Interview by Mallika Chandra. Photographs by Denver Rodrigues. Styled by Neelam Ahooja. Assisted by Akanksha Pandey.
Tunic top, from COS; pants, shoes both from The Row; clutch bag, from Clare Vivier.
How often do we still hear of professions not pursued, opportunities not taken up, or passions left unfulfilled by the women we know or encounter? And when it comes to choosing a career in social media over continuing in a more “acceptable” line of work, the dilemma is compounded by the perceived pressure of needing tangible achievements before you hit your thirties – leaving most older women convinced that they are well past the “expiration date” to venture into this fast-paced, trend-driven world that prioritises youth.
At 51, Toronto-based fashion influencer and blogger Neelam Ahooja – who is also a mother of two and a qualified chartered accountant – isn’t allowing these ageist notions to deter her. Like many born to immigrant parents, she was advised to choose a traditional career path, and her love for fashion didn’t initially translate into a viable option. It was only when her kids grew up that her “creative dam broke”, she says.
Ahooja launched her Instagram account (@neelam.ahooja) in December 2012. Today, she dispenses quick styling advice to 79K followers, with longer videos on her YouTube channel, while sharing her extensive collection of luxury pieces (both second-hand and new) from The Row, a brand that has played a significant role in shaping her minimalist personal style.
Shirt, from Massimo Dutti; belt, clutch bag; both from The Row; bracelet, from Celine.
Although this influencer is certainly “influencing” (we will be trying her signature shirt-layering technique), she does so with the kind of restraint that signals a sense of comfort with who she is: a woman not inhibited by the need to look young. And perhaps it isn’t so much her unfussy aesthetic and effortless chicness that keeps her fashion-forward follower count growing as the fact that she’s advocating for self-expression and acceptance by showing how simply being yourself is enough.
In an exclusive with Verve, Ahooja reflects on how she got her start and all that she is yet to learn and explore in her creative pursuits.
Edited excerpts from the conversation….
Did you always have a strong fashion voice? Or did it grow over time?
I’m a textbook Libra – left-handed too – and was organically drawn to the arts. I’m a classically trained Bharatanatyam dancer, I played the piano, dabbled in painting and immersed myself in fashion whenever I could. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been designing in my head and experimenting with style whenever an opportunity presented itself. I had to temper my sartorial spirit to stay focused on academics.
Coat, shoes, both from The Row; pants, from Helmut Lang; scarf, from Dries Van Noten.
What drew you to styling as a career?
As the daughter of immigrants, I was advised to choose a traditional career path with a guaranteed income (I chose chartered accountancy). Fashion burned in my heart, but I didn’t see it as a viable career option. This passion was just waiting to be unleashed. When my kids grew up, my creative dam broke; I began to share more of my styled self on Instagram, and it was well received. That turned into something of a career. My passion organically led me to this place – and I’m blessed to be able to do it.
How would you say your childhood and upbringing have influenced your current style and aesthetic?
I grew up in the ’70s and spent much of my free time flipping through the latest fashion magazines, devouring every detail. And before the age of the influencer, we had runway models and Hollywood stars to look to for style inspiration. By the time I was a teen, some successful sitcoms had made their mark and one character in particular really spoke to me – Denise Huxtable [played by Lisa Bonet on The Cosby Show ]. She, like me, was a petite woman of colour with curls and a quirky sense of fashion – somewhere between boho chic and boy meets girl – it resonated.
Shirt, from Julie Josephine Essentials; coat, belt bag, both from The Row; scarf, from Johnstons of Elgin.
What are your views on the influencing industry? Do you consider yourself a fashion influencer, and how did you find your unique voice on the internet?
I think the term “fashion influencer” has a stigma attached to it. We’re all influencers. I believe each of us has a gift to share – something to teach and something to learn. The issue with the fashion industry as a whole is the sheer volume of consumption and the resulting impact on the planet. I’m culpable as well, of course. To minimise my footprint, I’m shopping pre-owned, looking at sustainability in the brands I work with and the longevity of the pieces I buy – another reason I stay away from trends.
Yes, I do see myself as an influencer in fashion, as that’s my strength and what I feel I can help others with.
I was able to carve out a unique space online because there was a gap that needed to be filled. I’m a 51-year-old petite Indian woman with curly hair and an affinity for The Row; it’s a niche presence. I’m intensely passionate about minimalist luxury designs and that comes through. I think my individuality peeks through how I style from The Row, which isn’t always a direct copy from the runway. I’ll often get feedback from people who say, “I never thought to wear it that way.” When there’s an authenticity and purpose in your spirit, people will make space for it. I’m humbled by the open arms that received me.
