Why Swara Bhaskar, Mithila Palkar are gaga over bootstrapped fashion startup Inaaya
From dreaming of being a designer, to having her own premium label, Shivangi Lahoty’s journey is noteworthy since she decided to take the plunge into starting her own brand Inaaya almost right out of college.
Ahmedabad and Mumbai-based designer Shivangi decided she wanted to study fashion when she was just eight. She says she realised this when her father brought home a magazine with renowned designer Ritu Kumar on the cover, and explained who she was.
Cutting out fashion images from newspapers, especially those of couture worn by Tarun Tahiliani’s muse Shilpa Shetty, and egged on by her ever-supportive father to follow her heart, Shivangi’s path was clear from the start.
“Bauji (my father) not only introduced me to the profession, but also supported my dreams and vision. At an age when kids are confused, have multiple ambitions and parents have their own plans for them, both my parents let me be. His biggest gift to me was his belief in me,” she adds.
Fashion with a conscience
As a student in National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Mumbai, Shivangi had the opportunity to work with a host of karigars who would help them with their projects. Maintaining a friendly rapport with them made it easier for her to go back to them for Inaaya.
At present, Inaaya works with handloom fabrics sourced directly from Kolkata, Bhagalpur, Kota, Maheshwar, and Hyderabad, and ensures fair wages for their karigars (artisans). Shivani splits her time travelling between Ahmedabad, where she has her flagship store, and Mumbai, where a lot of Inaaya’s sampling happens.
Inaaya has incorporated upcycling as a part of the brand’s identity as well, right from their tyre seats to their potlis. Shivangi says that her drive for upcycling began during her days at NIFT, when she visited slums to source her embroidery samples from local karigars and was taken aback by the huge landfills teeming with discarded fabric. She also recalls being frustrated with students using and throwing out fabrics without a second thought while studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), New York.
“I like saving every bit of fabric possible. And if I can make something out of them, I might as well do so,” she adds.
From a rocky start to a smoother road
Graduated from NIFT in 2015, Shivangi worked as a senior designer at Ensemble by Tarun Tahiliani for around six months, before quitting and starting Inaaya & Co. with her earnings.
“I was also a full-time blogger when I started Inaaya, and I knew that I could fall back on that if something went wrong. Although there was a fear of failure and uncertainty, I had a back-up plan for the worst-case scenario. And since I hadn’t banked upon anyone to fund Inaaya, I felt less pressured and accountable in case things didn’t go as planned,” says Shivangi.
‘Inaaya’ was the pen name Shivangi used for her blog, and was also what her final design project at college was called. “It felt very organic to name my brand ‘Inaaya’, because it has been with me for nearly a decade,” she explains.
To begin with, Shivangi ran the whole show by herself, managing everything from designing to booking exhibition stalls and coordinating with customers, but eventually recruited two full-time employees. She is now looking forward to having her mother and sister-in-law on board, turning Inaaya into a family business.
“I have faced many challenges as a startup, but the toughest would have to be the first fashion show that we did in 2016,” says Shivangi, recalling the huge show for which Inaaya had supplied clothes within just 72 hours. However, they weren’t credited for any of the apparel when it was covered by the media.
“I was 23 years old, and had slogged day and night for the show, so I was pretty disappointed and heartbroken. However, that didn’t dampen my spirits for long, because I took a step back and looked at the larger picture,” she adds.
The fashion industry, cut-throat may it be, is Shivangi’s source of inspiration. She says,
“There are so many women who’ve entered the fashion industry in the last few decades and I am so grateful to all the women who’ve paved the path. Anita Dongre, in particular, has been my role model since the beginning. I have always admired her business skills."
A little goes a long way
Shivangi says that her initial marketing strategy of getting digital influencers to promote Inaaya when it was launched worked in her favour.
As the brand started growing, she was able to reach out to celebrities like Swara Bhaskar and Mithila Palkar, among others, to showcase Inaaya. She says many of them have now become regular shoppers of the brand.
Actor Swara Bhaskar wearing a dress by Inaaya
Actor Mithila Palkar sports a pair of earrings and a dress by Inaaya
“Social media has helped me a lot with reaching out to celebrities. Earlier it was only possible through PR agencies and such, but today you can just connect with a celebrity online and say you’d like to send them your products. If they like them, they might give you a shout-out, but it’s completely up to them. There have been instances where I have sent hampers to other celebrities, but they haven’t paid it any heed, and that’s okay,” explains Shivangi.
Shivangi also has a YouTube channel with 14,000 subscribers, where she talks about clients, entrepreneurs, and fashion, and also uses it as a platform to promote Inaaya.
Despite the challenges and constant travel she feels it’s all worth it. She says,
“It’s rigorous, and often requires us to stay awake working till dawn to meet deadlines, but it’s rewarding. It’s a very fulfilling feeling when you’re doing something you love and are passionate about."
Looking back at Inaaya’s growth over the years, Shivangi says she is much more confident about everything involved in running the business now. “It’s almost like we’re on auto-pilot mode at the store now,” she adds.
Customers and critics
“Our target audience is every woman who wants to experience comfortable clothing in pastel hues and wants to feel young. Inaaya is a name that is becoming synonymous with vacation wear in India, and our clients love wearing our clothes for their holidays,” says Shivangi.
She says that their clients are their best critics, and that the feedback they have received over the years from different exhibitions, cities and seasons, has helped them incorporate newer and better styles.
An apparel set by Inaaya
A pair of earrings by Inaaya
But while the rest of the world operates online right off the bat, Shivangi has still chosen to promote offline up until now, despite knowing that having an online presence would greatly contribute to Inaaya’s growth and revenue.
Shivangi says there are two reasons for this - one being the initial lack of space for inventory, and the other being their expensive price range (between Rs 1,500 and Rs 8,000) that could cause hesitation among online shoppers.
“Now that we have established our physical store in Ahmedabad and have a certain amount of credibility, we are working towards launching the website by the end of May this year,” she adds.
What the future looks like
Shivangi plans to open her second store in either Mumbai or Goa by the end of 2019.
She says that during a show in Goa last year, they had a lot of resellers from the US placing huge orders for Inaaya’s products, and they now supply apparel to a few stores in Sacramento, California.
Inaaya is working towards entering the Singapore and Dubai markets in 2019. Shivangi also wants to add kidswear and menswear to their catalogues. Additionally, they are looking at launching a sub-brand this year, which will lean towards contemporary Indian wear.
Words of advice
Shivangi says her motto is to always make something that she would wear herself, because her art is a reflection of how she expresses herself, and finding like-minded people will follow no matter what. To everyone just starting out and looking for the right direction to head in, Shivangi has some advice:
“When you start out, you would think it’s all hunky-dory, but there will come a point where you’re stressed and start second-guessing yourself. But everyone has their own timeline, with some taking longer than others, and that’s okay, because it’s not a competition. Keep doing what you love doing with dedication every single day. Success will follow.”