Meet the chic sikh

Jewelry designer an unlikely icon of fashion sense

by Martin Webb

Waris Ahluwalia has some good anecdotes. Like the one where Willem Dafoe asks him if it’s OK to give Spike Lee his number, and a couple of hours later he gets a call and the voice at the other end of the line says “Hey Waris, it’s Spike Lee,” and asks him to audition for his upcoming blockbuster bank heist movie “Inside Man.” Waris got the part — as a terrified bank clerk — despite admitting to a pretty lame ability to scream. The Boston Globe described him as “excellent” in its review.

All this wouldn’t be so remarkable if Waris was an aspiring actor, but he’s never taken an acting class: his day job is owner of House of Waris, an exclusive jewelry brand that is stocked by just five of the world’s snobbiest boutiques — including Loveless in Tokyo — and is regularly featured in dozens of top-flight fashion magazines.

With his long, wispy beard, tightly tied turban and unassuming manner, Waris is an unlikely globe-trotting style demagogue. The Japan Times spoke with him when he was in Japan last month to launch an accessories line designed for French fashion label A.P.C., as well as to talk business with the department stores and boutiques clamoring to get their hands on his exclusive merchandise.

He is most passionate when talking about the fine jewelry he makes in conjunction with metalworking artisans in the ancient Indian city of Jaipur. He sits alongside them for hours on end as they painstakingly craft each of his designs by hand.

“I’m just as honored to be working with Denzel Washington as I am with the guys in Jaipur,” he says. “Movie actors, yes they happen to be stars, but if you ask them they see themselves as craftsmen.”

Though House of Waris may be his main gig, when talking about his meteoric rise to fame, the movie business obviously features large.

“I don’t take any of this for granted,” he says. “I get this flash of appreciation from time to time.”

Waris got his screen break courtesy of Wes Anderson, who cast him in his 2004 “The Life Aquatic.” His latest gig was also with Anderson, in an epic American Express commercial, and he will probably feature in Anderson’s upcoming “The Darjeeling Limited.”

Born Waris Singh Ahluwalia, the accidental Indian icon started out on the road to cooldom as a bearded, turbaned, teetotalling club kid in New York. He then went through a succession of “creative experiences” before coming up with House of Waris through a series of chance encounters. Back in those days, when asked what he did, he would reply “explorer.”

At that time, he says he found himself in “a community of people that allow for curiosity and exploration.” The only obvious reminder of the time is a pierced tongue, and a circle of high-flying friends.

“I just never said ‘no’ to anything. I’ve done runway shows — this isn’t a look you associate with the catwalk, but this is who I am, openness, honesty, these are the principles I’ve had. Adhering to them is what has brought me to this table, talking with you,” he says. “None of this is contrived. I’m just doing what I want to do, I’m not trying to meet some demand or fill a niche.”

Asked to more deeply expalin the secret of his success, he says, “Trust your instinct, and don’t say ‘no’ to anything . . . of course, you don’t say ‘no’ to Spike Lee.”

Though he describes New York as “the place that gave me life. There’s pulsating energy, and I still feel it like somebody who is spending their first day there.” Meanwhile, he says of Tokyo that he’s “totally enamored and definitely coming back soon.”

But how can he reconcile his jetsetting, super-cool creator status — complete with gorgeous Italian girlfriend — with his traditional-minded family upbringing?

“Fame gives you a whole new set of standards,” he says. “My family said to me ‘You’re different from us now Waris. You don’t have to abide by the same rules as we do anymore.’ “

And what does he intend to do with his newfound fame? “Coolness? This thing I’ve become, well, I want to use that to create something. The bottom line is, just so we’re clear, I’m having so much fun doing this.”

With such a charmed life, who wouldn’t be?