Palak Shah, the #Badass female behind one of the most well known Indian labels Ekaya, synonymous with Banarasi textiles, has managed to make traditional look cool enough to appeal to the millennials while maintaining superior quality clubbed with exquisite designs to lure in the older generations.
In this exclusive interview with BeBadass she talks about her education, strengths, competitors, fair pricing, team play, 'Making It', birth of Thaan, along with everything in between & beyond.
Read on to learn how this Badass Boss is "Branding Banarasi"
Tell us a little something about yourself.
Even though I was born in Benares, I have spent very little time there. From a very young age of 8, I moved to a boarding school in Mussoorie. However, the little time that I did spend there during the early years and of course during my summer and winter breaks, I have spent it being surrounded beautiful textiles. From a very young age, I began accompanying my father to work. I used to just sit there, observing my father and of course, the beautiful fabrics. Perhaps, this is where my love affair with textiles first began. Post my schooling at Welhams, I moved to London to pursue my Bachelors in Business Management at Kings College London and came back to India to help take the family business forward and shape it for a new era. A deep curiosity for the world, along with fierce pride in Indian Textiles, developed during my childhood in Banaras combined with an inherent independence, gave me the courage to take Ekaya forward. After establishing the brand and successfully launching two stores in 2015 I left for Boston to pursue my MBA at Babson University since it had become important for me to exit the environment which was beginning to get saturated with similar run-of-the-mill ideas and a birds-eye perspective had become necessary. I returned in 2017 with a fresh mind and with a new vision for the brand and its journey and since then there has been no looking back.
You mentioned your family business is also related to textiles. Would you say this is an extension of the same, or a new beginning altogether?
The dynamic design explorations that Ekaya makes, are possible due to a strong supportive backend. The 70-year-old wholesale infrastructure established by my family in Banaras includes a community of 8000 weavers and Ekaya is an extension of that infrastructure.
The brand was established to change the outlook of how a sari store should look like by becoming the first space, which offers textile connoisseurs and enthusiasts the opportunity to re-discover and experience the unparalleled craftsmanship of traditional Banarasi textiles. Moreover, the brand was also launched out of the dire need to show the world what all Banaras had to offer. At Ekaya, we try to push the boundaries everyday in producing textiles, which have never been seen or imagined before.
Your education background is completely different from your current career. Was the transition difficult?
Textiles has always been a part of my identity even though I don’t have any prior experience or professional education in the textile field, I learned the ropes of running a handloom retail business on the job and by observing my father run his business while I was growing up. I have always been surrounded by beautiful fabrics and thus having an eye for good textiles came naturally to me, which has been the biggest advantage for me. Therefore, the transition hasn’t been that difficult. Of course, I did have to learn about the weaving process, but it all happened very naturally and on the job.
Also being from a completely different background has turned out to be such an advantage as I bring so much more to the table than just beautiful textiles and their presentation. The more I learn and the more I see, the more my vision expands. Also the brand wouldn’t have grown at such a breakneck speed, had I had my hands tied with designing.
"my father is my biggest critic and my biggest push, he keeps me grounded and on my toes yet pushes me to break all stereotypes and achieve the unachievable."
- Palak Shah ( Ekaya CEO )
What are your strengths that have helped you in your career so far?
One of most trusted and treasured secret weapon is my GUT. Be it a business decision to open a store or hire an employee, I always trust and listen to my gut. It has always helped me choose the solution that is most likely to propel my business goals forward. When you’re leading a business, you’re constantly surrounded by ideas, opinions, and strategies, but success is ultimately about the action you take. Listening to my ‘gut’ has helped me recognize new opportunities and alternative ways of doing things, It has helped me plan and achieve goals and at times restrain certain impulses.
Another strength is my team. For me, my employees come before anything. I feel a happy team leads to a successful business. At Ekaya, we are a family and have no hierarchy. We have an open-door policy. This has helped me in building a passionate environment for my employees and maintaining a good culture which has sustained the enthusiasm of my team and has resulted in a very low turnaround. I have learned that developing an awareness of how your team and you feel during work situations is very important for your business. Thus, leading to your team feeling ownership of your business.
