WITH over 21 years in the fashion industry, J J Valaya is a master when it comes to cutting his losses and moving on. Back in 2005, he brought his diffusion label, Studio Valaya, to a local boutique in Chennai but made a quick retreat when he realised the city was not ready for him. Then came his experiment with pret, which taught him an expensive lesson – couture with its small volumes and high quality was his forte. With limited stores, he was not equipped for the huge numbers pret demanded. Fortunately, the burgeoning wedding market lapped up his extravagant offerings, designed within the royal metaphor. So you had warrior women in opulent robes and men in sweeping skirts, belted saris, long coats and his trademark Alika jacket (`2,00,000 onwards). Later, lavish sets like a sultan’s room or a ship served as a backdrop for structured and draped costumes in velvets and jacquard, semi-precious inlay work and zardozi. Valaya’s clients today range from royalty to Bollywood darlings like Kangna Ranaut and Priyanka Chopra to actors, Vishnu Manchu and Allu Arjun. The Middle East is a huge market as well.
Last year, Valaya, 46, made a graceful exit from the luxe DLF Emporio, and set up his flagship at a 10,000 sq ft space in Delhi’s Defence Colony instead. It was a smart move, say industry watchers. “My brand is all about scale. Malls require dynamics of a different kind,” reasons the designer. This month, he launched The Home of the Traveler (THT), a furniture and lifestyle store in Delhi curated by him and his brother, T J Singh. However, the biggest gamble of them all was quitting as a chartered accountant at the very beginning to study at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, and bravely continuing, despite a disastrous debut collection.
At THT, there are six themes – India, Glamour, Vintage, Art Deco, Organic and World – with stone Buddhas and wood carvings from Bali, a leather bed designed by Valaya, Thai thrones, Kerala wall murals and more. His core team of 10 have scoured Southeast Asia, Istanbul and India for this selection. ‘‘With 20 places, 8 countries, it’s a cohesive collection,’’ says Valaya, adding that plans are on to include Morocco, Spain and Italy. With everyone, from Giorgio Armani to Ralph Lauren to Tarun Tahiliani having expanded to interiors, Valaya knows where he is headed. ‘‘THT is a labour of love. There is a lacuna in this segment and ours is an important business model. The world, after all, is full of incredibly beautiful things,’’ he shares. The store is a precursor to Valaya Home, scheduled to launch in five months. ‘‘ Till now, we have only done signature tapestries. I want to take it to the next level and give the complete experience. From ceiling to flooring, everything will be designed by us.’’ Valaya also serves as creative director on a project for the Sahara Group, which involves travelling to Europe to meet craftsmen of luxury products. The international brand will launch abroad shortly, he says, adding, ‘‘It actually touches upon developing museum-like environments and experiences. But with all that travelling, I’ve become a nomad.’’
On expansion mode
Valaya’s training with the iconic Khosla helped him absorb the workings of the craft ‘‘like a sponge.’’ A fan of tailored and structured clothes, he says he appreciates the sensuality of a drape and admits, ‘‘It’s a contradiction which works beautifully.’’ Making an impact with collections like the Maharaja of Madrid this year, he is not big on trends. That said, his rich and semi-structured coats and evening jackets are going be in demand during the winter months. After all these years,Valaya is making his first serious foray into the multi-retail segment with Valaya Classic being retailed at Ensemble this season. ‘‘It is a process of rewinding to bestsellers, with six classic techniques. Evoluzione in Chennai will get it in October, as will the online store, Perniaspopupshop,’’ he says.
From the viewfinder
His training period with Khosla and photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta steered him towards another passion – photography. ‘‘Prabuddha was one of the best. I used to accompany them with a small instamatic camera, clicking away,’’ he remembers. Marrying detail and fantasy, Valaya’s photographs include portraits of contemporary people in well-researched regal costumes. It was only after his coffee table book, Decoded Paradox, was released three years ago that people became aware of his personal involvement in his fashion campaigns. Another book, The Soul in the Space, showcases abstract architectural images taken in Scotland and Jodhpur; the latter being where he grew up. Preferring spontaneity over technical know-how when it comes to his camera, he carries a Canon 5D Mark II. ‘‘I’ve often asked a lot of photographer friends what these knobs are for and a day later, I promptly forget it,’’ he confides. Not averse to digital software, as long as the ‘‘result touches the soul,’’ Valaya says, ‘‘I am my own critic. When I go through the first book, I don’t want half my pictures to be there.’’ That said, he has an agent in Paris and is being represented by the American Peter Nagy in India, who also manages Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher. His limited editions, six editions per print, are priced at `1,50,000 to `4,50,000.
A self-confessed geek, Valaya admits that he unwinds with the Internet, and his daughters. In fact, this week was spent test-driving the new 41 megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020, which was launched in the country yesterday. At the press meet, he showcased his pictures, together with those taken by filmmaker Imtiaz Ali and celebrity chef Vikas Khanna. ‘‘It’s a fun thing,’’ he shrugs, ‘‘for a photo blog perhaps.’’ A third book is scheduled for 2015 and he only reveals that it is ‘‘sensitive, demanding and theatrical.’’ The interest began with oil paintings in school – ‘‘I was the best artist there’’– and he says he doesn’t know where the artistic journey will end. ‘‘It’s like an alter ego at work.’’ His pet peeves are being ‘‘haunted on Twitter, or being controlled by the cell phone.’’ Asking his driver to scoot, so he can get behind the wheel of his car, after along day, he observes, ‘‘We’re turning into machines. We want to emote through emoticons.’’ As for Indian couture, he agrees that it is different from how the West perceives it. ‘‘For us, there is a lot of drama and the biggest event is the great Indian Wedding. It is only natural that we cater to it. However, my sense of style is evolutionary not revolutionary. I like to transport you to another realm,’’ concludes Valaya.