I read somewhere that you grew up watching your mother dress in colourful saris with ornate designs. How did that influence your aesthetic?
My mom’s almari [cupboard] was like a candy shop. When she dressed up, I paid attention. Ornate suits and saris in vibrant tones, glittering jewels hanging from her ears and neck, and bangles layered to the elbow. It was magnificent.
My current aesthetic is much more minimal, but there’s always a little something that gives my ensemble an edge. An embellished or colourful piece, a Nehru collar, unconventional styling like a half-tucked shirt or an asymmetrical hem. That’s the Eastern influence. I still love embroidered pieces and am an avid collector of Dries Van Noten scarves. I recently scored a vintage one that I love (and the most brilliant Dries scarves are almost always made in India!).
Skirt, from AMI Paris; boots, from The Row.
Given the varied creative – sometimes colourful – influences of your childhood, what drew you to The Row as a collector? Why do you think you gravitated towards its minimalist luxury aesthetic?
There are a few mature brands in the minimal luxury category, but nothing resonated as seamlessly with me as The Row; it offers something different – they have an edge. Yes, it’s classy and elegant, but there’s always a little something that makes it feel a little “undone” in just the right proportion to balance out the look.
How do your curls and clothes act as an extension of your personality without being tied to your identity publicly?
My curls used to be an issue. I desperately wanted to fit in when I was young, and that was difficult because of how I looked. The ’70s in a small town in Canada wasn’t the easiest place to be for the child of Indian immigrants. That, coupled with a lack of proper curl care tools and products – there weren’t many options back then – and it made for a messy do. It took years to fine-tune the perfect recipe, but now that I have, I’m fully embracing my curls.
My height never really bothered me. I don’t think of either too much now, other than in a practical sense. When it rains, my head needs coverage, and when I’m looking at a lengthy coat, I have to be able to hem it or I won’t buy it.
Clothes are only one piece of the puzzle from a personality perspective. We’re all complex and layered, and I think it’s a mistake to assume we can gauge who a person is based on what they’re wearing. I tend to dress how I feel in the moment, so how I look may be a mood signal if nothing else – especially if I’m in sweatpants!
Tell us a bit more about how you approach sustainability.
I need to pay more attention to sustainability. I’m getting better at it. I shop pre-owned stuff (The RealReal is a favourite of mine) and I look for garments created with recycled materials where I can.
Given the price point of The Row, it would be interesting to hear about the financial aspect of collecting luxury fashion. How do you save up to invest in these pieces, and how do you sustain that?
That is an excellent question. Yes, it’s pricey, which means I have to budget – I can’t have it all. I make lists, check them twice, continually cull, shop pre-owned, sell pieces that I’m not wearing and don’t consider collectibles, and shamelessly tell my husband that the best gifts are The Row designated bills!
Besides high-end luxury pieces, what are some of the high-street brands you shop from to supplement your wardrobe? How do you create that high-low mix?
Massimo Dutti is a favourite, as well as COS and Arket, vintage Levi’s, and occasionally Mango. High-low, high-high, or low-low all work the same – the outfit has to flow; I don’t pay attention to the price when creating a look.
Which was the first piece you ever acquired from The Row?
My first piece was an oversized salmon-coloured viscose top with 3/4 sleeves. There wasn’t anything overtly special about it, but the quality and the cut were incredible for such a simple piece.
Tunic top, from Rag and Bone; vest, pants, both from La Collection; bracelet, from Celine; clutch bag, from Ela.
What advice do you give your followers across Instagram and YouTube, who may all come from different economic backgrounds?
I’m keenly aware that not everyone can afford The Row. I did not grow up affluent, and I understand what it means to worry about finances. I have a lot of gratitude for what I have and try to offer affordable alternatives when I can. I spend a lot of time going over the minute details of the items I review so that people can make informed purchasing decisions. I tell people to budget and make lists, and shop pre-owned. It saves their wallets and the planet.
In general, what are the different things you consider before deciding whether something is worth the value you’re paying for it?
First and foremost, I have to love it. Once I pass that point it’s a matter of how often I will wear it, and if I won’t, is it a collectible piece that will hold its value? I do consider the quality of the item of course, but when it comes to The Row, it’s a no-brainer.