For Priya Ahluwalia, the pandemic has been both a breakout moment and an existential reckoning.
Her London-based brand, Ahluwalia, has emerged as one of fashion’s hottest up-and-coming labels, winning prominent awards, a fan-base of fashion buyers and a series of high-profile collaborations for its collections crafted from repurposed vintage clothing and drawing on the designer’s mixed cultural heritage.
But that success has also brought new challenges as the designer looks to grow her brand with a business model that veers from the traditional road map.
“That’s our main issue at the moment — working out how we can scale our business while staying true to our values,” Ahluwalia said.
The designer (who was born in London to Indian and Nigerian parents, and grew up with a Jamaican stepdad) is part of a dynamic group of young, multi-cultural London-based menswear designers who have brought renewed relevance to British contemporary fashion with collections that champion cultures, ethnicities and body types that were previously underrepresented in the mainstream. Her designs are typically vibrant and nostalgic, drawing on deeply researched themes with references that range from W. E. B. Du Bois and Fela Kuti, to the Harlem Renaissance and iconic visual hallmarks of the African diaspora.
She started working with vintage clothing after spending time in Panipat, India, a global hub for clothing recycling, while studying for her MA in Menswear at the University of Westminster. Her collections reference traditions of circularity from Indian embroidery, stitching together layers of old fabrics to create clothes that occupy a fluid space between luxury, streetwear and sportswear.
“I’ve done so much research about how much waste there is in the world as a result of the fashion industry. My brand is really about figuring out a way to create with the materials we already have,” she said.
Poised for Growth
Ahluwalia debuted at London Fashion Week Men’s in 2018 as part of the British Fashion Council’s Newgen scheme for emerging designers with a collection that featured a colourful blend of streetwear, tailoring and upcycled denim pieces.
The brand is now stocked by retailers including Browns, Ssense and Dover Street Market. It was an LVMH prize finalist in 2020 and has won numerous accolades in the last year, including the Queen Elizabeth II award for British design and a BFC Leaders of Change award handed down at November’s Fashion Awards.
Collaborations with it-girl label Ganni and British handbag brand Mulberry helped broaden the label’s exposure and provided an opportunity to experiment with new categories in 2020. The tie-up with Mulberry generated media impressions worth $1.5 million, according to brand performance analyst Launchmetrics, while Ganni paved the way for the label to launch womenswear last year.
The collection was built on typical Ahluwalia codes with ‘90s inspired sportswear and tailoring, while also venturing into sleek knitwear, trench coats and a mini skirt. It helped drive a 70 percent increase in wholesale revenue between the Autumn/Winter 2021 and Spring/Summer 2022 seasons, the company said. The team is currently focused on a return to London Fashion Week in February, which is expected to be Ahluwalia’s first physical show since the pandemic began.
“Ahluwalia is no longer the emerging menswear label it once was and has developed into this budding multi-gender, multi-category brand,” said Joe Brunner, menswear buyer at Browns.
Changing the Narrative
But scaling Ahluwalia’s brand of patch-worked one-of-a-kind design is a challenge that flies in the face of fashion’s traditional business model.
“People are not used to our way of working, like when we tell our supply chain ‘you can make this piece out of three pre-used jumpers instead of new fabric,’” said Ahluwalia. And it’s not just production that’s a challenge; sourcing material is just as difficult. “It’s very hard for us as a business to be able to get vintage clothing [for our collections] all the time,” she said.
But the designer is part of a generation focused on finding more sustainable solutions and new ways of working within the industry. She’s focusing on steady, manageable growth for her small team of 10 full-time staff, rather than rapid commercial expansion that trips up many young brands. And she’s experimenting with new technologies and new types of partnerships, partnering with Microsoft to develop a platform for the brand to crowdsource old clothes from consumers across the UK that launched at the UN’s COP26 climate summit in November last year.
It’s an approach that has rubbed off on Ahluwalia’s collaborators too. Working with the designer “has really taught me also how to always see opportunities instead of limitations,” said Ganni’s creative director, Ditte Reffstrup.
Rachel Deeley contributed to this article.