"I think more important than being unique, is to be timeless, classic and authentic, as uniqueness fades after a poinT"
-- Palak, on Uniqueness and USPs.
How do you think your brand stands out from it’s counterparts like Raw Mango and Bageecha?
I think what sets us apart is first our history. this infrastructure created with a community of 8000 weavers in Banaras, allows me to continuously play around with traditional fabrics and regularly offer something new and innovative to my clients. A strong wholesale business also reduces inventory turnaround, giving Ekaya’s stores an outlet to clear old stock thus lowering the financial burden significantly. We’re also, in all capacity the first handloom brand to ever initiate collaborations between weavers and designers, this very thought out strategy not only provides the Banarasi client with a fresher and newer design, but is also a major step towards our ultimate aim to ‘Brand’ the Banarasi product.
This generation is more homegrown inclined than its western obsessed predecessor. Do you feel the wave of change with your customers? Youth is learning to love Indian textiles, but it’s expensive as well. Do you think you can bridge that gap?
Most definitely, I think the new generation is more aware and values authenticity. There is a new aesthetic sensibility emerging that favors homegrown and well-designed products.
However, a major challenge that heritage crafts and brands like Ekaya face are –‘How to prove their desire value, and justify their costs’, as they compete with longstanding expectations and prejudice of acquiring imitations of these crafts at lower rates and a faster timeline. Often to meet the demands of the market, the brands and artisans have to take a major hit on their profits. We do believe that brands don’t always need to tax handmade goods with unattainable/unjustified prices. A fair justified price point guarantees good performance in the market and Ekaya bridges the gap by ensuring all its products are priced fairly. Having said that, a handwoven artisan product does have a certain value, the customer has to understand that in the end it is an investment piece, designed to last generations.
Tell us about Thaan.
In my readiness to continuously challenge myself out of my own comfort zone, along with a quest to continuously redefine conventional ideas about textiles, has helped shape the concept of Ekaya Thaan. I conceived the idea to create a fabric archival destination in India during my MBA at Babson, Boston, for I believe that the handloom textile story in India needs to continuously evolve in order to sustain itself.
Launched recently in August 2017, ‘Thaan’ is focused towards creating a space which allows the Indian Textiles to exhibit their impeccable craftsmanship, inventiveness, and subtle yet noticeable sophistication. It is a space, which has something for everyone, a space which allows Indian textiles to be a part of your everyday life.
You recently went online. What do you think are the challenges attached?
Online is a good way to connect with your customers from all parts of India and abroad. However, it is tricky going online with handwoven products.
The first challenge is presentation, where you have to continuously keep improving on ways to showcase the product, as in a retail set-up its easier as the customer is able to ’feel’ the textures, which are an important part of Banarasi textiles. Secondly it makes us more vulnerable to counterfeits and cheap imitation copies.
Ekaya is well known in the fashion sphere. Do you think you have “Made It”? More importantly what is your definition of “Making It”?
I think it’s not about ‘making it or have made it’ you just have to continuously move forward and aim at doing something impactful, by making decisions that strive towards a positive change in whichever field you’re pursuing. Once you feel you’ve made it, you get complacent and thereafter your growth stops.
Who are the women you think have pretty much “Made It”? Who do you consider to be ‘a Badass woman/women’?
Indra Nooyi, Angela Ahrendts, Priyanka Chopra, Emma Watson – all these women have had a very unique career trajectory and have made very bold initiatives for their growth, helping pave the way for other women in their fields.
Self-Faith and Determination is what you say is needed to “make it”. What other qualities does an ambitious girl require?
Grit, Honesty, Fearlessness and of course being a “badass”.
What makes a Badass Woman, “Badass” in your opinion?
Women who are fearless, opinionated, who follow their own rules and are not afraid to break conventions.
Tips for girls who are still discovering their passions?
Stick to your beliefs and trust your instincts.