A few words scrawled on the inspiration board at the House of Waris read, ‘That which matters most must never give way to that which matters least’. It is a perfect prelude to the owner of the studio, Waris Ahluwalia, who with his long beard, turban, impeccably tailored Saville Row suits complete with pocket squares, has been deemed le chic in the hallowed portals of the international fashion.
The hippest young Sikh of New York is a man with monikers. He has been dubbed the ‘le chic Sikh’, a ‘punk maharajah’, the ‘Indiana Jones of Jewellery’, but Waris – the surname is almost expendable — shrugs off all and sundry pseudonyms he has been reinvented with. “The world likes to put people in boxes. I understand it makes things easier. However, I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost. It’s from there everything begins,” he says.
He decidedly refuses to kowtow the way of the world as he adds: “How the world reacts to my work and life is not in my hands or my concern.”
Waris is famous for being famous. The man, who does not hesitate to wear pink suede shoes, played a bit role in Wes Anderson’s situational comedy The Darjeeling Limited. He is also the New York socialite who “designs jewellery as a passion,” for the international smart set.
Pegging him in any category poses a dilemma. The 35-year-old dabbles in acting once in a while, doubles up as a fashion muse, designs jewellery as a passion, sets up pop-up tea rooms and is at the forefront of the New York arts and culture scene. A regular on the Manhattan party circuit, he can be spotted at the most happening nightclubs and restaurants.
But what has really put Waris in the spotlight are regular splashes on the pages of fashion. In 2010 he was included in Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed List and declared British GQ’s # 2 best dressed man internationally. And subsequently he also found himself in Vogue’s 10 Most Impactful people of 2010. His way up on the fashion charts, is according to the man himself, a direct result of sticking to his love for tailored clothes.
“I find the best craftsmen all over the world and learn about them. I know the cobbler who makes my shoes in California, the tailor who makes my suits and shirts in London and the people who make my jeans in Paris. It’s a little more thoughtful. I know I cannot fight mass consumption and creation – but I can support an alternative way that can sit alongside those goods. One of my favourite tailors is in Jaipur from East West Designers,” emphasizes Waris who once in a while indulges in designer stuff from Timo Weiland and George Esquivel. The much-talked about pink suede shoes are by Esquivel.
Even without the fashion card, placing Waris is not a tough proposition, though he is on his way to calling it his moment. He is most recognizable for his few stints in Hollywood even while he circumvents being called an actor.
Think Waris, think the stern and unsmiling chief steward in Darjeeling Unlimited — Wes Anderson’s 2007-released emotional comedy starring Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody.
His debut of sorts in Hollywood — he has had no formal training in acting – was in an Anderson film. “Acting found me just as jewellery did. The start was alarmingly simple, Wes asked me to be in his movie. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, released in 2004, was the first movie I did and it’s been an incredible adventure since then,” says the man whose latest role was in the 2009 Oscar nominated film, I am Love.
He features on the credits for films such as Spike Lee’s Inside Man, a 2006 crime-drama starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Judie Foster, a 2009 absurd comedy by director Jordan Galland called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead that marries Shakespeare and vampires and The F Word Republican Fundraiser that released in 2005.
The roles Waris has played include an interesting mix. Read: a camera man, a bank hostage, a Republican, a hypochondriac. “I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the finest craftsmen in the field. You see, it’s not very far from my jewellery making. I only spend my time doing things I’m passionate about,” he points out. And even without any agent, the man already has two more films in the offing.
The most significant fact of it all, however, is that the American Sikh is the man behind the label House of Waris that is synonymous with uninhibited luxury.
Yes, he is a jewellery designer who stumbled into acting along the way. In 2009, he was even privy to some special grants (meant for a new generation of fashion designers) from the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) while the next year he was inducted as an official member of the CFDA.
The House of Waris designs are startling — diamond-studded birds, arachnids and skeletal hands – which coincide with the price points that start at $2000 US and can touch anywhere up to $75000 US.
“I create with gold that holds history, diamonds that see the future, and rubies that long for love. There’s a story in each stone- I’ll leave it for you to find them on your own,” he offers.
The hint of exclusivity probably comes in right from the moment you choose to buy a piece from Waris. Every collection is accompanied by a letter written by the designer, the lookbooks with hand-drawn sketches are bound in linen and each piece of jewellery comes in a hand-made wooden box emblazoned with the House of Waris logo.
The gem-laden pieces are highly exclusive and sold at august boutiques in the world that have been hand selected by Waris. Read: Maxfields in Los Angeles, Barneys in New York and Beverly Hills, Dover Street Market in London, Ikram in Chicago and Colette in Paris to name a few. And while he has crafted a special silver enamel series called Waris Loves You for online sale on only one portal called yoox.com, he can be met at his New York-based studio of House of Waris strictly by appointment.
