When Priya Ahluwalia was growing up in south-west London, her family would take her on regular trips to Southall in the north of the city, home to the largest Punjabi community outside India. “It was the first time I got to experience India before I actually went there,” says the 27-year-old designer, whose mother is Punjabi and dad is Nigerian. “It’s not like anywhere else I’ve been. Southall is a very nuanced area and totally different to what it’s like even in Northern India.”
As a masters student in fashion design at the University of Westminster’s nearby Harrow campus, Ahluwalia began looking at Southall with a more critical eye, and is now publishing a book that pays homage to ‘Little Punjab’ and, in her words, “what it means to be a young mixed-heritage person living in modern Britain”.
Photography by Laurence Ellis. Courtesy of Priya Ahluwalia
The 100-page book, entitled Jalebi after the traditional Punjabi sweet, features fashion and documentary-style images taken in Southall by Laurence Ellis, alongside Ahluwalia’s family photographs and extracts from an interview with her maternal grandmother about her experiences between India and Britain. This is Ahluwalia’s second book after Sweet Lassi (2017), which documented the enormous quantities of secondhand clothes offloaded onto markets in her father’s hometown of Lagos and Panipat, India. It reflects Ahluwalia’s focus on sustainability, with all of her designs being made from deadstock textiles.
Ahead of the launch of Jalebi at London’s first digital fashion week (from 12 to 14 June), Ahluwalia spoke to Vogue about her book, a labour of love that captures the beauty of multiculturalism.
Photography by Laurence Ellis. Courtesy of Priya AhluwaliaJalebi has been 18 months in the making. Why did now feel like the right time to publish the book in tandem with a virtual-reality exhibition?
“Jalebi was meant to be launched in March with my Matches Fashion capsule collection. When the British Fashion Council came up with the idea of a digital platform, I really didn’t want to design anything—it didn’t seem relevant; everything was shut and there’s no point in creating products for the sake of it. If people really want to buy my stuff, then there’s the capsule. So I started thinking about how I could present the book, this labour of love, in a digital space. It was important for me to create an immersive experience as the launch was originally intended. Photographer Laurence [Ellis] worked with me to create a virtual gallery space. We’re on different ends of the creative spectrum—I’m a really analogue person. Even Zoom gives me a headache.”How did you start collaborating with Laurence and what makes your creative partnership work so well?
“I’m a longtime fan of Laurence’s work. We met before my brand really took off when I asked him to work on a shoot with me for Jaime Pearlman’s magazine More or Less. I had originally proposed to shoot my designs on two models and he asked, ‘Why not six?’ He’s always pushing the boundaries.
“We both care about sustainability and community. When I had this idea for a project in Southall [in London], I approached Laurence about it. He’s from Hounslow and I was interested in how he would come at the story having grown up nearby as a non-ethnic-minority person. He always deeply researches and thinks about how to approach things in a sensitive and meaningful way.”What makes the area of Southall so unique?
“There are Sikh temples, all you can smell is Punjabi food and Punjabi music blasts from speakers in the street. But it’s not just Punjabi people; a lot of African and Caribbean people have moved to the neighbourhood. The shops sell everything from statues of the Sikh prophet Guru Nanak to cooking pans, plastic flowers and chess sets. Many of the street signs are written in Gurmukhī as well as English. Vegetable stores sell yams and plantain—things you wouldn’t get in a supermarket. There are sari and costume jewellery shops along the high street—it’s really glitzy and encourages you to dress up.”
Photography by Laurence Ellis. Courtesy of Priya AhluwaliaHow did you make sure you captured the atmosphere and community of Southall authentically?
“A lot of shots didn’t make the book—some were too much like traditional fashion images. Although I’m a fashion designer, I didn’t want this to be an advert for Ahluwalia clothes, but a celebration of the community that inspires my brand. To achieve this, the photos need to almost put the people [depicted] on a pedestal, to show their importance and leverage their power.
“For example, on set, a girl scouted by Troy Casting was telling me how she likes to try everything on, including adult shoes that are too big for her, like I used to do when I was a kid. So I was recreating this moment from my childhood and reworking it—she deserves to be up there around all this glitz and glamour stylist Riccardo [Maria Chiacchio] helped achieve. In another image there’s the model Nikhil Rai, who was in one of my lookbooks, eating ice cream with his family. As we took that shot, some Sikh men came out of a nearby temple and asked us to take their photos. So there’s this mix of imagination and reality.”What do you want people to take away from Jalebi?
“When we started this book, there was, and still is, so much hostility towards immigrants with Brexit and the Windrush scandal. It’s offensive to read [this rhetoric] when you’re from an ethnic minority background. And it’s unfortunate because so many wonderful things come out of immigration—that’s the message Laurence and I want to send. As I say in the introduction of the book, this is a love letter to diversity, and all the quirks and nuances that come with it.”
Photography by Laurence Ellis. Courtesy of Priya AhluwaliaHow do you want to continue celebrating diversity and, as you say, the wonderful things that come with it, through your work?
“Over the years I’ve had people tell me, ‘Don't rock the boat. Don’t make people feel awkward. Don’t be the angry black woman. Don’t be too political.’ Everything is political so that’s a stupid way to think. I’ve always addressed issues around race in my work. In Jalebi, for instance, there are pictures of anti-racism protests from a year ago. But it’s only now, for the first time in my career, in my life, that I feel brave enough to speak out about the effects of systemic racism and white privilege. Unfortunately it’s taken the murder of George Floyd for me and so many other people of colour to feel that way because we’ve had enough.
“Recently I posted a photo of me in the July issue of British Vogue on Instagram and wrote a mini-essay about the importance of representation. I wanted to make people feel more confident—I wasn’t growing up because it wasn’t a beauty ideal to look like me. If you don’t see anyone that looks like you in the media, it ruins your self-esteem. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. I’ve had so many messages from people with whom that post resonated, asking for advice on how they can get into the industry. Changes are coming, conversations are being had. I feel a new sense of bravery and it’s going to carry on.”
Jalebi is available at Ahluwaliastudio.com—all profits go to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and Southall Black Sisters
Photography by Laurence Ellis. Courtesy of Priya AhluwaliaAlso read:
How do you nurture a responsible brand with a radical aesthetic? Marine Serre and Priya Ahluwalia light the way
Meet Priya Ahluwalia, the winner of the H&M Design Award 2019
Why sustainable fashion on the red carpet should be the norm