LONDON — Men’s wear designer Priya Ahluwalia is the fourth recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British design, joining former winners, and fellow up-and-comers, Richard Quinn, Bethany Williams and Rosh Mahtani.
With the U.K. still under lockdown, the award ceremony took place over Zoom this time, with the Countess of Wessex presenting the award on behalf of the queen and closing this week’s virtual-only London Fashion Week.
The countess — who is married to Prince Edward, the queen’s youngest son — dusted off her interviewing skills for the occasion, quizzing a glowing Ahluwalia about the future of the industry and her own label.
“I was listening to the radio the other day and they were talking about how people aren’t buying as many clothes, even online. Do you think the market will bounce back?” asked the countess, who was dressed in a black and white printed polo neck by Victoria Beckham. “I’m flying the British flag,” she added.
Ahluwalia spoke to her about feeling scared when she lost some of her wholesale accounts early into the lockdown, yet still managed to pivot the business and use the time to explore new projects. Last summer, she debuted “Jalebi,” a book and virtual exhibition designed to show “what it means to be a young mixed heritage person living in Britain.”
The young designer was born and raised in London and has Nigerian-Indian origins. She recently took part in GucciFest, collaborated on a new pair of sneakers with Adidas, and lent her expertise in upcycling and sustainable production to a series of global conferences.
The countess encouraged her to talk about the importance of recycling and to offer sustainability advice to brands: “Everybody needs to get better at this,” said the royal.
“It’s always been a case of using what’s directly available to me,” said Ahluwalia. “A lot of students are naturally resourceful because they ought to be, it’s more cost effective than other routes. But if you’re a huge brand, you’ve got a culture that will take a lot of time to undo, you have to implement positive practice at every level of business. They could start by looking at their stock and thinking who could (potentially) repurpose it. It could be a good opportunity to work with a younger designer — London is full of them, so they can take their pick.”
The young designer also shared some of her future aspirations, including branching into women’s wear, accessories and, eventually, home.
“That’s good news for the girls. I’m coveting your shirt,” said the countess, complimenting Ahluwalia’s pastel-hued, loose satin shirt, as well as the deep, jewel tones in the designer’s newly released fall 2021 collection, which was inspired by Black artist Kerry James Marshall.
The royal is a longtime supporter of the arts and a patron of London College of Fashion: “Arts education is hugely important. We are lucky enough to have some of the best arts education in the world and it positions us incredibly well. Whether or not students stay in the U.K., we get that constant changing motion, and you can’t underestimate the value art, in whatever form, plays. It’s big business that’s supporting our economy,” she said.
Under the current government, funding for the arts has been cut. Separately, a campaign by the lobby group Fashion Roundtable is calling on the U.K. government to pay more attention to the industry and tailor policy to its needs in order to help British fashion business to navigate post-Brexit red tape and stay afloat.
As Ahluwalia answered the countess’ questions, congratulations flooded the comment section, with figures including British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, Matchesfashion’s Natalie Kingham — an early supporter of the brand — and the queen’s dresser Angela Kelly sending well wishes.
With news of the government’s plan to ease lockdown unveiled Monday, the conversation ended on a high note.
“After any collective trauma people act out and go wild, so hopefully we’ll see some great looks. I’ve got something coming out in March that has definitely been informed by the fact that I’m desperate to go out and party again,” said the designer.