LONDON — Watch out for Ahluwalia.
Not even five years old, the brand founded by designer Priya Ahluwalia is building real momentum — not the kind fueled by fashion media hype. Her next project is a collection of eyewear with Ace & Tate, the Amsterdam-based company known for its sustainable approach to materials, manufacturing and distribution.
The collection won’t be released until later this year, but Ahluwalia adapted existing Ace & Tate frames to fit the mood of her coed catwalk show at London Fashion Week. The sleek designs reflected her music-inspired fall collection which channeled the Bollywood, Afrobeat, soul and hip-hop sounds of her childhood.
The show took place in a Baroque church (now a concert hall), with a saxophonist and jazz pianist performing songs by Lauryn Hill, Luther Vandross, Sade and Fela Kuti. The prints and patterns in the collection mimicked the songs’ sound waves, or the details on musical instruments, such as the ties on an Indian tabla drum.
“I was thinking about the different characters of superstars — a slick R&B girl might have worn one shape while a cool jazz player might have worn another shape. It was really me leaning into those characters,” said Ahluwalia, adding that she added a lot of tortoiseshell, just because she’s a fan.
Some of the lenses were blue and reflective “because they were meant for superstars,” she said during an interview at her studio.
The full collection will feature a bigger variety of frames and showcase the brand’s new “A” logo, which on the runway flashed from belts and shoes and was woven into, or onto, clothes in the form of little charms.
The designer said her personal preference is for big frames. “I wear sunglasses every day. I’m a big fan. Sometimes I wear them on my head, sometimes on my face, and I like them big. Wearing sunglasses — or any glasses — always looks like you’ve made more effort.”
She said her “A” logo is going to be integrated into the shape of the new glasses, “and it’s going to feel ergonomic. We’re trying to avoid it looking slapdash or like a stick-on logo,” she said, noting that Ace & Tate glasses don’t have branding, but the company was still open to her idea of adding her logo.
Following the launch of the sunglasses later this year, Ahluwalia is also hoping to add optical frames. The glasses will be priced at the high-end of the Ace & Tate range and sell at the eyewear brand’s stores and on the Ahluwalia website.
The designer created eyewear not just because she loves the look of sunglasses but because she wants to offer a “full wardrobe,” open up her price points, and speak to a wider audience.
The launch of eyewear is part of a bigger accessories push that saw her launch footwear and leather belts, both with the “A” logo, for fall. Bags will be next.
“Eyewear felt like a really great next step and a way to introduce [Ahluwalia] to a different market. Our ready-to-wear is quite expensive, and the eyewear price points mean that people can wear the brand without having to buy the clothes,” she said.
Ahluwalia’s collections carry contemporary price points, and sell at stores including Matchesfashion and Net-a-porter. A pair of laser-etched jeans from her spring collection costs 395 pounds, while a geometric jacquard wool midi dress is priced at 525 pounds.
She said that after researching a number of potential partners, she chose to work with Ace & Tate specifically because of its focus on sustainable materials and production.
Ace & Tate sells its own prescription and sunglass frames online and in physical stores, conducts eye tests and fulfills prescriptions for a flat fee.
A few years ago it tapped into the circular economy, selling pre-owned frames on Depop with a project called Reframe.
For its frames Ace & Tate uses bio acetate, recycled acetate and a new material called Acetate Renew Plus Bio, the latter of which it introduced for fall 2022.
The innovative material is created from local waste plastics that undergo a special recycling process. Hard-to-recycle plastics are broken down at the molecular level in order to form a component that is later combined with sustainably sourced wood pulp to make the material, which Ace & Tate said has the same quality as traditional acetate.
According to Ace & Tate Acetate Renew Plus Bio is “the most sustainable acetate, and we’re proud to be one of the very few eyewear companies” to have access to it.
“They’re bringing something new to the market, showing that you can do beautifully designed things in a more responsible way. I like that about them,” said Ahluwalia, who regularly works with sustainable materials such as recycled cotton and deadstock.
“When we were introduced to each other, we really clicked, and for me and for my team it’s also an opportunity to learn about how sustainable eyewear is actually made,” she added.
A spokesman for Ace & Tate said the collaboration is part of the brand’s efforts to learn from creatives and emerging talents outside the eyewear industry. Ace & Tate has in the past collaborated with artists and fashion labels including Cmmn Swdn.
Ace & Tate’s work with Ahluwalia dovetails with its plans to open more stand-alone stores in the British capital later this year, one of which will be on Portobello Road.
The designer is well-known for her efforts in sustainability.
Last year her brand became the first to take part in &PaulSmith, a program supported by the Paul Smith Foundation that looks to work with, mentor and provide monetary grants to innovative creators across a variety of sectors.
Ahluwalia collaborated with Smith and his team on an 11-piece, limited-edition capsule collection that saw her combine Smith’s leftover check fabrics and other materials with her signature seaming and panelling techniques for a collage-like effect.
The colorful palette was drawn from Ahluwalia’s personal archive of photographs taken in Nigeria and India. Ahluwalia was born and raised in London, and has Nigerian-Indian origins.
At the 2020 British Fashion Awards she won an accolade for her sustainable fashions and her contributions to diversity and support of the local community.
At the time she told WWD that her company was always challenging itself to “support and regenerate communities and the environment with different craft, social and development initiatives.”
In 2021 she scooped the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design for her positive contribution to the industry.
Those accolades, and others, have been paying off. And, unlike many of her peers, Ahluwalia has a razor-sharp business sense and is determined to build a sustainable fashion brand in a city where it’s difficult for younger designers to gain traction.
Since she launched the brand nearly five years ago, every year has brought challenges.
“I’ve had to contend with Brexit, the pandemic, and the economic crisis, among other things, but being a small brand, we can be very agile. We can make a decision and action it the next day. We can move fast. But it’s hard because there are things outside our control. At the same time, I’m not going to do anything else — so I just need to make it work,” she said.
“All of these things are opportunities to learn. And despite all of [the larger issues] there is still lots of money out there. People are spending and wanting to do things. Sometimes it feels like the headlines maybe don’t always align with reality. And it’s up to us to keep innovating and figuring out ways to not let the external crisis” get to us.
Hence, the ambitious growth strategy, and plans for multiple product categories.
She started as a men’s designer, winning the BFC/GQ designer menswear fund in 2021, and launched womenswear for the spring 2022 season. It has since overtaken menswear in terms of sales, she said.
Ahluwalia launched footwear for fall 2023 with playful interpretations of a Chelsea boot, heels sculpted with an “A” into the wedge shape, and lace-up leather mules. “We created new lasts, new molds for the heels and it was a really special project,” she said.
Up next are bags. She’s already had some practice, collaborating on a project with Mulberry.
“Hopefully — and soon-ish, I would love to do bags and more leather goods. I’m really a handbag person — I’d spend my last pound on a bag. And, beyond that, I would love to see ‘Ahluwalia at home’ as well.”