Who is Priya Ahluwalia? Meet the latest designer to win the Queen Elizabeth II design award

The recipient of the 2021 Queen Elizabeth II Award for Design, Priya Ahluwalia has been blazing trails since she graduated from the University of Westminster and created her namesake label ‘Ahluwalia’ in 2018.

Earlier this week, on day 2 of a fully digital LFW, she presented her AW/21 collection, a cinematic ode to Black brotherhood and migration titled ‘Traces’. The film takes its inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance which birthed a revival of African American cultural forms that served to uplift and promote a new Black identity and pride; much like today’s climate, after the BLM protests of last year.

It was announced yesterday that she is the newest recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, awarded to emerging designers that show “exceptional talent and originality, whilst demonstrating value to the community“. The Nigerian-Indian designer is the successor to former winners Bethany Williams, Rosh Mahatni and Richard Quinn, and this win speaks to the impact she’s had in the few years since her creative tenure began.

Pulling from cultures close to home, including Nigeria, India and Jamaica, Ahluwalia’s work is often a fusion of the above, exploring how these cultural identities find their place in a Western context. As a British born woman whose heritage is found in these countries, multiculturalism is a large part of her ethos, and influences her “tastes, choices and materials when it comes to designing and creating”, as she told Another Magazine last year. Reworking traditional Nigerian fabrics such as aso-oke and printing old family photos onto garments, Ahluwalia is able to represent all the influential cultures in her life, without there being a clash- embodying the possibilities of what racial cohesion in the UK could look like.

Ahluwalia SS/21 via @ahluwalia on Instagram
Ahluwalia AW/20 via @ahluwalia on Instagram

In addition to honouring her background through her pieces, Ahluwalia has taken it a step further by sharing the intricacies of her heritage in other mediums. For the much talked about Gucci Fest, she released a short film ‘Joy’, which celebrated the “everyday beauty and strength of Black existence”, as seen in cooking meals and training at the gym.

She’s also explored literature, creating books that further celebrate these communities. Her most recent book ‘Jalebi’, in partnership with photographer Laurence Ellis is a love letter to Southall, otherwise known as the ‘little India’ of London, with a large Punjabi population. Images in the book are a representation of Ahluwalia’s upbringing: large family gatherings and the balancing act of having two cultures to account for, courtesy of immigration. Her first book ‘Sweet Lassi’, is an exploration into how waste and overconsumption from the West affects other countries, fuelled by a family trip to Lagos, Nigeria and Delhi.

This focus on sustainability is evidenced through her work, with her pieces being made from recycled materials or deadstock; and in a world where the effects of fast fashion are becoming more and more obvious, it’s refreshing to see this approach being taken, matching words with action. And it seems the industry is responding to this.

In 2019, Ahluwalia won the H&M Design Award for sustainability, at the beginning of 2020, she was announced as one of the eight finalists for the LVMH Prize, and just last September, she was named as one of MATCHES Fashion’s Innovators.

A few years in, and Priya Ahluwalia continues to provoke meaningful conversation about sustainability and diversity, without using these concepts as buzzwords for the benefit of the brand. Her work, like other emerging British designers, acts as a reminder that fashion must be a part of the cultural conversation, or it runs the risk of being left behind.