Fashion, style and trends. These three words have elaborately classified past decades and streamed a breath of fresh air into them. One very strong factor that distinguished the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and all the other decades was fashion, whether it be in textiles, accessories or hairstyle. Fashion has lavishly bestowed these eras an image that instantly crosses our minds as one tosses over a conversation in conjunction with a particular period. Fashion can only be created by innovative, forward-thinking designers, and this holds true for Waris Ahluwalia – a popular designer, actor, model and fashionista, whose creations are not only beautiful and mesmerizing, but his classy designs and intricate pieces have dazzled eminent celebrities, socialites and personalities.
A noted name in the New York fashion industry and social circle, Ahluwalia has sophisticatedly blended royalty to pacify the fashion dreams of not only Hollywood but also those who may not have encountered how customary designs fit in to the urban landscape. Through his brand ‘House of Waris,’ Ahluwalia has produced fine designs in jewellery, scarves and most recently, stylish sunglasses.
With the media and paparazzi spotlights shining on him over the past several years, Ahluwalia says designing is not something he initially considered as a long-term career option. But it all started with a set of two rings. “I had two rings made for myself with 40 diamonds in each ring. I was at Maxfield’s in Los Angeles and the rings caught the attention of the sales staff. I didn't choose this path – jewellery chose me,” he adds.
Coming from the city of Amritsar, India, this designer proudly tells us that he took his first steps at the Golden Temple (Sri Harmandir Sahib). His father was a professor at Guru Nanak Dev University and his mother having done her Masters in early childhood education in New York, went back to India and opened a school called Waris Public School. The Ahluwalia’s moved to New York when Waris was merely 5-years-old. His memories of India, Ahluwalia says are “fuzzy but it is ingrained in my soul.”
The sudden swing from Amritsar to New York meant the family resided in an area, which didn’t have other Indian families. “Growing up a turbaned Sikh in America is essentially just growing up different. Different is sometimes hard for people to accept or understand,” recalls Ahluwalia. He further explains that he was the only turbaned kid in his high school. “Early in life, I realized that I would not fit in anywhere. It’s not my purpose in life to fit in.” In all aspects, that statement stands just apt.
While he may not have fit in at school, he most certainly did not fit into the existing career paths of his family members. His family posed statures of successful academics that covered wide areas of expertise, including the roles of professors, chairman of departments, psychologists, chemists and physicians. “My studies were in literature, politics, religion amongst other things,” says Ahluwalia adding that it was in his late teens that he began to be drawn to the arts. “I was in my 20’s and exploring all ideas and avenues; from publishing to film. Jewellery or acting was never a thought. It would take me into my late 20’s to finally take that step.”
With his regular appearances in New York’s social scene, Ahluwalia has carved a name for himself, yet he passionately maintains his culture and values and keeps himself in align with his belief system, and has kept drinking alcohol and drugs at bay. “My parents instilled in me strong values that still guide my life today. We spoke Punjabi at home and ate home cooked food everyday. To this day, one of my favourite meals is daal and rice.”
Fast forward his childhood and teenage years, destiny arose and created a path that led him to the fine art of craftsmanship and design. As he mentions earlier, Ahluwalia had no prior desire of entering the world of design, it added up to the fact that he never really obliged himself to any sort of formal training in this industry. Nevertheless, upon discovering this area of expertise, Ahluwalia doused himself wholeheartedly in a deeper understanding of jewellery designing.
“I have spent the last six years searching the world for the best craftsmen – they make it possible.” It can be said that Rome and India were two places that worked as a muse for this designer and paved the way to the amazing designs that define Waris Ahluwalia. He reflects upon his journey, which started in Rome, where his first workshop was put together. From there it was a journey back to his roots in India, where he encountered a family that excelled in jewellery designing. From there, he routed his way to Bangkok “for the most delicate setters and then somehow found my way home to New York to work hard with hand engravers.”
But there is a lot more to this personality that surpasses the designer in him. Acting and modelling are also professions, in which he excels at. While participating in a peace rally in front of the United Nations, Ahluwalia was introduced to American director and screenwriter Wes Anderson. Interestingly, while having dinner one night with Anderson, Ahluwalia was asked what his plans were for the second half of the year. Anderson then sent Ahluwalia the script for his movie The Life Aquatic by Steve Zissou and offered him a role, without having to audition for it. Faithful that he has always been to his friends, Ahluwalia took a short break from his business and headed to Italy for the shooting of The Life Aquatic by Steve Zissou. “We shot in Italy for five months. The sets were grand and the experience unforgettable. Even from there I didn't know acting is something that would continue to be a part of my life.” So just like jewellery designing, acting too sprouted to be a surprising, yet pleasurable phase in Ahluwalia’s life.
Ahluwalia’s fans will remember him for his role in Spike Lee’s The Inside Man, where he plays the role of a bank employee, who suffers a case of mistaken identity during a heist. The movie starred Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington. The following year in 2007, Ahluwalia starred in Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, along with Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman in the main lead.
