Waris Ahluwalia Talks Botanicals, Opening A Zero-Proof Bar In New York And Building A Movement
It’s hard to keep up with a man who does it all. Waris Ahluwalia is many things—actor, activist, designer of clothing, fine jewellery and ceramics—but, at the end of the day, he is a storyteller. And his latest tale is House of Waris Botanicals, a collection of teas and elixirs.
“Tea has been connecting people for centuries. In every indigenous culture across the planet, tea has always served a purpose. It was a way to bond and a way to heal,” says Ahluwalia. We’re at his office in New York’s Lower East Side, and I’m sipping one of his early blends from a rustic steel cup—it’s a mix of turmeric, black pepper, rooibos, ginger, honeybush, cinnamon and bee pollen, and it feels like a hug from the inside.
House of Waris has been producing tea since 2010, but after spending the last few years working with herbalists, sourcing teas and unearthing ancient customs in places like Tamil Nadu in southern India, Ahluwalia saw an opportunity to dig deeper.
“I thought, wait a minute, why am I doing Earl Grey? That just puts me in the line of every other tea company, where I'm just in marketing and sourcing. So instead, we’re creating blends that give us the chance to be better—that address some very human needs: love, sleep, immunity, digestion, detox, clarity and beauty. I could personally use help in all of those,” explains Ahluwalia, adding that it took his own falling apart for this new path to fall into place.
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A Shift in Perspective
In 2013, after years of collaborating with coveted fashion brands including A.P.C., Kenzo and The Kooples, showing at New York Fashion Week and designing for his fine jewellery label, House of Waris, he hit a wall in what he described as a ‘philosophical disconnect’.
“We were doing scarves, fashion, and other beautiful stuff, working with craftsmen in Rome, in Jaipur, in Bangkok. It was an incredible exchange. I knew all my craftsmen, I knew all their children. We didn't work with factories. We worked with individuals and families,” he says. “These products were going to incredible stores like Dover Street Market, On Pedder in Hong Kong and Colette in Paris. These are some of the best stores in the world, but when it would sit on that counter, it was just expensive jewellery. It was just another thing that created desire and material lust.”
The flashiness of the fashion world began to lose its lustre, and Ahluwalia found himself searching for a new source of light. “I want an alignment in everything that I do. I want my actions to reflect my thoughts. And I also didn't want to be part of a system that just creates more products, more goods, that doesn't have a larger conversation outside of that.”
So he set off for Thailand, where he spent a month at a yoga and meditation retreat to reset and relearn what it means to simply be, and perhaps most importantly, to slow down.
“When I had that implosion, it was just layers and layers and layers of toxicity and there was no time for self-care,” explains Ahluwalia. “We wake up, we go straight into work mode, we eat—maybe it’s healthy, maybe it isn’t—and even when we leave work, most people are plagued with financial pressures, relationship pressures, work pressures. Then you go and have a drink, or you’re on medication because you haven’t been looking after yourself. For so long we have accepted that we need shortcuts, and that is what’s led us to the dire situation of climate issues and poor health.”
The man has a point. Many illnesses are worsened by stress, and today we can often spend 30 minutes mindlessly scrolling through social media, then convince ourselves we can’t take five to simply be mindful of our breath. With House of Waris Botanicals, the broader aim is to help people break the cycle—just as Ahluwalia did his own.
“That's what our product does. It encourages you to slow down. I want to help you figure out your ritual. Something beautiful you can do to incorporate into your day, your life. Let’s create opportunities for gathering. Because that is what heals people in cities, those moments.”
The eureka moment for Ahluwalia came in 2010, when he was invited to stage a pop-up shop under the High Line in New York’s Chelsea neighbourhood. People from all walks of life gathered, artists took up residence, his mother served tea every day and, before he knew it, the space took on a life of its own—what was intended to be a store evolved into a creative space that nurtured a community.
“It became a high-vibrational oasis in the middle of a mad, mad city. We created this thing that really affected people,” he remembers. It wasn’t long after that he began his journey into the world of tea.
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Of Kingdoms and Kindness
“Whenever someone would ask me, as a jewellery designer, what's your inspiration this season? I would just say love and history. I'm just trying to understand love and trying to understand history. And I still am, but now I’m doing that through tea and the culture around it,” he says. As well as trekking the world to source the highest-quality ingredients and explore tea culture in different lands and kingdoms, Ahluwalia has put his heart into every stage of the process—from designing the brand’s unique tin to creating custom ceramics and, of course, experimenting with blends, each designed to offer its own healing properties to “add a little beauty and magic to your day.”
“In my mind, I'm not actually doing anything different. It’s just my ingredients are different. It's not gold anymore. Now it's a tea leaf, or it's chamomile or reishi or ashwagandha,” he adds.
Currently, House of Waris Botanicals offers a concise collection of three adaptogenic blends: Love Conquers All, an aphrodisiac blend of heart-opening rose, damiana, saffron and shatavari; Night of Nights, a soothing combination of chamomile, linden blossom and passionflower; and Sweet Clarity, an energising concoction of rhodiola, holy basil and ginger root.
“This is the road to botanicals. It's all very grounding. Tea has been the longest-running wellness product in the world outside of water. So what we’re offering is a new approach to wellness. It's bigger than wellness. I'm not in the wellness business—I'm in the celebration business. Celebrating life, celebrating humanity, celebrating plants, celebrating how all those can work together.”
Ahluwalia was born in Amritsar in the foothills of the Himalayas before he moved to New York city at age five. So as much as being a new business and a new philosophical path, House of Waris Botanicals is also a homecoming for Ahluwalia—a way to bridge his heritage with the city that has embraced him.
His next step is the opening of a botanicals bar in Chelsea later this year—a modern tea room where he hopes to recreate the magic he found in that pop-up under the High Line, but on a grander scale. Serving zero proof (read: zero alcohol) drinks, the botanical bar will offer an alternative for those who don't feel like drinking, but still want to go for a night out with friends.
“We’re not saying don't drink ever. The problem is what's on offer. If you don't want to drink, the options are terrible. It’s basically sparkling water, cranberry juice or a sugary mocktail,” says Ahluwalia, growing increasingly excited as he tells me about the project. “What if there was another way? That's all we're saying. That's our experiment. That's the theory that we're putting out there. That if people are given another option in a beautiful way, a thoughtful and sexy way, they may take it. They may walk down that path.”
The sleek space will be House of Waris Botanicals incarnate—design-focused, soul-serving and committed to cultivating community. At the end of the day, Ahluwalia says that everything he puts his time and heart into has three key pillars: access, education and celebration.
“Slowing down is part of that celebration. That's a celebration of you. A celebration of your time on this planet. It's how you look after yourself. It's how you look after your loved ones. It's how you look after your community. And so that's what our space and our tea is about, that’s what I hope people feel when they come into our little oasis.”
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