May 12, 2021 | 20:00

Episode 18: Weaving Heritage into Luxury with Palak Shah

Palak Shah is the force behind India's first handloom luxury brand, presenting the finest work of Banarsi art from the Indian craftsman repertoire, Ekaya. She graduated from King's College in London with a Business Management degree in 2012. She came back to India and set out on a quest to marry the conventional and modern ideas around Indian textiles when she launched Ekaya.

How was your experience when you first stepped into the world of textiles?

I always tell people, I'm an accidental entrepreneur. I never planned to join the family business. Although I've always grown up with textiles around because I was super close to my dad and his brothers & I used to accompany them to work. When I finished my Business Management study in London, I was scrambling to get a job. Then, I came back home to Banaras. That’s when my dad asked me to join his business. We worked together for a month and it was absolute chaos! When you work with someone who is strongly opinionated and who has a prominent career history, it's very difficult for you and for your thoughts to go on if you're a strong person as well, which I am. That’s when I decided to tell my Dad that I'm going to go to Delhi and work on my own. So, I moved to Delhi, a 20-year-old girl, turning 21 with Ekaya. I never looked back.
Would you be able to give us more insight into the weaver-centric philosophy?

What we do is by the weavers, and for the weavers. Although, we try to not make our philosophy weaver-centric. Most Indian brands follow a weaver-centric approach which pulls focus from the skills of the weavers & shines a light on their pitiful conditions, which is something Ekaya doesn’t advocate. For our brand, it's very important to promote the skill of the weavers. I try to educate the shopper’s that whatever they’re wearing required X number of hours and has required the weavers to experiment with a certain craft and skill which makes people believe in the skill of the weavers.

What are the factors that you consider before assigning a potential collaborator?

Collaborations are not so much about the name, but getting a designer who's really experimenting. We always work with people who would have fun with textiles. The whole idea behind getting someone who hasn't worked with textile earlier is to have them experiment and break boundaries. We're known for textile engineering & creating  wonders with textiles. That’s why I work with people who haven't worked with textiles much. We are doing some phenomenal work with Misho - she created some beautiful textile jewellery for us. With Masaba - The campaign was absolutely out of the world and what we created with her was breaking stereotypes with regards to your sarees & more! 

Would you have any tips for entrepreneurs in the fashion space looking to grow their brands beyond borders?

Create a global product. For example, I cannot expect Beyonce to wear a saree as it's going to be difficult for her to wear the saree, and to even carry it off. But you can use the craft of your country to create something that she will wear. The whole idea is for the craft of your country to be put on a global map! 
How much of Ekaya is inspired by your personal sense of style or aesthetic or vice versa? 

I think because I run it I feel it's about 90% to 100%. I'm taking care of all marketing and operations strategies. My dad takes care of product development and that is his side of things, but what the consumers see and the way they see it is mostly me. So, maybe 80%.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to being experimental about your product, strategy, design, or marketing campaign? 

Whatever experiment I do, it comes naturally to me. Even as a person, I'm not experimenting to the extent to shock the world. I'll create a statement and I'll turn eyes when I'm experimenting, but I will not create a shock value when I'm experimenting. So, even with Ekaya, I don't do that, because that just doesn't come naturally to me. I will not create a saree, which is worn weirdly just because I want people to turn their eyes. It doesn't resonate with me and I can't create an image that doesn't resonate with me. Till the time you don't believe in a person and you don't believe in the campaign, doing it for the market and to fit in defeats the whole purpose of the campaign because you're never able to execute it properly. But for example,, if I have to do a campaign based on how to wear a saree differently, or to show styling, that is something that will come very naturally to me because that’s who I am.

Are there any mistakes that brands should completely avoid with their communication or on their social media platforms right now?

At the beginning of COVID, we were all very cautious of not trying to push sales too much. But at this point, I feel like there are no rules of the game because COVID is not a new game for us and is not going anytime soon. Every consumer is also cognitive of the fact that everyone needs to make money, and everyone is scrambling at this moment to make money. I feel like there are no rules and advice. Whatever seems right to the brand, the brand should do it. 
What is your checklist to ensure a great photoshoot?

Earlier it was all about the mood. But over time I have gained experience through making mistakes and learning from them. Now, I've moved towards showcasing the textile a lot more. So for me, it's all about showing the skill of the artisan. In my recent photoshoots, you'll always see that the focus is on the garments rather than the mood. The focus is more on the product and showcasing the behind-the-scenes: the inspiration and the story. In these challenging times, I also try to bring lightness and happiness to the photoshoot.

What is your take on the role of immersive technologies like AR and VR in the world of fashion and retail?

I think it's a great idea! With COVID-19 on the rise again & people stuck at home, I feel like it's a great idea to capture consumers from far away. But, I also feel that the whole idea of touch and feel goes away and we're all about the experience of touch and feel. Anyway, you can't fight innovation or technology. You have to adapt to it. You can also have the best of both worlds by combining technology and the real touch and feel experiences.

What is your survival mantra as a brand right now?

Take it one day at a time.

Name one designer you would love to collaborate with?

Hermès
The one aspect that you love about every Ekaya Store?

I love the decor of it & the tranquillity around it. I think it has a very spa-like element to it. I don't know what creates it, but something creates it.
What is your number one tip to all the homegrown labels in retail?

Stick to who you are and what you believe in. 

What is your favourite way to detox? 

My favourite way to detox is working out! What disappointed me the most in this lockdown was that my gym was shut and that made me sad. Working out is the one thing I'm obsessed with.
To catch the full candid podcast tune into Uninterrupted by clicking here! 

Episode 18: Weaving Heritage into Luxury with Palak Shah