Building up on his acting and film foray, Ahluwalia is set to debut his skills as a writer and producer with his upcoming production Here. It is a “dreamy short film,” which he has written and produced for The Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts. “It’s a romantic treasure hunt of sorts, the film stars Agyness Deyn, whose journey takes her across America following clues that lead to her lover. Directed by Luca Guadagnino and shot in only nine days, the team travelled from the Equinox Resort in Manchester, Vermont to the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona and finally ended at the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki,” says Ahluwalia. Each location showcases a different, yet quintessential American landscape. To be precise, the 15-minute film is a love story.
Ahluwalia has worked with Guadagnino in the past, the duo also happen to be good friends, and collaborated together in I Am Love, where Guadagnino was the director and Ahluwalia was one of the actors. “I love working with friends,” he exclaims. “That’s the secret to loving your work – keep your friends close.” But there’s more good news for his fans. Ahluwalia will soon be seen in Anderson’s upcoming project – The Grand Budapest Hotel. The movie, slated for release in March, also stars Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes and other renowned actors.
Ahluwalia recently made headlines around the world. In November 2013, popular clothing brand GAP featured Ahluwalia with model and filmmaker Quentin Jones as part of their ‘Make Love’ ad campaign, which also featured several multi-ethnic personalities in GAP clothing. Shortly after the ad was displayed across New York, it received racist backlash and one of the ads was even vandalized with racist comments. This incident went viral and made global headlines, as individuals took to social media to comment on the incident and to congratulate GAP for celebrating multiculturalism in their ads. Ahluwalia says “My work is about the human touch. About humanity, creating a thoughtful existence and breaking boundaries while still respecting traditions. It’s reflected in the craftsmen House of Waris works with from over 14 countries.”
He goes on to say “I think that’s what Gap did with their campaign – create a dialogue. The only way to end racism is by creating dialogue and educating people about other people’s cultures. If nothing else, I hope that this story will help to further highlight these issues and enhance the dialogue so that we can eventually achieve better understanding amongst all cultures.”
Moving on from acting and modelling, another pursuit by Ahluwalia is the craft of writing. Recently Paris Review, a literary magazine featuring original writing, art and in-depth interview with famous writers, approached Ahluwalia and asked him to contribute to the publication. Considered as one of the most important literary journals in America, Ahluwalia says he has been reading Paris Review for quite some time, but never imagined writing for the esteemed publication. He also writes for Style. com, which covers fashion, design, modelling, celebs and beauty. “I write an advice column on Style.com every now and then called ‘Love & Waris – A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette, Romance and Other Disasters.’”
Getting back to House of Waris; being a product of a versatile designer as talented as Ahluwalia, one can only expect excellence and perfection. Integrating a strong influence from romance and history of ancient kingdoms, Ahluwalia’s fine collections have been flaunted by noted fashion icons.
In 2010, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), a non-profit trade association pursuing its mission of “strengthening the influence and success of American Designers in the global economy” welcomed Ahluwalia on board. CFDA comprises membership of more than 400 of America’s foremost womenswear, menswear, jewellery and accessory designers. The well-acclaimed association portrays Ahluwalia as a “pioneer among a new breed of craftsmen,” and extols his achievements saying, “Waris, who is now based in New York, travels frequently to Rome and Rajasthan on a quest to preserve the methods of the Old World, working with the best in each city from goldsmiths to diamond setters, who once made the crests for royal families.” In 2009, House of Waris was recognized as a CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund Finalist, a prestigious honour in the fashion industry.
“I’m humbled and honoured to be part of such a prestigious organization as the CFDA. To have your work recognized by your peers and elders is a very rewarding feeling. I feel lucky and blessed to be doing what I do everyday. I’m surrounded by talent and the love of family and friends. These accolades are a nice sign to let us know we’re on the right path,” says Ahluwalia, as he reflects upon these accomplishments.
Moreover, the recognition continued for this jewellery expert after he was named to Vanity Fair’s coveted ‘Best Dressed List.’ The magazine scrutinized his sense of fashion and style and portrayed Ahluwalia as someone “who likes wearing tailored suits from Savile Row, accented with pocket squares and pink suede George Esquivel shoes…is also one of the few people in the world who isn’t afraid to wear denim on denim.”
House of Waris recently unveiled its fine collection of scarves that complements its line of jewellery. The scarves are cashmere, silk and a cotton silk blend, which come from craftsmen that specialize in embroidery, batik or block
realm of traditional techniques, but create contemporary designs for today’s audience.” From the time he commenced his career, this designer has maintained love and history as the sole inspiration for all of his creations, conversely though “we must be clear,” says Ahluwalia, “I never claim to understand either of those two. This is my search for better understanding.” How he finely exhibits his inexplicable inspiration to his work is impressive, but the perfect mix of romance and history combined with Ahluwalia's vision certainly goes on to render the best of what an artist can deliver. “It’s jewellery and pottery that archeologists find on their digs,” jokes Ahluwalia. “I work with elements that have high value before I even touch them. From the earth and back to the earth. Magic. Desire. Romance.”
