In 1990s South London, a young Priya Ahluwalia would watch as members of her extended family got ready for garage raves, styling themselves in matching two-piece sets, dresses with chain belts and patterned silk shirts. “All the guys wore earrings,” she recalls. “I used to wish I could go party with them, too.” Perhaps her longing helped crystallize these memories, because similar pieces, such as candy-hued sweater vests, vividly patchworked hoodies and jackets made from deconstructed Levi’s, have found their way into some of the 27-year-old British men’s wear designer’s recent collections. In fact, a thread of nostalgia runs through all of Ahluwalia’s designs: In addition to drawing from the aesthetics prominent during her own childhood, she pays homage to those of other cultural epochs, as well as to her family’s Nigerian, Indian and Jamaican heritage and the broader immigrant experience in the United Kingdom.
For a capsule collection she did with the British retailer Browns in 2019, she blended traditional tailoring (jewel-toned blazers, patchworked waistcoats) with contemporary sportswear (mixed-stripe shirts, slouchy trousers), having looked to the tremendous popularity of Clarks shoes in Jamaica and documentary photography of Black youth in 1970s England. A capsule collection last spring for Matches Fashion was inspired by snapshots of her maternal grandfather, a Punjabi immigrant to the U.K. who delighted in striped and checked suits custom-made in India. And for her fall 2020 collection, Ahluwalia delved into 1965 — the year her stepfather, of Jamaican descent, was born, and one marked by widespread political tumult and psychedelia — and came up with color-blocked zip-front sweaters, striped pants emblazoned with red wave motifs and quilted puffer jackets patterned with swirls of orange, black and brown. Her references ranged from vintage Nigerian album covers to her older relatives’ descriptions of what they wore to church at the time, to found photographs of the Windrush Generation — the thousands of people who moved to Britain from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1970. That imagery evinced “a real dedication to snappy dressing” among immigrants, says Ahluwalia, who noted that waistcoats, button-downs and ties were often worn for everyday activities. “It had to do with proving themselves in a country that was racist,” she says. “Wanting to show that they were ‘respectable.’”
Clearly, Ahluwalia’s interests extend beyond aesthetic history — she’s keenly aware of the way clothes can channel and dovetail with one’s identity (she gravitated toward designing men’s wear in school but doesn’t believe in rigid distinctions: “Anyone can wear anything”) and, even if her most recent collection was a celebration of personal style and self-respect, she doesn’t shy away from difficult truths, another one being the havoc the fashion industry has wreaked on the environment. In 2017, when she was in the process of getting her master’s in men’s wear from London’s University of Westminster, she took a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, and noticed people wearing unexpected secondhand items of British clothing (a London Marathon 2012 shirt, for example, or old Tommy Hilfiger garb), which prompted her to explore the global market for pre-owned clothes. She eventually made her way to the Indian city of Panipat, where towering piles of Western discards are recycled into yarn. The experience inspired her to embrace sustainable sourcing and methods of production, and she launched her eponymous brand, which operates out of a studio in South London’s Wandsworth neighborhood, six months after that first trip. “If I’m going to add more clothes to the world, I can use materials that already exist,” she says of her work, which she makes with the help of a core team of about three people. “Everyone knows it’s the right thing to do, so why am I being asked why I do it, rather than other brands being asked why they don’t do it?”
This approach accounts for one of her signatures — patchwork, which in Ahluwalia’s hands feels in conversation with West African stitched textiles, and also speaks to her own narrative: “My life is a patchwork of cultures and heritage, a mishmash and remix of traditional ideas of being Indian or British or Nigerian,” she says. In June of this year, Ahluwalia published “Jalebi,” a dreamlike book that weaves writings on her experience as a mixed-heritage woman with old family snapshots and portraits (photographed by Laurence Ellis) of residents in Southall, a major Punjabi community in London, which she grew up visiting. At every stage of the process, then, Ahluwalia is thinking about the life span of materials, which pass through makers and wearers and across time, and about human lives, too. She knows that as a designer she is building her own sort of world, and why make it anything but a rich, varied and authentic one? Her compassionate, thoughtful creations have earned her accolades from the establishment — this summer, she was one of the recipients of the LVMH Prize — but she maintains a healthy sense of irreverence. “Basically, I want to do whatever I want,” says Ahluwalia, who hinted that her next move might have to do with women’s wear, interior design pieces, youth education initiatives, book projects or some combination thereof. “I feel like now is a time when people are listening to what I have to say.”