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As he tells it, Waris Ahluwalia was just walking down the street when fortune found him. He was in Los Angeles, wearing diamond rings of his own design, and had stepped into the high-end store Maxfield when his work caught the eye of their buyer. He was then in his late twenties. The meeting that would launch his career as a jewelry designer, and his company, House of Waris, was not the culmination of years of training in design or metalworking. This part of his story—there are many parts—smacks of that classic trope: Big shot discovers new talent and the rest is history.

How Ahluwalia went from making jewelry, to acting in films, to where he is now—working with conservationist organizations to protect elephant populations in Asia—is a winding path with an invisible compass. “To some degree, I was lucky,” he says. “But I chose to go down that path. Nothing was handed to me.”

Ahluwalia gets the question “What do you do?” fairly often. He’s been called a Renaissance man, a polymath, a multi-hyphenate actor/activist/designer/dandy/man-about-town; but labels, he believes, are more about the labeler, than the labeled. “We take them on and then that becomes our construct. So I try not to have a construct.”

He is tall, lanky, handsome, and often dressed in bespoke suits; or, today, in the sunny backyard of the café and clothing store Hesperios in New York City, in a sweatshirt and jeans that somehow still stand out. You may recognize him from one of his many roles as an actor—in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Grand Budapest Hotel; Spike Lee’s Inside Man; and most recently, Natasha Lyonne’s Netflix series Russian Doll. Or perhaps you saw him on the news: In 2013, an ad he appeared in for the Gap prompted a conversation about racial and religious prejudice after it was defaced with racist comments; and, in 2016, media outlets covered his detention at Mexico City International Airport after he refused to remove his turban, a religious article for Sikh men. In New York, and elsewhere, he is a fixture at parties and fashion shows. His is the kind of amorphous public persona that might irk someone determined to be known only for the seriousness of their work. Such a perception doesn’t seem to bother him. “The outside world gets confused unless you have a role to play,” he says.

Ahluwalia was born in Amritsar, Punjab, India, in 1974, and moved with his parents to the south Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge when he was five. He attended the prestigious Brooklyn Tech High School, but when he thought about what he wanted to do afterward, he drew a blank. “I think that’s probably what led to me wanting to do everything [in my career],” he says. “I think it’s as a result of having no clue, early on.”

He attended Marist College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, pursuing a degree that matched his indecision—general studies. “My process was elimination, trying things and going, ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’ Biology class in ninth grade, and walking out of the class and thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be a doctor.’”

But there was one thing that had already piqued his interest—he just couldn’t major in it. Like many New York City teenagers with easy access to transportation, Ahluwalia found himself in famed clubs such as the Limelight and Save the Robots, where he and his similarly underage friends danced until the wee hours. It was New York in the early ’90s, before the M&M store became a central landmark of Times Square, and the nightlife—club kids and drag queens, strobe lights and smoke machines, extravagant costumes handmade for the occasion—is what he remembers as the first thing he was drawn to, a hint of how he might spend his life.

Though partying is certainly a common activity, for most, it’s not a job. But it makes perfect sense as the central passion of Ahluwalia’s life—the free-form creativity that would later solidify into a recognizable shape. After college, he once again found himself up late, out and about, in a community of creative souls, all trying to find their way in life and in the arts. It was those connections that helped him whittle down the infinity of possibilities he’d laid out for himself.

“If you can imagine, it’s 3 a.m. in a dark room in a club and you’re sitting with friends and all of a sudden [whatever you’re talking about] becomes a movie idea or a book idea,” he recalls. “There was less pressure, because you were just trying things, and it wasn’t yet available for the world to see and share.”

Ahluwalia needed inspiration, in part, because the first thing he’d tried had become dispiriting and untenable. He’d started a nonprofit geared toward educating young South Asians on safe sex and AIDS, with music and entertainment as the vehicle. Activism, with a spoonful of sugar. But as any nonprofit administrator knows, running such a fledgling enterprise is a challenge on all fronts. “It was such an uphill battle,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘There has to be a better way to make change. This is just too slow.’”

After the many ideas he’d thrown at the wall, the thing that stuck was jewelry—dazzling rings and earrings and pendants, like those brilliant costumes he’d once seen on the dance floor. He drew a design; a friend of a friend took it to a manufacturer. Those free-flowing, twilight conversations had yielded something he could hold.

Entering the design world, he wanted to marry the yin and yang of his life: partying and purpose, celebration and humanity. Jewelry, he hoped, would allow him to do that. He saw it as a means of pursuing collaborations with friends—of taking his relationships beyond the dinner table. House of Waris became that platform. The company later expanded into textiles, and has hosted numerous fundraisers and pop-up projects. Ahluwalia’s jewelry has sold in stores such as Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Colette, and Dover Street Market; he created a line for Forevermark. But for the last five years, Ahluwalia has been on what he calls a “sabbatical” from making jewelry.

Unlike most designers, he visited the mines from which jewels for his pieces were sourced. At one point, he was spending six months of the year in India, working daily with craftspeople, living with them, getting to know their families. There were no factories; the prices, which started at $2,000, were set by the craftspeople, quantified by their skill and labor, as well as the rarity of the stones used. He never sold to a store before visiting it. He is very confident and very clear: His company did not exploit its workers. But was it exploiting the earth?

