In Conversation: Priya Ahluwalia

On the occasion of her Mulberry x Ahluwalia collaboration launch, Priya sat down with editor and writer Lynette Nylander to discuss her inspirations – and the perfect places to wear her collection.

Priya Ahluwalia is one of the UK’s most exciting design talents. Starting her eponymous label just three years ago, she has garnered critical acclaim and commercial success with her unique take on menswear - fusing her love of music, film and art with her British, Indian and Nigerian heritage into a colourful interpretation of the modern men’s wardrobe. Her accolades include the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, which particularly honoured Ahluwalia’s innovative approach to sustainability practices. Utilising vintage and surplus clothing as the main body of her materials has become a signature of the Ahluwalia brand, and a mindful design approach has been embedded in her brand since the beginning.

Now, Ahluwalia has collaborated with Mulberry on a capsule that blends her bold designs with Mulberry’s heritage, and will unveil her first exploration into womenswear in a joint men’s and women’s collection at London Fashion Week in June. Both are presented by way of a short film that celebrates her inspirations for the collection, as well as sparking conversation around craft, community and creativity

Lynette Nylander: What was your first memory of Mulberry?

Priya Ahluwalia: I remember Mulberry from when I was a kid for so many different reasons. My mum had a few bags, and I would borrow them. I remember when I started going out with my friends on Saturdays, I would always try and wear one of her Mulberry bags! Later I worked in a department store in Kingston, and Mulberry was the concession next to mine, so whenever I didn't have any customers, I was always looking at them and picking them up and trying them on. So, it's definitely a brand that sort of resonates with me from childhood.

LN: I think Mulberry has a sense of warmth and comfort that not many brands can say they have. They have heritage and a familiar feeling that's really nice.

PA: I think you're right; I think that Mulberry is a brand that so many people have a story about. It has a familial link as well. Everyone has someone in their family who has one.

LN: Tell me more about your design ethos and how it is an exploration of the three sides of the way that you identify: being British, being Nigerian, being Indian?

PA: It's interesting because it's really just who I am, and I hadn't really analysed it until I became a designer, and I began really researching things from my heritage. What I do with my brand is a mixture of my identity for sure. I grew up in London in such a multicultural society, and so there's a real London style sensibility, inspired by how my friends dress, and that London style that is really particular. Then I feel with the Nigerian and Indian sides, when I travel back there I love taking my own photos and incorporating the vibrancy. For example, the men and women in Lagos, the flamboyancy in the way they dress is always a reference. I also always like to celebrate the Indian craftsmanship - together they all merge together to make Ahluwalia.

LN: Let's talk about the collaboration with Mulberry. How did it come about and why were you excited to take it on?

PA: I received an email from the Mulberry team about it and I was really excited! I haven't done accessories in Ahluwalia and it was an opportunity to partner with a brand that is really meaningful to me.

LN: The bags really excitingly complement your first foray into womenswear, which I am personally super excited about. Tell me a little bit about how you approached it.

PA: I really did design with myself in mind. It's really funny because when I do menswear at Ahluwalia obviously it's not with myself in mind. But with the womenswear and the bags, you know, I'm now thinking about, where would I wear this? What would I wear it for? I think about my friends or peer group ... What do I want to wear to a club? What do my friends want to wear? It was definitely about inserting personal likes and dislikes and situations into the process.

LN: Let's talk about the Portobello Tote which is obviously a signatureshape from Mulberry and they let you have carte blanche to interpret in the way that you see fit. What inspired the design?

PA: I wanted to explore Afro-Caribbean hair. The spirituality, the rituals behind it, and the actual techniques. I have large mood boards and lots of research from sketch books I've been collecting from over the years, and I wanted to interpret that in the bags. I wanted to celebrate those familial bonds that happen through Black hair and how it really is craftsmanship that passes on. It is a celebration for me.

I was thinking about it in terms of braiding being an actual craft and asking, how do we amplify that craft on a bag. That's why I wanted to incorporate embroidery because it's something special that also uses skills in a similar way. The lines are inspired by the patterns of some of the cornrows I was looking at in the portraits. How they have the lines mapped out on them and I really wanted to put that on the bags, whilst mixing the material and making something truly unique.

LN: Speaking of materials, I know sustainability and creating things as mindfully as you can is important to you. How does that show up in the collaboration?

PA: With the materials, we worked with surplus materials from Mulberry, and it was quite interesting because it meant that there was a very specific colour palette available and a very specific amount of fabric available too. I'm used to working like that, but it was interesting because I wanted to make sure it was still what I envisaged.

LN: And finally, with post-pandemic freedom in sight, in your opinion, where would an ideal place to be to wear your Portobello? Or actually where would you wear the whole collaboration?

PA: Well, the mini Portobello bags are perfect for the club as they can fit your phone and whatever else you want to take - your lipstick! The bigger bags are really good, they can fit in a towel and are quite resilient if you want to go on holiday. I think there’s truly a bag for every occasion.