His recent venture is designer sunglasses, in collaboration with Illesteva Eyewear, and his partners in the venture also happen to be friends, who approached Ahluwalia to design a pair of glasses. A pair of beautiful unisex sunglasses was the byproduct of a number of sketches and samples, and were produced only after a single design session – further cementing Ahluwalia’s incredible fashion sense and design savvy.
Ahluwalia’s latest endeavour translates into House of Waris RARE, a project that he has taken on board with The Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts, part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. House of Waris RARE is a collection of handcrafted treasures curated by their ‘Global Explorer’ (brand ambasador) Waris Ahluwalia. The collection will be reserved in the Explorer’s Library at The Gritti Palace, a hotel that fuses luxury with comfort in the romantic city of Venice.
The Gritti Palace was recently restored in February 2013 following a massive $35 million Euro renovation enhancing its long known heritage, which meticulously blends art and culture. It has long been a hub of exploration for global explorers and also Venice’s social elite. With The Gritti Palace back to its original grandeur, Ahluwalia seems the perfect fit to once again captivate individuals, who truly appreciate magnificent craftsmanship.
Ahluwalia’s designs can be viewed at his website: houseofwarisRARE.com. Although this is not the first instant when The Luxury Collection and Ahluwalia have come together, RARE is described as a true col- laboration between the two.
“House of Waris RARE celebrated this commitment to craftsmanship while bring- ing this Luxury Collection landmark hotel into the 21st century,” says Paul James, global brand leader for The Luxury Collection and St. Regis Hotels and Resorts.
The assorted items range from an exquisite collection of accessories and objects to soothing scents and oils. As a passionate Global Explorer, Ahluwalia has dived into a pool of independent artisans and historic brands to communicate an eclectic creation. “As a global explorer, my passion is to discover the unexpected around the world,” says Ahluwalia. “House of Waris RARE celebrates the story-telling of many cultures through craft, and I couldn’t have imagined a better home for this collection than on the Grand Canal.”
For the deliverance of the splendid collection displaying Ahluwlaia’s mastery, this Global Explorer worked with designers from more than 14 countries including Italy, India, Brazil, Morocco, the United States and the United Kingdom.
His passions also extend over to philanthropy. “We created a design to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Clinton Foundation and to raise money. Whenever we try to work with people and organizations that drive change, it delivers results and that has a positive impact on our planet.”
Furthermore, the book To India With Love – authored by Ahluwalia, along with Tina Bojwani, a New York-based fashion executive and Mortimer Singer, senior vice president of Marvin Traub Associates – was another charitable endeavour. To India With Love was created with the sole aim of remembering the dreadful Mumbai terrorist attacks that occurred in 2008 and providing assistance to families that have been affected by the tragedy. The book (a scrapbook to be precise),is a compilation of personal stories, photos and memories from individuals that fell in love with the essence of India. The assemblage has been constituted by inputs from Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson, Natalie Portman, Adrien Brody, Francesco Clemente, Laura Wilson, James Ivory and many others.
Profits from the sales of the book are directed towards the Taj Memorial Public Service Welfare Trust, which supports the families affected by the terrorist attacks. “We’re all here for what is a spark of a moment. If I can bring some beauty, hope and joy to the world around me in my little time here I shall have served my purpose.”
To India With Love is also an attempt to raise morale. “The book has just gone into its third reprint,” says Ahluwalia. “We wanted the milkman to read in his local paper that there were people on the other side of the world sending their love and care.”
Ahluwalia is also involved with Creative Time, a New York-based organization that works with artists from around the world with the idea that “artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.” In addition, Elephant Family is another organization that has secured Ahluwalia’s attention, whose mandate is to protect the Asian elephant from extinction and the Endangered Species Coalition, which strives to conserve and reinvigorate the deteriorating number of the US’ disappearing wildlife and wild places.
It seems Ahluwalia has smoothly carved out a story that others could only dream of. He has achieved great accomplishments in great roles at great places keeping his culture and values at the forefront. “I would have never guessed that this is where life would take me. All I had were my instincts and I learned early on to trust them. It’s a skill we’re given – a tool. It’s up to us to sharpen it and learn to use it. We all have it to some degree. The universe speaks to us all – we just have to learn how to listen.” This very positive personage has indeed pursued the best by trusting his instincts and grasping whatever opportunities came his way with commitment and dedication. Ahluwalia is a role model for others, who desire to abandon traditional paths and explore fields those left to conquer, something he excels at.
As we conclude our conversation, Ahluwalia provides insightful advice for youth, who may look to him as a role model, “I just follow my heart and stay true to the values my parents taught me. Years ago I read something the German writer Goethe wrote: “’Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.’ – it has stayed with me since.”
Photo Courtesy: House of Waris, Christopher Wray Mccann, Vijat Mohindra, Alessio Volzoni