The Nigerian-Indian heritage of London-based menswear designer Priya Ahluwalia has done more than influence the direction of her eponymous label—it has informed the ethical way in which her collections are created.
In her debut collection, which launched for SS19, Ahluwalia used secondhand garments reworked as menswear to illuminate the industry’s problem with waste. As minds awaken to the issues surrounding climate change, attitudes and trends are evolving to find new ways to live in a socially-conscious manner. Reusing unwanted materials is a common practice in the field of fashion; what is less common is designers using everything in their power to bring attention to, and minimize the effects of, the wasteful industry that they are part of. Ahluwalia is innovative in her approach for this reason: not just because of her technique and material choice, but also for her production methods, which she asserts are as important as individual purchasing choices.
Ahluwalia uses inclusive practices where possible—the beading on her patchwork pants for example, was completed by Sewa Delhi, an organization that Ahluwalia says specializes in “getting rural Indian women into fairly paid work that fits around their family schedules”. We spoke to Ahluwalia from her home in London about what shocked her about the secondhand industry, being inspired by the way Indian men dress, and how the smells and sounds of Lagos and Delhi informed her concept for her first collection.
Your dual heritage has formed the basis of your collection. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background and how it has shaped your work?
My dual heritage has completely guided my work. My mum is Indian, myDad is Nigerian and my stepdad is Jamaican. I have also lived in London all my life and I believe that also impacted the way I design, my outlook on things and the type of guy I design for. I look through old family photos a lot when I design as well. My heritage is a big factor in my life so it’s hard for its influence not to guide me.
"I couldn’t believe that secondhand clothing was such a big business. I was completely shocked at the amount of clothes that are discarded"
You traveled to Nigeria and India and began investigating the garment industry in both countries. What did it make you think about the fashion industry?
Whilst I was in Nigeria visiting family I began to notice lots of vendors wearing obscure British clothing for example, a London marathon t-shirt. I stopped to ask one guy where he got it from and how he got it. He explained it was from a market in Lagos that specialized in selling secondhand clothing from “first world” countries like England and the USA. This is when I found out that lots of clothes donated to charity in the west are actually sold for profit to developing countries. I did more research and found out that Panipat, India, is the global recycling capital for secondhand clothing, so I decided to visit. I found out that India has banned the resale of secondhand clothing for anything other than recycling, to ensure the preservation of traditional Indian textiles. Both trips inspired the collection, from aesthetics to sourcing.
All of this shocked me in a number of ways. Firstly, I couldn’t believe that secondhand clothing was such a big business. I was also completely shocked at the sheer amount of clothes that are discarded, I had never really thought about it properly before. I suppose it is easy to ignore something that you don’t really see. It also really made me cherish craft and tradition in textiles.
You’ve said that your debut menswear collection is inspired by the way Indian men dress. What is it about their style that piques your interest?
I was inspired by men in both Lagos and Delhi. The confidence of the street traders in Lagos that paraded up and down the motorways wasbeautiful. I also loved the way they actually styled garments together.
I wanted to design graphic knit pieces that were inspired by the knitted vests worn by many Indian men I saw in India, whatever the weather. I also saw so many stripes in India and this was also important to show in the collection, many pieces have simple color varying stripes, whilst others are actually two various “key garments” cut into stripes and put back together. When I was developing the collection the smells and sounds of Lagos and Delhi were never far from my mind, I think it comes out in the collection in a way that can’t be described.
Besides making socially-conscious purchasing choices, what can we do to address the issue of over-consumption in today’s economic climate?
Overconsumption needs to be addressed at all stages of manufacture and production. It can not be left to just consumers to work out solutions.