With his traditional turban, full beard, and deadpan gaze, Waris Ahluwalia stands out even in a room of standouts. He wears his Sikh heritage with pride and regularly draws inspiration from his native India for his personal style, professional designs, and his latest endeavour: House of Waris Botanicals, which offers artisan teas and botanical blends for health and wellness.
“My work has always been about the merging of tradition and innovation,” says Waris. “Whether it was in design or telling stories, it’s living in that world where those two meet.”
Predominantly known as a fashion and jewellery designer and an actor who’s been featured in multiple Wes Anderson films, among others, Waris has built a reputation for authenticity and extraordinary design. In 2007, he founded House of Waris—a company dedicated to exploring design through craftsmanship.
Waris says his new botanicals line is a further extension of his commitment to creating a more thoughtful way of living. “I got tired of dealing with people’s wants, and decided to focus on humanity’s needs,” he says of his inspiration for starting the new business.
“It’s not really a tea company or beverage company. It was always intended as more of a solution company for what the UN has called the 21st-century epidemic—stress.”
According to the American Institute of Stress, approximately 120,000 people die as a direct result of work-related stress every year, and health care costs from stress-related maladies total $190 billion a year.
When the additional pressures of this viral epidemic are added to the equation, Waris says his approach to slowing down and appreciating beauty is more important than ever.
“It’s a horrible time. People are suffering, and it’s going to get worse. But this is when humanity rises to its best, right? When we’re striving, when we’re pushed. This is when people stand up, come together, and find strength in ourselves.”
The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a total global slowdown that everyone, including Waris, hopes to see come to an end. But Waris says we can learn from this experience and find ways to keep some aspects of this slower pace to life.
“We’re being forced into isolation, and we’re being forced into pausing and slowing down. So, this new world that we’re living in is what we’ve been talking about since the very beginning,” says Waris about his company’s philosophy of conscious living and mindful enjoyment.
But what does slowing down look like? On a small scale, it can just be a good cup of tea.
Instead of a cigarette break, Waris says, “Imagine if you just took a mindful breathing break with a cup of tea. Putting on the water to boil, scooping the tea, smelling the aroma, and letting it steep, sitting down for the cup—that’s 10 minutes. That’s a perfect 10 minutes of your time. That’s a beautiful act.”
On a larger scale, there are so many stresses that pile up throughout the day, that we have to take action on our mindset from the start and see how to better structure our environment and approach to life.
“Think about a normal person’s day,” Waris says. “You wake up with an alarm. So from the very moment you start your day, you’ve been jarred awake.”
“Then you get ready for work, and you may or may not eat healthy. You may not have time, right? And so you get on the train, and someone steps on your foot, or it’s really crowded, or you’re in a car and someone cuts you off—whatever it is, you’re already agitated. That’s how you start your day. This is life for millions of people.”
Waris thinks the stress of modern-day life has to be counteracted through better living, and in his case, through better business models.
“Even when we made our fashion, it was all about the process and how things were made. There was great care and great time and patience with each and every piece, whether it was a box or a hand-embroidered cashmere scarf or a diamond necklace, or now a blend of herbs or a tea. The process has always been the same for me and for the company,” he says.
The stresses and challenges, says Waris, “are never going to go away, but what can be done is how you respond to those things.”
A better you
“Our goals are just … to create opportunities for a better you,” says Waris of the botanicals venture. “That’s all. Just a better you, and what that means will evolve.”
House of Waris has always had limited product lines without a goal of indiscriminate growth. Waris himself rose to acclaim in the jewellery world after the jewellery store Maxfield’s in Los Angeles noticed a custom diamond ring Waris had made himself. The store immediately ordered a load and sold out right away. While the same limitations don’t apply to tea as they do diamonds, Waris maintains a “limited edition” air at his tea shop.
That sense of exclusivity and value come not from a marketing team but from the ground up in how Waris approaches his business.
“We’ve taken five years to get here. We sourced and we blended and we changed. … We found the type, designed the packaging, every little thing. We even found a ceramist up in Hudson to make our containers. We didn’t just go to a manufacturer in a factory.”
This dedication to craftsmanship runs through the entire process, from product development to presentation, and even to the ambience of his tea shop under the High Line in New York. There’s a humility in Waris’s love for quality that comes from his respect for traditional wisdom and the innate power of every individual.
Waris recognizes that for all the innovation he can bring to the table, it pales in comparison with the abilities of our bodies. “The most luxurious of our tools is our breath,” he says. “And we don’t know how to use it. We’re all shallow breathers. If we take a moment—or seek moments throughout the day—to breathe deeply, to find that strength within us, we’ve done it.”