How Waris Ahluwalia Got His Groove Back
The jewelry maker and Wes Anderson collaborator needed a change. A tea company was born.
There’s a particular moment that we as a culture seem to be obsessed with. It’s where things change for a person, when they realize they’ve been doing things wrong and there has to be another path for them to go down. The crisis. The change of heart. The revelation. Saul Bellow’s Moses E. Herzog, Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” Bill Murray losing things in translation in Japan; there’s something riveting about the search for redemption, about trying to forgive yourself, about pushing the reset button and starting all over.
Waris Ahluwalia knows this.
He’s one of those people who has the sort of resume most of us would classify as a dream life: jewelry designer, model, guy whose face you’d recognize from Wes Anderson films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited. He’s one of the best-dressed people in the world! Anybody you might talk to who has met him will tell you how friendly he is. Ahluwalia, you’d think, wouldn’t need to have one of those epiphanic moments. But he did.
“I just started to feel a disconnect,” he says as he holds a pink ceramic cup. “You know, going to visit projects for the Elephant Family [an organization Ahluwalia works with to protect elephants in Asia] then going to visit diamond mines and seeing destruction.”
He takes a second. In that second I think about how much I appreciate his composure. I’ve been meditating for about a decade now, something Ahluwalia says he also does. I often wonder if all my time sitting still and following my breath will get me to a place where I am not only as relaxed inside as I appear on the outside, but I also put people around me at ease, like Ahluwalia does.
“It’s sort of like your work doesn’t really inform your own personal views, but you just accept it,” he says.
So he stopped. He had the moment and that moment led him to realize he needed to do something else. The thing nobody tells you, of course, is that having the moment and deciding to go in a different direction can truly mean that you’ll experience discomfort. For Ahluwalia, it was financial, but it was also his personal life: a breakup, losing a cousin he was really close to, his mother getting into a car accident. Some of those things were out of his control, others weren’t. But the collection of experiences helped him put together the philosophy behind his new venture that came out of all of that: House of Waris Botanicals, a tea company that operates out of a small storefront in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood that feels like a chamber of good vibes.
“Every day you have the choice to make of how you’re going to approach that day, and how you’re going to approach the rest of your life. Just to put it into some sort of framework for you and some sort of context, how many summers do you think you have left?” He tells me I don’t have to answer that, but I tell him it is something I think about pretty often.
“How do you want to live those summers? How many winters? How many falls? How many springs? There is a finite amount and you have that ability to make that decision of how you want to live the rest of your days, right? And so it’s about celebration. I’m not saying we don’t suffer and there’s no loss … I’m not coming from a place of just saying, ‘Hey, let’s party, celebrate.’ No. You have to take those things and keep moving.”
Celebration, along with access and education, are the three pillars of what Ahluwalia is trying to accomplish. But to get there, he had to fall apart. He said that friends recommended acupuncturists, sound healers and other practitioners. One told him to go see an herbalist. That experience proved to be the change he was looking for. Soon that herbalist turned into a team of them, working alongside Ahluwalia to come up with perfect blends, not just tea bags with his name on it. Something different. “I thought I was just going to be giving my herbalists the task and they would come back and we would have something finished and done.”
But then something happened.
“Just as I was in there with my craftsmen working with the jewelers and goldsmiths with every detail, I was here going, ‘The hibiscus needs to come down five percent. The, you know, licorice needs to come up eight percent.’”
Ahluwalia started finding his way down a new path. It wasn’t easy: he talks about his obsessive nature, and scrapping months of work because he wasn’t satisfied with what he and his team had come up with, the worry that the self-funded operation wasn’t bringing in any money.
But he got to a place of contentment, and it shows in the products he’s so diligently conceived. The blend Love Conquers All brought a smile to my face upon first sip; I felt almost silly being so giddy about taking a sip of tea, and thought I’d love to have those sorts of moments all the time. The scent of hibiscus, pomegranate and cinnamon hitting my nose, Ahluwalia grinning because I’m so obviously enjoying what he’s made.
“That, my friend, took two years to make,” he notes.
The grand plan is to grow House of Waris Botanicals, but to do it in a way that has celebration, access and education propping up the operation. He wants to gexpand, but as Ahluwalia says, the “botanical lab” will serve as a place where people can walk in and experience and engage the tea and the ideas behind them. One way Ahluwalia looks to accomplish that is by bringing in trained herbalists to talk with anyone who comes through the door. “There is nowhere in the city, in all of Manhattan, where you can walk in and meet an herbalist off the street,” he notes as the conversation moves into the American medical establishment’s shunning of herbal medicine for pharmaceuticals over the last century. “When the pharmaceuticals came into being, that became the focus and herbal medicine was brushed under the rug and was positioned as alternative, was positioned as ineffective, was positioned as risky, when people had been doing it for thousands of years.”
The most important thing to Ahluwalia, besides those three pillars, is reducing stress. He brings up another tragedy in his life: his father dying when Ahluwalia was only 20. He says the stress is what killed him. Stress, the thing Ahluwalia is so fixed on cutting from his life and the lives of anybody he can, is ultimately what led him to this place. Everything was stressing him out: the state of the world, family members dying, his old career, the relationship falling apart. The stress broke him, but he put himself back together. When he did, he was a little stronger, wiser. He’d had the moment, and was ready to move on.
Now, with his botanical lab, a little place that feels so hidden from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, he thinks he can offer respite from the stress, an elixir. “Trying to be healthy in New York is so expensive,” he says. So whatever he can do, whether it’s the herbalists coming in or just providing a place for people to sit and relax, is how he believes he can help guide people to a different place, to help them not just have that one moment, but to experience something new and exciting all the time, to take that different route, not just once, but every single day. To not make change into something that should be viewed as a crisis.
“There has to be a reason for our existence, and not just, ‘I need something to do.’ I have plenty to do,” he says before listing off the things he could be doing with his time to make a living — the things people might expect of him, like making more jewelry or writing movies. But that’s not where Ahluwalia wants to go.
“What I’m not interested in is what you want; I’m interested in what humanity needs.”