The Wes favourite and current face of the French brand discusses the importance of collaboration in a divided world (and meeting Bill Murray)
Waris Ahluwalia is living many splendid lives: acting, journalism, modelling, jewellery, antiques, tea rooms, and even remaking shot-for-shot the opening of American Gigolo. You probably recognise him from films by Wes Anderson, Spike Lee and Luca Guadagnino. If not, then perhaps in an advertising campaign or through his jewellery company, House of Waris. Sometimes, he even pops up on the news: last year, a media storm erupted when he was held up on a flight simply for wearing a turban.
As one of the few visually prominent and vocal Sikhs in film and fashion, Ahluwalia is a unique, integral cultural figure. Not least because he wears each role with a swagger. In The Life Aquatic, he’s the cinematographer of Steve Zissou’s crew; modelling for Gap, his image went viral and instilled some much-needed diversity. The polymath’s latest venture is as the face of a new menswear collection by The Kooples for SS17. The French designers, he recalls, shared an interest in his world-travelling lifestyle and picked him as their muse.
“I’m fortunate – or unfortunate – to have friends in all corners of this globe,” Ahluwalia admits. Growing up in India until the age of five, he moved to New York, where he still resides, but a quick scroll through his Instagram reveals someone always on the move. “I have a carpenter in Old Delhi. I’ve met with goldsmiths in Rome, marble makers in Jaipur, leather makers in Sweden. I’m guided by adventures.”
A year ago, when you were banned from a plane due to your turban, you said, “The only way to combat that is with love, is with tolerance, is with understanding and is with education.” Is that still true with Trump in power?
Waris Ahluwalia: Absolutely. That’s still completely relevant, but you need more. The game has changed. Love and education is the long-term plan. In the short-term, you have to protest and make it clear we won’t stand for certain policies – both things have to be applied, you can’t just be reactionary. Protesting is wonderful and necessary, but protests are reactionary. With the ban, there was a protest for an immediate response. But that’s for now.
Education and love are long-term solutions. It’s about being internal and everyone taking responsibility for their actions. It’s so easy to point fingers – Trump’s created a lot of damage, of course, but it’s not just about him; that sentiment exists in the UK with Brexit, and it exists in France, and it exists in India with the religious right. It exists everywhere. Whatever’s happening in politics is in direct relation to us. It’s a manifestation of our insecurities and fears.
It feels apt Wes Anderson first met you at a peace rally. With The Life Aquatic, did he just want you as a presence on his set? Or did he detect the actor inside you?
Waris Ahluwalia: I knew him for a few more months before he asked me. It wasn’t ‘Will you audition for this?’ or ‘Do you think you can do it?’ He just said, ‘Come to Italy and be in this film.’ That was my first film. If he felt comfortable enough to ask me, who am I to question my ability to do it? If he’s not questioning me, I’m sure as hell not going to question myself.
Wes did The Darjeeling Limited in India, The Grand Budapest Hotel was largely about Zero, and you’re, of course, one of his regulars. But he also gets criticised for the lack of his diversity in his films. What’s your take?
Waris Ahluwalia: It’s a storyteller’s role to tell a story they want to tell. You can’t give parameters to a storyteller. When your demographics say you need one black person, one Chinese person, one vague Indian and two white people – that’s a commercial.
A filmmaker’s responsibility is to tell a story that’s true to them and their experiences. So it’s the responsibility of different groups to step up to the plate and create their own stories. Whether it’s Chinese or African-American or Indian or anything – you have to step up and tell your story. And it’s happening. So I think it’s absurd to criticise a storyteller for telling something that’s true to their experience.
Everyone has a Bill Murray story. What’s your Bill Murray story?
Waris Ahluwalia: The first day we met, it was an evening in Rome. We were in preproduction. There was a message from Wes in the lobby saying, “Join us for dinner by the Spanish Steps.” I walked over. There was Bill Murray. That moment is epic. It’s not that he’s a star; he’s a true craftsman. If you understand my body of work, I have great admiration for great craftsmen, whether they’re working with marble, wood, diamond or film. He’s an incredible artist in his trade. As I sat next to him, the films I grew up with were flashing before me. It was definitely surreal.
With House of Waris, your background is in designing jewellery. Has being the face of a menswear collection with The Kooples brought any new challenges?
Waris Ahluwalia: I was never trained as a jeweller, so I don’t come from that mindset. I create from an emotional response. My parameters aren’t restricted to gold and diamonds.
I design three-quarters of my own wardrobe. I work with tailors on my suits and shoes and coats. It’s something I do for myself because I like to know where things come from. With anything we produce, I personally visit the people making the work I’m designing, whether it’s a workshop in Rome or Jaipur. I was once recommended this guy’s workshop, so I flew to Bangkok to have lunch with him and see the quality of his work. Then I got on a plane and left. I believe in face-to-face and a handshake.
“Now, more than ever, the idea of collaboration across borders is so needed” – Waris Ahluwalia
The Kooples tend to use couples in their shoots. Do you exude the romantic qualities of two people?
Waris Ahluwalia: I can’t speak for them, but they were using me as their muse. They reached out to me and said, ‘We’re doing this collection. It’s based around you. Would you like to meet the brothers and see if there’s a way we can work together?’ That’s how it started.
As well as using me as a muse, they wanted to engage me in a creative collaboration. It’s through conversation that we learn about each other, culturally. Now more than ever, the idea of collaboration across borders is so needed.
There aren’t many Sikh people in fashion. What does it mean for you to be the face of The Kooples?
Waris Ahluwalia: Everyone’s going to put you into a box. That’s never going to stop. That’s never ever, ever going to stop. You have to look at why you’re bothered by it, or why it concerns you. The general answer is, I’m designing and creating as an individual. I’m telling stories of my experiences growing up. My upbringing happens to be both American and Sikh, so I’m going to put both of those values into my work. I represent both sides without trying to.
Does that mean there’s a pressure on you to be a spokesperson?
Waris Ahluwalia: I didn’t set out to be a representation of a religion or a country. I set out to make art. I set out to have adventures and to explore the possibilities. From that, you have ceilings broken. There’s really no other practising Sikh in American cinema or in fashion, in this very public way. If that creates a more open society, then that’s wonderful.
There’s a simple fact: just by me showing up somewhere, there’s diversity. I don’t have to talk about diversity. I don’t have to wear a shirt that says ‘I promote diversity!’ It’s always overlooked. Just by the fact I show up in a room full of white and black people, we’ve now actually made it diverse. There’s something funny about that. My statement is my presence. I’m not trying to make political statements here. I just have a right to do and create, regardless of my skin colour and religion, as do other people. Just as people have the right to have shelter and live without bombs dropped on them and to have an existence. It’s representative of everyone’s rights.