“I have had terrible experiences where people have grabbed my hair in nightclubs. One time I fell on the floor because someone grabbed my hair so hard.”
London-based fashion designer Priya Ahluwalia is discussing her experiences as an Indian-Nigerian woman growing up in London, and the way these experiences have informed her spring summer 22 collection, Parts of Me; which was conceived as a celebration of Afro-Caribbean and Indian hair, its artistry, symbolism, and rituals.
“It’s a really important conversation to highlight,” says the University of Westminster graduate, who crafts nineties-inflected designs from vintage and upcycled clothing and deadstock materials and who was named on Monday as the winner of this year’s BFC/GQ designer menswear fund; a one-year business mentorship, pro-bono legal services, and a cash prize of £150,000. “I feel like as well as doing the design I care about what my impact is.”
Unable to travel for research, Ahluwalia sought inspiration form a sketchbook she’s been curating since she was 18 (“When I look at it now it is so based around hair but I didn’t know that at the time); full of canerow and braiding patterns, pictures of hairstyles from club culture in the 90s, Bollywood, Black Panthers and vintage barbershop posters, for the designs which feature braid-inspired seam lines, prints, embroidery and panelling.
“Black hair is definitely used as a tool of oppression and I think it’s really important to amplify these conversations to show how special it is,” she says.
She goes on to describe a scarring job interview experience with a major fashion brand in which her interviewer made comments about her afro. “The guy that interviewed me stared at my hair the whole time and wasn’t even talking to me, because it was out in an afro. There have been loads of bad experiences… its bad, it’s really bad.”
Following the launch of a super successful collection with Ganni in April, for which she used the Danish brand’s deadstock fabrics, Ahluwalia has also added womenswear to her collection for the first time. And it’s as lively and retro-futuristic as her menswear designs.
She found it novel to be able to insert herself into the design process. “With women’s I am thinking much more about me and my friends, and what we want to wear when we go out, or what do I want to wear on a date, or to a meeting when I want to show up.” A date-ready orange and pink draped silk one-shouldered two-piece is one that will soon hang in her own wardrobe, as is a deliciously retro brown power suit which comes with a white wave sewn down the front.’
“The womenswear is sexy, figure-hugging… its feminine I think,” says Ahluwalia, hesitant to use any hackneyed gender stereotypes. Hers is a label with a social conscience that prides itself on inclusivity. Does she think we should do away with gender in fashion entirely I wonder?
“I think there are two ways to look at it. I think people should be able to buy and wear whatever they want, no matter what it’s called and no matter what someone says it is, people should be free,” she says. But at the same time she notes the industry frameworks that make it difficult to sell an item of clothing without ascribing it a gender: “Stores have men’s and women’s sections, they have men’s and womenswear buyers, there’s different sizing… when you’re a really small brand it takes a lot of development to make things truly ungendered.”
Besides, she says, most people outside of the fashion and art world are not even having these gender conversations, and stresses the importance of educating people about non-binary fashion “because people don’t get it. I bet if you go down your local pub and ask people [about non-binary fashion and culture], most will have no idea what that is. There’s a long way to go to educate the people that are actually buying the clothes. That’s not on the shoulders of non-binary people to do, it’s on the shoulders of big businesses.”
The conversation inevitably turns to Harry Styles’ much-discussed skirt-wearing, a societal and media furore Ahluwalia found annoying. “Harry Styles is a good looking white man and he does something like that and people are like ‘oh my god revolutionary’ but people have been doing that for ages,” she says, lamenting the fact that Styles did it without actually making a statement about identifying as gay or non-binary. “There are people that are actually trying to be themselves, living as non-binary creatives or artists and they don’t get any of the kudos. So I think it highlights that there’s actually a privilege bound up in being allowed to express yourself and that just needs to f**k off.”
Ahluwalia has also made her first foray into accessories, with a handbag collection created in partnership with Brit brand Mulberry, reimagining the brand’s Portobello style in patchworks effects and Seventies wavey prints. "Mulberry is a brand that I have memories of from childhood, ever since I used to borrow my mum’s own bag, so this was an opportunity to collaborate with a brand that is very meaningful to me." Never one to stick to designing products, Ahluwalia made sure she had an impact on the heritage brand, which has now amended its internal policy to state that they won’t engage in hair-based discrimination in the workplace. “It’s been a good opportunity to drive these conversations,” she says of the partnership.
So what does Ahluwalia want to see from brands, the government and society in general going forward?
“Oh god, well I want the prime minister to f**k off for a start!” she laughs, saying she hopes, with the collection and the accompanying films, to ignite a discussion among people outside of the black and Asian community. “They need to understand that hair is not just hair. It’s so important as a means of expression, it needs to be cherished. From that group of people there needs to be dialogue and an understanding that ‘oh maybe I shouldn’t touch someone’s hair that I don’t know, just because it’s an afro’.”
Ultimately, she wants people to have confidence and belief in themselves and to enjoy their bodies. “When I was growing up there were no black celebrities who had their natural hair out, because Euro-centric ideas of beauty prevail,” she says. “I want people be confident in how they were made, and to enjoy the amazing innovation of black hair and how it allows you have to have a different look every day of the week, whether that’s natural or you want to wear a wig. Fundamentally I just really want to reinforce the message that black and south Asian identities are beautiful and they’re worthy.”