“Our very existence is exploitation of the planet,” he explains. “Do you use a fork when you eat? It comes from mining. Regardless of the fact that I was lucky enough to be selling in the best stores in the world, I just wasn’t comfortable living with that disconnect.”

It wasn’t enough that he’d been to the mines, that the craftspeople had been properly compensated, that he was fastidious about following the chain of custody from the pit of the earth to the front of the store. There’s something about selling a $60,000 pair of earrings that can make even the most conscientious designer question their values. And if he was telling the truth, which he was committed to doing, no matter what, he actually couldn’t be sure where every element had originated. All he knew was that these resources belonged to nature, and humans—his least favorite animal—had grown wild in their entitlement to them.

He also realized that he had inadvertently put himself into rarified air. “The worst was when people would come up to me and say, ‘One day I hope to afford your jewelry,’” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘No, if you can’t afford it, don’t worry about it. There are better things to aspire to.’ But I was part of that same cycle now. I was part of that cycle of creating want in a very materialistic world.”

It was time to take a break.

“The outside world gets confused unless you have a role to play.”

Though Ahluwalia misses drawing and spending time with craftspeople, stepping back from design has freed him up to focus more on conservation. It’s something he’s passionate about, speaking in detail about what he calls “the human, planetary crisis.” Tangibly, that crisis is the ongoing destruction of our planet—not just climate change, but deforestation, overdevelopment and widespread killing of plant and animal species. Intellectually, it’s our collective unawareness of what the problem is: us.

For more than a decade, Ahluwalia has worked with the London-based nonprofit Elephant Family, whose mission, in part, is to facilitate coexistence between humans and elephants across Asia. “Human beings are terrible, terrible creatures,” he says with a laugh. When it comes to, say, elephant poaching, he points out that the messaging is all wrong. “It’s easier, as individuals, to think the problem is poaching, because there are bad guys and there are victims. But the overall problem is the fact that creatures in the wild are running out of wild spaces. [Humans’] very existence threatens the existence of all species because we require so many natural resources.”

He discovered Elephant Family while he was working with Wes Anderson on The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson asked him to make a pin that his character, a train steward, would wear on his uniform. Ahluwalia made an elephant, then searched for a charity to donate the proceeds to after he sold the pins commercially. And so began another collaboration, another celebration of life. The organization employs a team of conservationists who devise ways to protect the vulnerable elephant population from the conflicts that human presence has created. Ahluwalia’s official title is that of patron, a role that has encompassed fund- and consciousness-raising in the United States. In their most recent annual report, Elephant Family thanked him for his “guidance and friendship, together with his acute sense of aesthetics [that] have powered Elephant Family in so many inspiring ways.”

The awareness he wants to encourage goes beyond the particular issues facing wildlife. “Over time, we’ve been removed from ourselves, from each other, to create ‘the other,’” he says. “[First] the other is another human being, then the other becomes wildlife, becomes nature. We look at it as separate things when it needs to just be one.” This conviction is why, in the wake of the Gap ad defacement and his detainment in Mexico City, he felt a responsibility to speak to the wider issue of racial prejudice, drawing parallels between his own experience and the message behind Black Lives Matter.

“Humans tend to lean towards fear; it’s the easiest thing that they can attach to,” he said on the UK’s Channel 4 news program, shortly after the airport incident in Mexico. “The opposite is love, which takes nurturing and care, so it’s a lot more work.”

Love over fear; integrity over profit; unity over division: Ahluwalia knows these are challenging mandates. But beyond the injustice itself, he wants to find a more appealing way to present the issues. He is, after all, a designer. He is not being flip when he says, “We’re all dying. It’s okay. But how do we get past that? How do we celebrate?”

Ahluwalia’s next celebration is a line of organic teas and beverages, sourced from around the world. As when he went to the diamond mines or designed jewelry for an acting role that could also be a gift to charity, this project is about collaboration and maintaining a sense of innate wholeness. It’s also a way to make a product that is more affordable and accessible than his jewelry. He has been visiting tea estates around the world, seeing where the leaves are grown, cut and dried, and helping the estates’ proprietors convert their land into elephant-friendly territories.

“I’m forever trying to find how to give back with the action that you’re doing so it’s not an afterthought. The only way to make change is that what we’re doing now has to be part of the solution—it has to be built into the doing.”

Celebration and humanity. On a recent visit to his mother’s home in Brooklyn, he was reminded just how much those twin flames have meant to him. Rooting around, he found a flyer for a rave he and a friend had thrown in Manchester, while studying abroad in the UK. He’d forgotten all about the party, called Love Life. At the bottom of the flyer, it said, “All proceeds go to anti-racist causes.” It was a missive from his past saying, This is who you’ve always been. “We’re all dying,” he says again. “But if we can do it while we’re dancing? I don’t see the harm in that.”

“Humans tend to lean towards fear; it’s the easiest thing that they can attach to.”

“Humans tend to lean towards fear; it’s the easiest thing that they can attach to.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-Three

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