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June 4 . 2020
Waris Ahluwalia





Designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia discusses his latest collection, the love note that inspired it, and his life as a quest.
Written by Aaron Peasley / Photographed by Austin Irving

The Raphaël is a discreet, incredibly romantic hotel positioned a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris’ ritzy 16th arrondisement.

The hushed haven, beloved by a certain sybaritic crowd, was the backdrop for Wes Anderson’s short film Hotel Chevalier and is a popular place to conduct clandestine affairs. During a recent stay at the hotel, designer, actor and noted gentlemen Waris Ahluwalia began thinking about the latest collection for his eponymous line House of Waris. He found inspiration right before his eyes, etched into the bathroom tiles of the hotel. From that simple moment, his latest collection, titled Omnia vincit Amor (“Love Conquers All”) sprang to life. On a recent summer day, the in-demand Waris took some time out to discuss the collection, his inspirations and his unlikely film career.

Can you tell me about the process that went into designing your latest collection?
It all starts with a moment, a thought or a feeling and it all progresses from there. I was staying in room 503, I believe, above the room used in Hotel Chevalier. The bird in the bathroom was so beautiful, and I had always believed there is a tremendous amount of romance and beauty about birds. From there, the birds became characters in a story – Love Conquers All.   They all got names.  There was Raphael of course, named after the hotel, Liberté, Octavian, Spero and Virgil. For me it’s about taking a very old process – the enameling [technique] we use is hundreds of years old -  in new directions with the color and design.

You spend a lot of time in Rome and several months each year in India working on your collections. Is travel a huge inspiration for you?
Travel plays into everything I do. Life is a quest, a search. When you’re searching you’re not going to search on your block, even though it’s a good place to start. You have to go past your neighborhood and your city and cross borders. I have no qualms about leaving New York, because I am so comfortable here. I’m a New Yorker, but I’m a New Yorker with a passport. I have no fear of going [to] other places; travel is a big part of my quest.

Let’s talk about your acting career. You recently appeared in I Am Love alongside Tilda Swinton and have appeared in a number of your friend Wes Anderson’s films. How did you fashion this unlikely film career?
I will take less credit for acting than for my jewelry design. I am so lucky to be working with the caliber of the people I’m working with, but I never asked to be an actor. The universe sort of points in a certain direction and opens doors. If you decide to take that direction, you do the best you can, and what you’re capable of doing. If I believe in a director’s work; I will go with it.  To me, it’s highly collaborative. I have no desire to work within the system.  A project has got to come from the creator, and it’s got to have a vision. I am making it up as I go along.  There’s no agent, there’s no nothing.  If you have a great part and you have a movie, you can find me.

But even for a man who counts Tilda Swinton as a close friend, Hollywood must at times feel overwhelming.

I will say that when I was filming The Life Aquatic, I had a total ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ moment. That was surreal, landing in Rome and a week later dancing under the stars with Angelica Huston. It’s been an amazing adventure.

After growing up in New York with a traditional background, are you’re accustomed to moving in different worlds?
Well I had a very straightforward, normal growing up period. I was very shy actually. Around 17 or so I started stepping out on my own and realizing that there was more out there, and [that] something else was calling me. I didn’t grow up in the world of the arts, so it was a path I had to walk myself – I guess I’ve traveled quite far from how I was raised.

What were the first experiences in New York that made you realize you wanted to follow a creative path?
The first experience was probably nightlife. At that time, nightlife was made up of artists, painters, musicians and actors. That was the playground, and I met a lot of people that way. Just being open to ideas and thoughts, one thing led to another and now I’m in this big mess. In New York people are proud of what they do; they want to create and that’s what I am surrounded by. The connecting element that binds all of us is that we just want to make–whatever it is. We are people who want to bring beauty [into] the world.

We live in something of an echo chamber in terms of celebrity culture and the New York social world. You have become very well known socially – do you sometimes worry that you will be dismissed as a dilettante?
I do enjoy going out, and I’ve done it for such a long time. I have fun. I work all day and play at night, and I love my work. There’s no line; it all blurs.  Why should there be a line between the two?  The work always proves itself – it’s only possible because there’s a whole group of people behind it, and I speak of their abilities. The work is the best possible quality. Our look books are linen bound, hand drawn; a carpenter that has won awards in India makes our boxes. Everything is of the highest quality. Each component should be treasured. What that has to do with the fact that I’m out to 4 in the morning, I don’t know. That said, some of the things I read about myself are hilarious.

I presume you are regularly approached to work on collaborations. Can you tell us about some of the collaborations you are working on?
I collaborated with A.P.C., which was very organic, Jean Toutou is a really close friend and we always wanted to do something together. Having worked with Tilda, we collaborated on a sweater for Pringle’s 85th anniversary collection. There’s no pretence to it, it happens naturally and I just love working with other people who want to create.  We only do collaborations if it makes sense, if there’s an interesting narrative and authenticity  – it’s a company policy, we don’t fake it. There’s enough crap out there.

It seems like you don’t like to draw a line between projects. Is this because you’re not fond of classification?
Not at all.  The two things that inspire all of my work are love and history -  [they are featured] in everything I do. I would like to add in a disclaimer that I understand neither of them.


Watch Waris Ahluwalia at work in his film “Omnia Vincit”.


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