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J.J. Valaya – The Untold Story

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Best described as a Royal Nomad, Valaya is one of India’s finest and most enduring designers of haute couture. Saffron chose the other way round to discover his life and values, besides fashion shows and flagship stores.

Geetanjali Kaul took a sneak peek into an experience called Valaya at his elegantly planned home, in Gurgaon, to know about his life, journey, muses and plans.

From a student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology to the founding member of Fashion Design Council of India, J J Valaya is celebrating for a Silver Jubilee in the fashion world.

We, at Saffron, are thrilled that he’s within our pages and at his candid best.

Welcome to the world of Valaya

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Why did JJ Valaya take to fashion? What got you started?
As you know, 25 years back it used to be the khadi kurta- jhola and kolhapuri chappal look. Fashion was something brand new. It hadn’t really come to India. It was just getting ready to make an impact in India. It was an avenue where one could actually do research, and I like research. I like to go into the past where I could reinterpret and redesign things from a new perspective. At that time it was the only creative avenue that I saw where one could actually make a living. Artists never made money. They struggled, so art was not an option. Architecture was another option but at that point of time in India, that field was considerably boring. In any way, I think the Mughals or the British did better architecture. Now it is a different story. The new age talented architects are doing fantastic things. Similarly, in design, every aspect is far more advanced from what it was back then. I am glad I took that decision. I was studying to be a chartered accountant. So I moved to fashion.

Tell us about your family. How have they supported you in your journey?
Everyone in my family was in the army. When I was doing my chartered accountancy course, a day came when I decided and told my family that, “look, I don’t know what I want to do but I do know what I don’t want to do.” After that, days went by figuring out what I wanted to do, till an uncle of mine from Delhi visited Chandigarh where I used to stay. He mentioned about a new place in Delhi, called NIFT. “Why don’t you come and see, it’s something to do with fashion.” It looked interesting and creative. Anything creative would get my attention. Since my mother used to design kids’ wear, I think it’s always genetic, there’s some talent that carries forward. My mother was fantastic with design, and my passion for embroidery came from her. So a lot of such things, I contribute to my mother… it is destiny.

Can you remember a spectacular failure- could be in your early years as well and expand on it? Have you ever had second thoughts?
I have never had thoughts or decisions I had to rethink. I have never given up hope on fashion. I think it is an incredibly interesting and buoyant sort of profession to be in. It is also a taxing profession because it requires constant change therefore you cannot rest on your laurels. It is one of those professions, where change is imminent and happens in the blink of an eye. Therefore, every six months, you have to show something new.

Can you draw a verbal graph as to your journey, from your humble beginnings to where you are today? How would you describe these 25 years?
Typically, everybody likes the graph to go only one way, which is up and forward. However, in real life, that is never the way. So, we get the beautiful “Himalayas”- the ups and downs happening and the range is sort of quite amazing, but I think the Everest is yet to come.

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The Great Inspiration
India’s past reveals exotic treasures, fine crafts and remarkable skill. Perhaps the biggest role of the modern Indian designer is to gently reinvent them and create relevance so as to immortalize them.

The Expansion Palette
With a 24-year-old label, Valaya known for his fascination with royal themes and fine fabrics is now delivering wedding themes on locations, having already ventured into Valaya Homes designing interiors.

Presently, he is designing a showstopper wedding location in New Delhi.

While the essence of Valaya Home is – ‘the past must coexist with the present’, the thrust in designing weddings is greatly on aesthetics and effective planning.

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Do you remember who bought your first creation?
My first creation was bought by a friend of mine, while I was a student at NIFT. She said that I am looking for a jacket. I wanted to make some extra pocket money. So I said- “what if I make it for you?” Then I bought the fabric, cut and stitched it after class hours and sold it to her for Rs.250. That was my first earning, in 1990.

What inspires you?
This moment right now. It is something that I have learnt and am trying to master, by closely linking it to meditation. If you value whatever is happening right at this present moment, you will see so much positivity.

Have you ever designed for free? If yes, why?
Each one of our roles, besides the monetary angle, is also to share what we are good at with the world. It is something that is mandatory to the whole process. Most people tend to forget that, as it always becomes about the ‘self’- about me, ‘my’ security/future/children. The word ‘My’ becomes omnipotent. The word also applies to my abilities. And, if I can use my abilities to share, then why not! There have been instances where I like something and somebody has been gushing over the same thing, I like to give it to him/her. It needs to be done. I want to do much more of it, in fact, because if I am sharing my talent and that makes somebody happy, then half the battle is won.

Which designers’ work do you most appreciate? What inspires you?
I think there is an incredible amount of creativity on this planet. It starts with the ultimate creator. I do not think anybody can measure up the kind of creative prowess that nature has. That is my first inspiration -life itself. The second inspiration is from accomplished but humble people. Success and humility are strange bedfellows but they do exist, and if I find such people, then they are my best friends.

How do you appreciate your patrons?
By giving them something they are very happy about. Fashion is a game of psychology; it’s not about clothes but rather about how people feel when they wear your clothes. It’s what happens to the attitude and how they start walking differently and greet people differently because the confidence levels have gone up. Nobody looks at fashion in any other way. Everyone says, O what a garment! It’s what the garment does to the person, and that is the onus of fashion. So if I design something, and somebody wears it, and I physically, visually, emotionally feel the change in that person, then I know I have accomplished what I had to.

