Ahluwalia wants to make your mind travel for AW21
In its most assured collection to date, the London-based label reflects on the fundamental relationship between migration and cultural expression.
Photography Laurence Ellis. Images courtesy of Ahluwalia
The irony of Priya Ahluwalia’s AW21 collection’s central theme isn’t lost on her. “It’s ended up being all about travel and migration,” she chuckles. “I guess the heart wants what it can't have!” With physical travel a no-go, the designer used the time freed up by stasis to embark on voyages of the mind. Spurred on by reading Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 historical novel Homecoming and Emmanuel Iduma’s A Stranger’s Pose (a poetic travelogue of the writer’s observations across the African continent), she began to grapple with the themes of migration, family and ancestry long featured in her work with renewed vigour. “It really made me think about times in history when people have migrated and it's led to a real cultural boom, when the mixing of cultures has led to something new,” she says.
The Harlem Renaissance — the resurgence of Black cultural production in America between the two world wars — and the artists that followed in its wake became natural focus points. Jacob Lawrence, painter of The Migration Series (1940-41), which depicts the movement of Black Americans to the northern States from the South during the 1910s, became an important figure in Priya’s research. So did Kerry James Marshall, whose figurative paintings offer some of the most poignant lenses into contemporary Black American life of any artist working today.
How this dense web of references then become clothing may not be evident at first glance — but that is, ultimately, a testament to the nuance with which Priya approaches her craft. At surface level, it’s a collection of expertly made, visually appealing menswear staples — you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy who wouldn’t look stunning in this season’s bleach-striped denim separates, jigsaw-panelled brown corduroy trousers, or a black crew-neck sweater with tricolour cable-knit sleeves.
It’s the subtle references, however, that anchor the pieces in a rich sociohistorical current. The Afro comb graphic printed on the knitted chest panel of that last garment, for example, “was inspired by the symbol used by one of the first Black sororities running during the Harlem Renaissance,” Priya says. “An Afro comb is also a universal symbol of Blackness,” she continues, with her interpretation of it pointing “like a compass to the four corners of the world”. Elsewhere, the gradient skies in a collection of photographs of migrant families become the ombre dye treatment on a sunset-hued long-sleeved polo top, while the deep brown and blacks of Kerry James Marshall’s distinctive palette inspired the collection’s grounding hues.
It all makes for a collection that feels like a confident refining of the relationship between the clothes and the stories that inform them — there’s no need for the garments to wear their references on their sleeves, for the research they’re a product of permeates the very cloth they’re cut from. And all that aside, this is Ahluwalia’s most broadly appealing collection to date.
Perhaps the most significant expansion of the label’s universe this season is its continued exploration of film as a presentational medium. After working with director Samona Olanipekun on her first film, Joy, presented as part of GucciFest, Priya fell in love with the medium. “I loved how so many people from around the world were able to engage with it in a way that doesn't work with runway shows,” she says. This season, with the support of NTS and Dropbox, she’s joined forces with director Stephen Isaac Wilson, musician CKTRL, movement director Holly Blakey and set designer Chris Melgram on Traces, a short film Priya describes as being “about brotherhood, and ideas of migration, movement and unity”.
As much as she’s enjoying her current foray into URL presentations, though, that doesn’t mean to say that physical shows are off the cards for the future. “Lots of people keep saying that we'll never have real shows again, but that's like saying to the theatre world that they're never going to stage plays again. There's a place for human interaction in fashion, and that's slightly missing right now.” Damn straight, Priya! Here’s hoping we see you on the runway for SS22.