If the essence of his signature designs is classy and meant to be passed down generations, he breaks the pattern this year with a line of naughty underwear under the label Waris Loves You – those are the words he uses to sign off letters. The new, rather cheeky line is about knickers with the word ‘more’ writ large on them, bathrobes emblazoned with the words ‘Waris Loves You. Dirty.’ and jewellery that reads the word ‘dirty’.
Waris designs two collections in a year and shows at fashion weeks only in New York. He showcased his latest spring/summer collection, Omnia Vincit Amor (‘Love Conquers all’) at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at the Museum of Art and Design in February this year.
“Raphael. Virgil. Octavian. Spero. Roma. And Liberté. These are the characters of my latest story,” says Waris referring to his inspiration that came to him when he was staying at The Raphael, a private hotel in the ritzy 16th arrondisement of Paris. The bathroom tiles of the hotel had birds etched on them.
“I could see those birds on the walls of the Raphael as beautiful hand-enamelled pieces — enamelling that is usually relegated to the backside of traditional Indian jewellery. The silhouette of each bird was cut out by hand, the details within were carved out with a slow precise movement, making each bird one of a kind,” points out Waris. His bejewelled birds are crafted out using old-world Indian techniques on enamel, diamonds, gold and silver.
Just as if to defy being relegated to boxes, the actor-designer-artist-socialite-style icon has just launched his first collection of scarves to go along with the jewellery at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. “It’s on the same lines as my jewellery – objects of beauty that are crafted by hand using the finest materials such as cashmere, silk and cotton-silk blends. They all come from artisans who are specialists in embroidery, batik or block printing,” says Waris
The curious thing is that akin to his start in films as an untrained actor, his debut in jewellery making was as spontaneous. Never trained in jewellery designing or making, he schooled himself in his workshops in Rome and Jaipur. “Sitting with my craftsmen day in and day out, six days a week for about six months a year, I had two tasks, to watch and to learn. I sat and watched. I sat and directed. I sat and asked questions. I learned. Not to make pieces myself, but to know what it takes to create a piece of fine jewellery,” says Waris.
The eponymously named House of Waris came into its own only after its owner had meandered through opening an eatery, compiling a book, producing an album and co-producing a movie in his 20s. Only none of them came through. However a chance spotting of some elaborate diamond rings he was wearing by a salesgirl at the super luxury Hollywood jewellery store, Maxfield, in Los Angeles and he had a consignment on his hands in the year 2002. And with it, the kickstarting of the House of Waris.
And just as if he needed more avenue for expending his streaks of creativity, for a few weeks in October last year, he opened a pop-up Tea Room under the New York City High Line. The space – an elevated subway track not in use—was converted into a floating park and garden. “When I do events I tend to be very site specific. I work with what’s around me and create specifically for the space. To do just jewellery would have been under utilization of the space, so I decided it was a great time to introduce House of Waris tea. It was a soft launch for the tea (straight from the Himalayas) as we are still in the product development phase,” he says.
It all peters down to a keen sense of adventure that Waris attributes to his parents. “I was born in a little city called Amritsar and lived there till I was 5. My mother, Darshan Kaur, had studied in a college in New York for, but my father, Paramjit Singh, had never been to the ‘New World’. So when my mother came back from NY to get married and thereafter opened up the Waris Public School in Amritsar, my father was still yearning for a grand adventure. I guess that’s where I get it from,” he adds.
In the meantime, along with his various ventures, the edge to his name springs from the fact that Waris is an avid partygoer and has a huge circle of friends from the crème de la crème of society. He describes it as part of a life that revolves around the arts. “It’s in everything I do. Without it I’m lost. I watch a lot of movies, go to galleries and spend time in my favorite restaurants around the city. I think I spend most of my life sleeping, eating and being on a plane,” he adds.
So if he is to be spotted regularly at cool hang outs such as the Beatrice Inn and the Boom Boom Room, he also counts musician Paul Sevigny and graffiti artist André Saraiva among his circle of close friends. He deems them a big part of his life. He says: “They inspire me with their work and their commitment to their craft. That’s why I love collaborating with my friends on projects and surround myself with other people who want to create. To build. To grow.”
While he lives it up in a glamorous whirl, travelling in the last three months to Bangkok, Bali, Jamaica, Los Angeles and planning his next jaunt to Hawaii, Waris emphasizes on the need to give back. To that effort he published a book called “To India with Love” in 2009 in response to the 2008 Mumbai attack.
Says Waris: “It sold really well everywhere and the proceeds go to the Taj Memorial Public Service Welfare Trust- which is aiding families that suffered through the attacks. For my next project, I’m working with a few organizations to raise funds for Japan. We are all here for what is a spark of a moment. If I can bring some beauty, hope and joy to the world around me in my little time here I shall have served my purpose.”
(A version of this story was published on April 3, 2011)