To call Waris Singh Ahluwalia a renaissance man would not be an exaggeration. In his 36 years, he’s attempted to start a music magazine, organised rave parties, designed opulent jewellery for the rich and famous and managed to carve out a niche for himself as an actor, appearing in three major Hollywood films under acclaimed directors Wes Anderson and Spike Lee.
Waris was born in Amritsar, grew up in Brooklyn and now makes his home in Manhattan’s Tony West Village. Spare and immaculately put together in a dark brown suit, black turban and striking Lincoln green leather gloves, he cuts a debonair figure, even among the hyper-fashionable crowds of the Village.
He moved from Amritsar to New York as a five-year-old and grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
“I was perhaps the only Indian kid in my elementary school, forget about other Sikh kids,” he says. Growing up in Brooklyn, away from the insulating Sikh communities in other parts of New York, Waris missed having friends from a similar cultural background.
“I used to attend Sikh camps in the summer and meet Sikh kids from other parts of the country and what always amazed me was the fact that here were these kids growing up together with others like them. I remember, at one point, pleading with my parents to move us to Maryland so I could hang out with friends I’d made at camp.”
College life, at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, was also somewhat alienating for Waris.
“Again, I was the one of only a handful of Sikh or Indian or even South Asian students there. I was lazy about wearing my turban, usually preferring to go to class in a bandanna, partly because it was easier but also because I guess I didn’t want to stand out so much at a college where I was the only Sikh student,” he says.
All that changed when Waris took a year abroad at the University of Manchester. “I was blown away by the vibrant Sikh culture in England and being surrounded by so many other young turbaned Sikhs made me proud and I started wearing my turban everyday.”
After the year abroad, he returned to New York and after just two job interviews at advertising agencies, decided that a regular job wasn’t what he wanted. He tried his hand at various things deciding to channel his love for music into a career. He attempted to start a music magazine, abandoning that project a year into it when he realised it wasn’t something he wanted to do.
He then got involved in organising parties and events, going out most nights of the week with friends to clubs and concerts.
“It was here that I got exposed to the New York art scene, meeting career artists who were doing wonderful, creative things. So, in many ways this was my real education.”
This led to Waris being involved with the New York Yearbook Project which was like a high school yearbook for the arts in New York. “I did a lot of exploring in my 20’s trying many different things in my 20s trying many different things to find what it is that I wanted to do with my life. I like to get involved in things and if they hold me for more than a day, I need to know how it works.”
In the 1990s, while the U.S. was in the grips of a recession, Waris decided on a lark that he wanted to wear diamonds. “It was a kind of gesture of social commentary,” he says. “We were going through a recession, everyone was complaining about how bad things were, but I wanted to go the opposite way. So, I contacted a friend who worked in New York’s jewellery district and had him make some diamond rings of my own design for me.”
That winter, while in Los Angeles escaping the frigid New York winter, Waris went into Maxfield’s, the exclusive boutique that is frequented by Hollywood stars. The owner saw the diamond rings Waris was wearing and asked about them. One thing led to another and Waris walked out of Maxfield’s with an order for rings just like the ones he was wearing to be delivered within a week. When he supplied the store with the rings, they sold out. Pretty soon, they got noticed and written about by the fashion press and his career as a jewellery designer was born.
“When I started, I had no knowledge of jewellery design,” he says. “I would just give the craftsmen my sketches and they would give me a finished piece but because of my natural inclination for needing to know how things are made, for getting intimately involved with every project, I jumped into it and learnt the business from the inside out.”
Today, Waris works with the best craftsmen in Italy and India to create his acclaimed pieces and they are sold at the most exclusive stores around the world including at Barney’s, New York and Collete in Paris under his brand, House of Waris. His pieces sell from $1200 to $150,000 and although House of Waris prefers to keep their client list confidential, celebrities like Kate Hudson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Wes Anderson have been seen sporting Waris’ creations.
Last year, he was among the designers nominated to receive the prestigious Vogue Fashion Fund Award for young designers.
Waris’ acting career started by similar happenstance. In 2003, he was having dinner with Hollywood director Wes Anderson and Anderson asked him if he would appear in his next movie.
“I had no acting experience but I reasoned that if Wes is asking me to be in his film; if he is confident that I can do this, then I’m not going to question his judgment. I’ve never said no to an adventure and that’s why I agreed.”
Anderson sent Waris the script and a few weeks later left for Italy for five months to shoot the critically acclaimed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. “I was told how tough being in a Hollywood production was, how everyone was so hard on you and pushed you to perform, but my experience was completely the opposite. Everyone on the set was super-supportive. The cinematographer would come up to me after the shot and say things like `that was fantastic … it looked like a Caravaggio painting’ and so on,” he says.
And while shooting the film in Italy, Waris met his girlfriend of six years, Chiara Clemente, the daughter of renowned painter Francesco Clemente. They have been inseparable ever since.
Waris has since appeared in two more Hollywood films – Spike Lee’s Inside Man and The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson. The multi-faceted man continues to be involved in films. He’s worked on Io Sono Amore, an Italian film that premiered at the Venice film festival recently and will hit theatres later this year and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Undead, an independent film.
He continues to work on his jewellery and plans on introducing two new categories of products this year under his label, House of Waris.
There are also plans to open the first House of Waris flagship store.
“House of Waris is about working with the best craftsmen in the world and creating beautiful things,” he says. “Jewellery is intimate – when it’s made in Old Rome in a cave or in Rajasthan, there’s a romance to it, a story behind it and I make jewellery because I want to experience that. More than a jeweller, more than anything else, first and foremost I’m a storyteller.”