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The fantasy maker

SHALINI SHAH
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CHATLINE Designer JJ Valaya speaks to SHALINI SHAH about couture vs. prêt, how the camera entered a life in fashion, and why simple doesn't sit too well with him

Designer JJ Valaya set up his eponymous fashion label in 1992. A person who believes in doing things larger than life, Valaya showcased his prêt collection at Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week; he likes to call his ready-to-wear the “couture of prêt”.

“I can't do the very simple. I don't believe in them and if I don't believe in them I can't do them,” he says. With a focus on making the label — which he set up with brother T.J. Singh — a brand, the label has evolved with the sharp-minded focus of a formal business, albeit with an aesthetic base that has its own deep-pocketed takers.

Graduating out of NIFT in 1991, it took just a year for him to set up his label. With clothes unabashedly heavy-duty in terms of embellishment, couture has always been the mainstay of Valaya and his brand, a majority of his business, as he admits. “However, I believe in prêt a lot. And at this point of time I really am keen that the look should be worn by more people.” However, prêt, he says, is a different kind of logistics.

“Even though a lot of prêt designers exist in India it's very important to get a critical number, a critical mass, to be able to get the numbers of prêt,” he says, “because prêt only makes money if you sell in volume, unlike couture which is high value, low volume.” A long way to go before corporate association with designers happens. “A Louis Vuitton was just a trunk maker in a small shop. A Jimmy Choo was a little shoemaker in East London. All these became great brands when a huge corporate came in and took it on a business scale,” Valaya points out.

Surprisingly, much before fashion happened, Valaya was training to be a chartered account; he articled with a chartered accountant for a year and a half before he decided that wasn't something he'd like doing. “If you lead a life without following your heart's calling you've already lost the plot. I was very clear then. The way I work is, I can be very patient, I can be very logical about things, but if something my heart believes is not falling into sync I am also capable of taking a very strong decision and going a completely different way, which is what I did when I went into fashion. And thank God I took that decision!” he ponders.

He also happened to see up close the legendary Rohit Khosla at work. “I was the first and only trainee,” Valaya emphasises. “After me, Rohit kept a lot of assistants who worked with him on a monthly salary and all, but as a trainee I was his only one, and we had some great times. I truly believe he was the father of Indian fashion... The thing with him was, he had an effortless sense of style. People nowadays try too hard, that's not required.”

Tired of plagiarism and imitations flooding the market, Valaya introduced the ‘Diasun', a pattern comprising two inverted ‘V' and the sun motif from the JJ Valaya crest, which now comes on every garment produced by the label in some way or the other.

Over the years, some lessons came with painful experience too. “One of my biggest mistakes was to try and get into ready-to-wear in a big way without keeping the volumes in mind,” Valaya recalls. (While the Indian ready-to-wear label, Quantum, was launched in 2006, Valaya Base, the international ready-to-wear label launched in 2008.) “We couldn't achieve the numbers due to the limited stores. That was a lesson we learnt the hard way and now we're much better prepared and all set to expand dramatically.”

Through everything, he says, constant remained the belief in a larger-than-life picture. “I believe that the reality is the clothes, which one really has to buy and wear. But the projection of fashion is fantasy, and one has to take it to that level. It has to be grand, it has to be big. I can't have these little minimalistic sort of situations,” he smiles.

In an illustrious career in fashion, moments that stand out are from before the big success set in. Valaya recalls receiving the Prix ‘D' Incitation at young international designers' competition in Paris, when he was still at NIFT (joining which he says was another landmark). “NIFT, of course, sent their delegate to get the trophy, not me,” he grins.

Then there was his first commercial collection, a total washout. “I was the award-winning student who came out of NIFT, so I was like, ‘Yeah, piece of cake, I'm going to make a collection and everybody is going to lap it up.' Nothing sold. Not one piece. I'm like ‘Oh my God! This is terrible'. But I got my wits about it, understood what the market wanted and moved forward. And it just sort of kicked in after that…”

For him, fashion's been there and will be, but the past few years Valaya has been turning his attention to an older love — photography. He remembers bartering something he owned for a friend's camera in his pre-NIFT days, soon turning into the “in-house family photographer”. He carried it to NIFT, where he shot his classmates' portraits. Then, fashion took over. Though around 10 years ago he gradually started clicking his own campaign images, the hobby has become more serious now. He's had his own photography show, and has his images published as a book, “Decoded Paradox”. Valaya calls photography his “arena of fearlessness”.

“It's where I don't care a damn, it's where I will do what I want. You like it, you hate it, it's your opinion; it doesn't matter to me,” he says.

The WIFW finale was again a testimony to the designer's characteristic palette progression — starting off with monochromes, and colours getting warmer towards the end. “I start with no colour, and then end up with a lot of colour, which is life, na? It's how you look at it…”

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