Interview: Waris Ahluwalia & Alexandra Weston
Waris Ahluwalia has been called a modern-day Marco Polo but maybe Leonardo da Vinci would be more accurate. When not globetrotting, he acts, produces films, designs jewelry and clothing under his label House of Waris, tops the best-dressed lists and, in his downtime, pens an advice column Love & Waris. When he paired up with Alexandra Weston, Holt Renfrew’s director of brand strategy (and wife of Galen Weston Jr.), on H Project to create rugs, pillows, leather goods and bowls, we had to the see the results. Together the two travelled on an eight-day trip through India (watch a video travelogue of their trip here) to source and design products. You can shop the items in pop-up Uncrate India shops in Bloor Street, Yorkdale, Calgary and Vancouver Holt Renfrew stores until May 31, 2014.
House & Home: How did H Project come about?
Alexandra Weston: H Project wanted to dive into a culture that is very rich in craftsmanship. Uncrate India, part of H Project, is almost like a little exhibit that you can shop. We know who made these products, how they were made and what they were made with. Almost every element is socially responsible, whether that means the material it’s made with, or the charity give back. It’s obviously about supporting the artisans directly through trade, but as part of Uncrate India we’re donating $15,000 to UNICEF that will go to children’s health and education in India.
Waris Ahluwalia: So when there’s a knock at the door on a dark snowy night for H Project, there’s no need for convincing because we were talking the same language. The idea of supporting craft and bringing it to a larger market. The way I celebrate craft is kind of the way I spell celebrate: C-O-M-M-E-R-C-E. It’s the only way it will continue; we’re not meant to ogle and awe. They can’t continue if you don’t support their goods. There is a consumer who wants something special, something that isn’t available everywhere and mass made. They want to know the person behind this, there’s a sense of connectivity.
H&H: And did you select the places you visited in India?
WA: A lot were places where we already work and make things. Others were a combination of not just artisans but also young brands who are just starting out and maybe in their first, second or third year. It was exciting to expose not just the established craftsman, but younger brands that probably only sell in India, to a whole new world with H Project. That was an exciting moment to be able to share this opportunity with them.
H&H: Where did your logo come from; it looks a bit like a scimitar?
WA: If you look at that symbol there’s something similar to it in almost every ancient culture whether it’s Greece or India. I designed that symbol in New York and went to India and saw something quite similar on the back of a truck and I was like “oh my god!” When you think of Neptune’s staff, or the power of three, a hilt of a sword, it was just beautiful. The idea comes back to how tradition sits in the modern world and that’s what our project, House of Waris, explores. The idea that craftsmanship connects to an object, the things that you own, and that you consume. It’s a thing that I practice 360. I know who made my suit, I know who made my shoes; the cobbler’s in California, the suit maker is in New York. I try to do that with everything and provide that to my consumers; that sense of responsibility and accountability.
H&H: What was the highlight of the trip for you Alexandra?
AW: I really loved our day with the carpets in Jaipur. I just loved that it was a family business. It was a third generation, going on fourth (although the man’s kids were young so he’s hoping it’ll be a fourth). We got to play, to touch everything. We learned about different techniques and then went to the dye lot, which was at the back of a home. First they would bleach the raw wool or cotton. They had these big cauldrons of wool and cotton and you would stomp on them to wash them out so nothing affected the colour dye. When they finished dying, there were huge wooden bamboo sticks that you would hang on the roofs. So the rooftop was just a sea of whatever colour was on order, it happened to be two shades of blue so the whole rooftop was drying this blue yarn. It was very simple, no big factories; these were workshops and people’s homes. I loved doing that, playing with carpets. Waris dyed some of the wool. I got to clean it out. The visual of the rooftops with all the yarn drying was great.
H&H: Were you able to customize some of the carpets?
AW: We did. We took inspiration from what we saw for House of Waris’ carpets. Waris designed some exclusively for Holts. One of the things we love is instead of being flat, the carpets have two fabrications, two textures. I don’t know where they will go yet, but these will be in my house! I want the red carpet for my study but there’s also a cream and white that is beautiful as well.
H&H: Waris, do you have any favourite designers that you follow for home decor? I know you’ve been involved in design for a long time, but this is a different avenue for you to explore.
WA: (Laughs) I’m not prepared to answer that one, that’s a good question. I love going to the source and working with a rugmaker or the people making the marble, or the carpenter, there’s so much pleasure working with those people. You’re able to connect with that person who was actually making things with their hands. That idea of goods being touched by hand; that we could live in that kind of world, even in this day in age.
Being in India and making jewelry all the time, everyone is around you. That’s how we ended up making scarves; it wasn’t a big corporate decision. The loomer was right there; he was friends with the goldsmith and was like: “Ok, let’s make some scarves.” So we loomed our own cashmere and looked at all the techniques. We talked about block printing, which is very traditional so we did that and another traditional technique, batik. We found a family whose patriarch had passed away last year, he was an artist who had taught batik all over the county, and I think, the world. His wife was working with him and the kids; that is really amazing. It’s not just about placing an order and saying, “Make some of these.” These are real people.
H&H: How would you describe your own homes in terms of their looks and the esthetic?
AW: Well I’m very much inspired by Axel Vervoordt. So very minimal and modern, but eclectic. In every room of my house there is something with a story, which is what we’re doing here. We’ll have a white couch but then some great carpet or pillow. My friends thought I was crazy when we did our house, it’s very white with pops of colour and I have a puppy and two toddler boys so it seems insane to have white couches!
H&H: Indian antiques? European? All kinds?
WA: All kinds. I love collecting antiques, going to antique markets in Rome and Paris. The Roman one is my favourite because no one is there. The Paris markets are obviously well travelled but there are little ones in Rome. I’m a huge fan of history and what it means to us and how we move forward. That’s generally what I tend to live with.
H&H: Where are these markets in Rome?
WA: (Smiles) I can’t tell you!
1. (Left), window of Bloor Street Holt Renfrew, Adam Moco; (right) School of Smiles, Christopher Wray-McCann
2-3. Bloor Street Uncrate India display, Adam Moco
4. Carpet making in Jaipur, India, Christopher Wray-McCann
5. via House of Waris
6. Christopher Wray-McCann
7. Adam Moco
8. Christopher Wray-McCann
9. Batik making in Udaipur, Christopher Wray-McCann
Browse a gallery of pretty Indian-inspired paisley prints here.