure. So though partially there was less pressure on the then upcoming designers to live up to a given image, there was also a lot of learning that also took place. Effectively, his batch of designers created the industry and structure that we see today. He admits though that because there was nothing to go on, “I also learned from my mistakes.”
At this stage, Valaya says, “I see myself as a crusader of the craft. I am always persevering and observing different styles of traditional crafts and arts. Nowadays, machines are the trend while handmade is becoming history. We need to work on finding ways to preserve the traditional crafts. Nowadays young people are not interested in traditional styles. We need to be able to find a way to have the traditional work woven into a contemporary modern way so that they have a chance of being preserved.”
As for how he got into designing, JJ speaks of how earlier he was being prepared to become an accountant. “Back then there were 3-4 professions that you could get into.” But when in 1987, he had his first visit to the National Institute of Fashion Technology or NIFT in Delhi, he fell in love with it and got enrolled there later in 1989.
With regards to his views on social contribution, he believes it to be important. “In the West, it’s very common for people to do but in India it’s a trend that’s only picked up more recently.” He, in fact, runs the Free Spirit Foundation, which gives money to organisations that deal with gender-related development. He used to run some schools but then gave them over to NGOs to handle. He hosts fundraisers every year to raise this money. You can learn more about this cause by visiting www.jjvalaya.com under the spotlight section.
When I ask him what he believed might separate him from other aspiring designers who may have not have had his fame and success, he responds, “Believe in what you’re doing. We didn’t have expectations to live up to have pressure added on this way but the current generation may feel them though they may also be able learn from our experiences as well.”
His words of encouragement for aspiring designers: “Identify your core strengths and try excelling at them. Many people nowadays are successful but don’t necessarily excel.”
For a moment, I stare confused and ask him, “Aren’t the two the same thing?” He answers, “No. Many people are succeeding but not necessarily excelling because they’re going on certain things they think will make them successful. But if you focus on developing yourself in a style or approach that you feel comes more naturally to you, it’s a way for sure-fire success.”
And then I nod smilingly back after which he adds, “Strive for excellence and success will follow.”
The designer then proceeds to help me take a photo of him with very helpful feedback. “I’m also a photographer so I can help you here with getting the angles right. I’ve released a coffee table book of photographs.” How amazing to have such different kinds of talent, I think to myself.
He later comes back to me to study the photographs I’ve taken and guides me on which is better. Perhaps it is this attention to fine detail, consideration towards people and very relaxed approach that are also keys to his success. After this interview, I suddenly notice myself feeling so meditatively lighter than before it. Such is the power of his aura.
From the JJ Valaya 20th Anniversary Fashion Show, Toronto
(Fashion show and event pictures by Arthur von Tyrpa and Fidelis Lobo. JJ Valaya solo picture by Swati Sharan.)
Read more interviews here.