Waris Ahluwalia Felt a ‘Philosophical Disconnect’ Brewing with His Fashion Brand, So He Turned to Tea
The Wes Anderson darling and design entrepreneur is launching an elevated herbal blend that promotes self-care and community.
Waris Ahluwalia is a creative polymath. He’s appeared in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as Spike Lee’s Inside Man and the Netflix hit Russian Doll. His design studio, HOUSE of WARIS, has made fine jewelry, ceramics, and textiles in partnership with artisans and craftspeople from around the world and in collaboration with brands like A.P.C., Forevermark, and Holt Renfrew. He’s been a model and muse for The Kooples and Gap, contributed to The Paris Review, and designed a twin set for Pringle of Scotland with his friend Tilda Swinton. Also with Swinton, he wrote and produced a short film directed by Call Me by Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, with music by Jason Schwartzman and starring Agyness Deyn. “Prolific” doesn’t begin to describe his career.
But when we call him up on a sunny Tuesday morning, we’re not planning to talk about any of that. Instead, we’re going to talk tea.
“Tea is about taking a moment in your day to reflect,” Ahluwalia told Vogue back in 2010. On the phone, he expands on what’s kept him interested in tea for nearly a decade now.
“For centuries, tea has brought people together. Tea has been about community. Tea has been about artistry. If you look at the history of Japanese design [for example], it flourished from tea rituals and the history and the business of tea.”
HOUSE of WARIS has been producing its own teas since 2010, and Ahluwalia has spent the past five years developing new herbal blends in partnership with herbalists and tea estates across the globe. He’s releasing the first one, a caffeine-free medley of turmeric, rooibos, ginger, honeybush, cinnamon, black pepper, and bee pollen that comes in a bespoke tin, on Kickstarter.
A pop-up tea room launches a yearslong pursuit
“It started by chance,” Ahluwalia says of his introduction to the tea business. Back in 2010, an arts nonprofit invited him to open a pop-up shop in a vacant space under the High Line, an elevated railroad track turned public park in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. “I didn’t want to do a jewelry or fashion-related pop-up there, and the space had indoor and outdoor [areas]. I thought, ‘Let’s do a tea room,’” he recalls. “Which I essentially just plucked out of thin air — as if a tea plant popped up and I plucked a leaf.”
He had no idea what running a tea room actually entailed, but he set about designing one with zeal, outfitting it with custom-made tea cups and trays, biscuits flown in from England, and tea pots from India. In the span of roughly three weeks he launched his own line of teas, sourced from the Himalayas, to serve in the space. “For 10 days we served tea to our friends and neighbors and tourists and community,” he says. “We did events, like friends who had book launches or [were] sharing art. My mother was there every day serving tea to people. We built this experience.”
The existential crisis that kicked off a new phase in his career
After the 10 days were up, “we packed the tea cups and tea pots into boxes and went back to our fashion business.” But in 2013, Ahluwalia, who is also involved in social justice and conservation projects — that’s how he met Anderson, at a peace rally in front of the United Nations — began to feel a “philosophical disconnect” between HOUSE of WARIS’s luxury designs (one of his rings might retail for thousands of dollars) and the desire for community engagement that has motivated his advocacy work.
“In that moment, I thought back to what we had done for 10 days and how we had brought people together,” he says. “People kept coming back. They wanted to have a cup of tea with a friend. They wanted to have a moment in a space that felt comfortable, a space that felt like it was built for them. It really became about community. How [could I] create something that encourages that?”
Nor did he want to simply create his own versions of Darjeeling and Assam and Earl Grey. “I realized that was just a sourcing exercise,” Ahluwalia says. “That’s what most tea companies are. They source. They put it into a tin that already exists, and then they design the label. I said, ‘I didn’t get into this to do that.’”
Building a blend from the ground up
Back to the drawing board he went. He began to work with tea estates and herbalists to develop brand-new blends that harness “the power of plants, this thing that has been under our noses for centuries.” The ingredients in the turmeric honeybush blend, which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients, come from just about everywhere, from Egypt to Oregon.
The blends weren’t the only thing he fixated on: He also wanted to design a unique vessel to store them in. “We’ve been designing things for a long time. [I realized] we’ve actually got to design our own tin. We could have just put it in a square tin, but I have a higher expectation of what we put into the world.”
Although they’re very different businesses, Ahluwalia sees a through line between his work in jewelry design and the creation of HOUSE of WARIS Botanicals. “We approach it with the same science and attention to detail,” he says. “In jewelry, I work in millimeters. I don’t work in approximations. If you’re off by half a millimeter, that stone will pop out. It’s taught me to not compromise. It’s taught me to push and to persist. Before it was [about] an earring; now it’s the function and taste and aroma [of the blend]. All those things have to be lined up. We’re still in the lab, and I’ll just keep going until we get it right.”
Botanical blends are an invitation to think and feel better
Beyond creating singular tea blends and a tin that looks like it belongs on a home decor Pinterest board, Ahluwalia hopes to use HOUSE of WARIS Botanicals to start a conversation about the importance of treating ourselves better.
“It’s ingrained in us to look for the shortcut, to look for the magic pill,” he says. “I want to talk about that thing we’ve been told, that everything can be fixed really quickly. It can’t. Stress has become a part of our daily existence that we just accept. It doesn’t need to be. What if we created better habits for ourselves? Allow yourself to slow down, allow yourself to breathe, allow yourself to build great habits.”
Stress has become a part of our daily existence that we just accept. It doesn’t need to be. What if we created better habits for ourselves? Allow yourself to slow down, allow yourself to breathe, allow yourself to build great habits.
His philosophy is informed by traditional medicine practices like Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, which incorporate herbal remedies. “Our innovation, which is hilarious, is just to give access to ancient sciences. It’s just to say, ‘Hey, look, it’s already here. It’s just been buried,’” he says.
“Our relationship to our own well-being, how we think about our own health, is broken. Our relationship to wellness is our relationship to ourselves, how we treat ourselves, how we treat our bodies. Do we treat ourselves with love? Do we treat ourselves with care? Do we allow ourselves to pause? We want to show people that they have power [over] their health.”
A $25 tin of tea may be too steep for some, but that doesn’t preclude thinking about how you can incorporate a little more self-care into your day. “When it comes to things we put in our body, things that really can make a difference in our lives, in longevity and in health, we’re nickel and diming ourselves,” Ahluwalia says. “I just think you can treat yourself better.”
— Rebecca Hiscott