Join the ultimate women's community

Become a Member

Business

“I’m Not Going To Say Fashion, I’m Going To Say Business Because This Is What It Is” - Priya Ahluwalia Gives Her Best Advice

Nominated for The British Fashion Awards tonight, designer Priya Ahluwalia talks team management, her biggest challenges, and what not to do as a young creative

By Isobel Van Dyke

29 November 2021
I

t’s hard to keep up with London-born menswear designer Priya Ahluwalia, whose achievements seem to surpass the last week on week. Less than a week ago, in fact, Ahluwalia was announced as a finalist for the 2022 Woolmark Prize, whilst later today she will attend the British Fashion Awards 2021, as a nominee in the running to receive the BFC Foundation Award. Other nominees in her category include Bianca Saunders, Richard Quinn, Nensi Dojaka and Bethany Williams, with the winner being announced this evening at the The Royal Albert Hall ceremony.

The annual fashion awards are taking place hours after the devastating news that trailblazing designer, Virgil Abloh died yesterday of a rare cancer, aged 41. Tributes to the late designer have flooded social media channels overnight: “Rest in peace and power Virgil Abloh. A true visionary who paved the way for so many. We are so grateful for your huge impact on the industry and for your wise words and encouragement at every interaction”, posted Ahluwalia in remembrance. The British Fashion council has not yet announced how they will be honouring Abloh this evening.

Ahluwalia graduated from Westminster’s MA Menswear course in 2018 (less than four years ago) and has not stopped since. Last year, she was one of the joint recipients of the 2020 LVMH Prize and was the winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. She has worked with the likes of Gucci, Ganni and Microsoft, and already has two books under her belt.

When speaking to Priya Ahluwalia last week, she explained that one of her biggest frustrations with the fashion industry is a lack of diverse stories being told in an authentic way. “It’s been so eurocentric for such a long time but it’s time to change that. The world we live in is so globalised and multicultural and people that are from different cultures deserve to see themselves reflected back in society”, she said.

Through her work, Ahluwalia brings people and cultures to the foreground that have historically been locked out of luxury industries. “I loved looking at all the designers in the magazines but I never saw anything that was reflective of my lived experience or my culture”, said Ahluwalia, whose work is largely inspired by her Indian-Nigerian heritage as well as her London roots.

Ahead of this evening’s British Fashion Awards, we spoke to Priya Ahluwalia about some of her proudest moments to date, the biggest challenges she’s faced along the way, and how she manages her team of 11. Read the full interview below.

“People that are from different cultures deserve to see themselves reflected back in society”

When did you realise you wanted to work in fashion?

I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else. I was always rummaging through my mum’s wardrobe and reading fashion magazines. I'd read all the credits and try to take in as much information as I could from a young age.

My family were supportive but they wanted to make sure I had knowledge in other areas in case it didn’t work out. It’s such a competitive industry and it’s not the traditional route for either Indian girls or Nigerian girls so they really wanted to make sure I was focused.

I used to read i-D and The Face, and I remember when I used to intern for the Ralph Lauren PR office and had to read all the magazines and find the Ralph Lauren credits, that was basically my job. I loved looking at all the designers in the magazines but I never saw anything that was reflective of my lived experience or my culture.

Do you feel frustrated with the fashion industry? What would you change about it?

Telling diverse stories in an authentic way is really important. It’s been so eurocentric for such a long time but it’s time to change that. The world we live in is so globalised and multicultural and people that are from different cultures deserve to see themselves reflected back in society. It helps with things like self-esteem and confidence so for me it’s really important.

But also it’s about manufacturing and producing clothes in a way that’s better for the environment and for people.

What have been some of your proudest career moments to date?

I’m so grateful because there have been so many. A real stand out for me was GucciFest - being asked by Gucci to create a film and having support from them. It wasn’t only when the film came out, but the two days of filming were two of the best days of my life. I made the effort to take in everything and chat to everyone on set, I learnt so much, it was my first ever film and I learnt on the film set - that just doesn’t happen.

The process of creating that film was one of the most special things I’ve ever done. I’ve also won a few awards which is nice. Winning the GQ Menswear Fund allowed me to invest in and to expand my team which I might not have been able to before.

“We’re just getting busier and busier - and the team isn’t. It means that people have to wear multiple hats”

What have been the biggest challenges?

It’s a good problem to have but we’re just getting busier and busier - and the team isn’t. It means that people have to wear multiple hats. I don’t switch off (that’s a challenge in itself).

When you studied fashion, were you ever taught about what it means to run a business? What do you wish you had known?

We weren’t taught anything about business at uni...nothing. On my MA it wasn’t business focused but it was industry-focused. My mum is a finance director, so I was used to having very adult conversations with her about budgets from when I was about 10.

I didn’t necessarily know it would be now, but I knew I would be a business owner.

What advice would you give to anyone about to graduate?

The one thing I would say is: if you do design, your portfolio is so important. The collection is obviously really important, but the thing that we see as employers is the portfolio. You click open a PDF and you only have a finite amount of time to look at it. Be really clear with your intentions and the communication of your ideas. You also have to show a breadth of skills - demonstrate that you can do a pencil drawing, or a pad drawing, be able to show that you are dynamic and have multiple things going on for you. Your portfolio is key.

(But also spellcheck. I can’t tell you the amount of times I've received emails from people saying they want to work for me and then later on writing Stefan Cooke’s name)

You have to be so much more than a designer today. You have to think about the story around your brand - what is it that’s going to make people fall in love with your product? What makes you different, what is your point of view? And importantly, how are you going to make any money? You need to make money, so many people have this romantic idea of a brand - no, this a commercial outlet.

You have to find the balance between commercial outlet and creative freedom.

Start thinking about your team from day one. Get to know who is in the industry and reach out to them. I’m not going to say fashion, I’m going to say business because this is what it is...business is all about relationships. If you want to get your message in a magazine then reach out to the journalists you like, people love getting their ego stroked.

Don’t try to fit into a box, you will get bored of it. Stay true to yourself.

“These things have to come from the top down but not in the way that some people do of scaring their employers, it has to be in a way where we can work together”

How do you find it managing a team?

The first thing I did was think about what my weaknesses are. What are the skillsets that I don’t have and where are the areas that we need support in? We invested early on in a marketing person, and then an e-commerce person, then production, etc. It’s about filling the gaps in the team where we need that extra knowledge and experience.

It’s very difficult when you’re in charge of loads of people. At the beginning of this year there were two people: me and my studio manager. It’s hard to make sure people feel like they enjoy their job, or that they can come to me with a problem, making sure they feel supported in the workplace, it’s a lot of pressure to do that single-handedly.

What was great for me about The Stack’s company culture panel at Oakley Court, was that it taught me that we can do this together. These things have to come from the top down but not in the way that some people do of scaring their employers, it has to be in a way where we can work together and go through our company values together. We have to trust each other.

The company culture panel made me realise that this doesn’t have to be a lonely thing, but something we can work on as a team.

The Short Stack

Designer Priya Ahluwalia talks team management, her biggest challenges, and what not to do as a young creative

By Isobel Van Dyke

More from Business