What are the deciding factors that come into play while designing for a client?
Each person, besides having different physical DNAs, also has diverse mind frames. And you have to look at everything. There are people who are utterly simple, and will want to wear something special only for an occasion. You have to see who you are dealing with, and see what best suits them. It is as simple as that. If you don’t have a vision, you can’t do anything.

There are many who come up with replicas of known brands in the fashion industry. How do you differentiate between original and fakes?
I have a personal Facebook page, which is called Midnight Musings. It is been covered by several national dailies because of its honesty. Some also dislike it because of the same honesty. It was hailed by many fashion editors as it is all about what is happening to Indian design today.

I’m especially focusing on Indian fashion. The word designer is misused and maligned. We are living in an era where originality is suffering. You see more of the same. If somebody has made a lehenga with flowers in it, you would have the entire country making versions of the same thing. This is disturbing, because it is leading to a downfall. We are not developing from the country’s dynamics of design.

Every part of the world has its own dynamics. Japanese fashion is very distinct and in-sync; every designer there would have his or her own signature. What is happening in India is that because of the sheer numbers we have, we are suddenly seeing everything which is similar and mediocre and that is very disturbing as it means we are not evolving fast enough, as a design force that we should be.

Most of these breed come from rich backgrounds. So the circle is enough. The garage is the workshop. So everything culminates into the mediocrity of design. The worst thing is, it gets hailed by the press, and that’s what the scary part is. Specialists know the trend, what to write about, but a lot of populist media writes just as per the press releases for different considerations. The message goes around to the end consumer that there must be something good in this. We are soon going to reach a stage where that is going to be shaped up. It is going to happen, it always happens, where the chaff and the grain will be separated; the men from the boys will be separated. That will happen.

My Facebook page is really about how we celebrate mediocrity, and how we are heading into an era with a lack of originality. Great designers are doing beautiful work, but are being over powered and outnumbered by many mediocre designers. So where’s the balance?

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Everybody cannot afford a good designer.
What has money to do with design? What really happens is, if you show yourself in a certain manner, you have done some credible work that is appreciated and you’ve been highlighted and celebrated, then people naturally assume you’re expensive. However, the truth is that most good designer trades are at par and absolutely affordable. There may be different set of clients, so there’s always something for everyone. It’s not going to be absolute bottom level, though. We’re in the trade of luxury, it will remain that way. But perceptions are mostly out of the place. So, actually one should go and have a look.

Do you incorporate any particular signature colour in J J Valaya creations?
The colour of Valaya is midnight blue. That’s always been our signature colour. I love red, because I think India is all about the red hue, be it the sindoor or the colour of a wedding outfit or anything at all. Most importantly, it is the colour of passion. Blue is the colour of royalty; pretty much our underlined signature. I like ivory because of its versatility. Ivory and black are two neutral colours where everything that you wear in these two, looks fantastic. I don’t like neons, it’s something that doesn’t work for me.

How would you distinguish a JJ Valaya signature from the rest?
Every designer has a signature of his own. This is by far the most difficult question to answer by word. It could only be answered visually and for that, you will have to do a little research. Go around, explore fashion, see all the designers, their style and see how it is.

What is your next collection going to focus on?
See, I’m the royal nomad. That is what matters and that part of the DNA is going to run across all my collections. We are going to focus on that, carry on more, next year we complete 25 years. I don’t know what I am going to do, but I hope I end up doing something interesting.

What is the most treasured thing that you own with regard to clothing or accessories? What is that one thing you aspire to possess?
I have no connection with royalties, except for the fact that I was born in Jodhpur. ‘What’ is a tricky business; I try to keep that word away, because I need to create what I want. But the most treasured thing I have, it’s obvious, you always keep your family and your kids priority. However, possessions are not what really matters and I think one thing I can truly value, and I can say that I’m blessed in this aspect, is my ability to creatively visualize the end-product months before it actually comes off. I think that the power of visualization is one of the strongest powers that creative people possess, because they can see something, and they can perceive exactly what the thing should look like after working on it, be it be a building, a fabric or a work of art; they just know it. They kind of know what’s going to happen in the end. Their ability to visualize is a very special ability, a superpower even.

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What are you doing for your Home collections?
We are doing a lot at present. Fashion is the base. Interior is one part, we are also focusing on weddings in the sense we are now designing weddings.

How do you design weddings?
It’s actually the way you see it… the structures, detailing and everything. We design the aesthetics part of the event. We help in putting things together at the event, and bringing it all together. We are doing this at several places in the world. We had a big event in Turkey and I am right now preparing for a luxury wedding in Delhi, which is happening at the end of this year. Many destination weddings are happening these days. We are a holistic design brand. When we create thematic experiences on the sets, it is about creating a structure in big spaces, which is going to be there only for one night. This is why I love India so much. There is no country like India.

What do you do while designing a home?
Everything! The power of visualization factors in big time. We are talking about seeing an empty space and then seeing how it is going to look after six months to ten months.

How do you visualise that?
For that, you will have to get into my head. If you set parameters, you can never be creative.

Photo Credits Alka Pandey
Editorial Content Geetanjali Kaul

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