Welcome to the Emirates Woman weekly series ‘How I got my job as…’ where we speak to some incredible entrepreneurs and businesswomen both based in the UAE and globally to find out about their career paths that led them to where they are now; what their daily routines look like; the advice they’d give to those starting out; and the hurdles they’ve had to overcome.
This week we chat with Varana’s Creative Director, Sujata Keshavan. She has successfully launched collections that have been a trusted choice for global celebrities such as Olivia Coleman, Elizabeth McGovern, Phoebe Waller Bridge and Lily Cole.
As a leading fashion designer, Keshavan is known for her or her unique blend of traditional Indian craftsmanship and modern design. Each collection is shaped around an annual concept proposed by her and the team to later be crafted in the company’s atelier.
Emirates Woman sat down with the jewellery designer to find out more about her creative process and what inspired her to launch her own eponymous brand.
What was your favourite subject at school?
My favourite subjects were Maths, English Literature and Art. I was equally interested in the sciences and the humanities. In design, I found a confluence between form and function, art and technology, and I knew immediately that it was the right field for me.
What was your first job?
My first job was as an art director at an advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson where I worked mainly on their design projects. It was my first exposure to client commissions, working in teams with others, and working with deadlines. After a few years, I realised that I was too idealistic for the world of advertising, and decided to set up my own design company Ray+Keshavan Design. After 25 years as the creative head of Ray+Keshavan, I sold the firm to WPP, the British multinational media conglomerate and exited the business in 2015, ready for my next adventure.
What brought you to Dubai?
I’ve always been a regular visitor to Dubai and much more so after starting Varana. There is huge interest in Varana from the Middle East region, and many visitors to London make it a point to drop in at our store on Dover Street. Dubai is cosmopolitan and buzzing with visitors from all over the world. The growth there is impressive. It’s a wonderful gateway to the Middle East. I find that the Emiratis have a good understanding of true luxury and appreciate fine fabrics and superior tailoring. We’ve been having regular pop-ups in Dubai and look forward to opening a store there at the earliest opportunity.
What inspired you to enter the fashion space and launch Varana?
For very many years I have been thinking about the fact that India has so much to offer the world in terms of its extraordinary textile and craft heritage. India has a deep textile tradition going back 5,000 years and has the most sophisticated weaving, printing and embroidery techniques. For centuries it used to be the largest exporter of fabrics to the western world. This is not just history but a living tradition. we have the largest number of living artisans and the best of them have real mastery over their craft. These capabilities are unique to the Indian subcontinent. I felt that what was missing was a contemporary and international approach to design that was needed to make these heritage crafts relevant to markets in other countries. I increasingly felt that we should attempt to create a brand that re-interpreted our heritage through a modern lens; a brand that was different and interesting, and one to which global audiences could relate to. I discussed this idea with my co-founder Ravi Prasad, who at the time was the head of India’s leading wellness company Himalaya, who had an abiding interest in luxury fashion. The idea really resonated with him and he became very excited at the thought of creating luxury brands from India for the world. He brought the business perspective that was integral for us to make the project a reality. We then decided to go ahead and give it a shot.
Talk us through the inspiration for your pieces.
Unlike most other fashion brands, Varana’s collections are based on an annual concept or theme which centres our thinking and serves as the inspiration for all the work done in a single year, which is through Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. For example the very first year our collection called “Eternal Love”, were based on The Taj Mahal. We decided to work on The Taj because it is rich in iconography with a variety of motifs and patterns used in the inlay work on the walls and the floor. We start by creating a bank of images relating to patterns, motifs, textures and colours connected with the concept. We also identify the craft techniques that would fit conceptually with the theme. For example for the Taj concept, we worked with wood block printing, Aari embroidery and Jamdani weaving all of which were brought into India by the Mughals and flourished under their patronage. Varana’s collections are exemplified by clean lines, beautiful cuts and considered details. I prefer to avoid fussiness, especially in the form of the garment. We focus on the handmade. Like Saville Row suits, our garments are hand cut and hand-tailored. Our fabrics and artisanal sewing techniques and sartorial details come from the world of couture.
What are the key elements of your role?
As creative director, I come up with the concept behind the collections, create the moodboards and visual vocabulary, decide which artisanal techniques to employ. Our textile designers then take this forward to create suitable weaves and prints. I also work closely with our merchandiser and our fashion and knitwear designers on the shapes for the collection. The same process is followed for the design of accessories. As the custodian of the Varana brand, I am the gatekeeper and make sure that every element of the brand bears its fingerprint and is aligned to our mission and values.
Talk us through your daily routine.
My routine varies depending on where I am on a given day. When in India, I start my day with a one-hour walk in a beautiful park not far from my home in Bangalore. Some days I do yoga instead of walking. Mornings are normally spent in the atelier with my design team reviewing the collections, looking at fabric development, or attending garment fittings on the model. After a light, freshly made vegetarian lunch (I live in the same compound as the atelier), I work with my London team in the afternoon as they are a few hours behind us. Evenings are spent on calls with my digital team in the US and Australia. I’m happiest while working and prefer my work to any other form of activity including socialising and meeting people. I don’t really believe in off-time or a work-life balance, as work is a part of life, not separate from it.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to follow in the same footsteps?
I think fashion is an extremely crowded industry with thousands of brands jostling for the same customers. I’d tell anyone who wants to start a fashion label to be very clear about the brand’s raison d’etre. I’d say “If the brand did not exist, what would the world miss out on”? The brand needs a compelling and differentiated proposition and products. First your team, and subsequently your customer, have to find that proposition motivating.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I was told by a successful serial entrepreneur “Steel yourself for a crisis a day when you decide to become an entrepreneur. The day you don’t have a crisis is the day you should really get worried”! “Staying calm and carrying on till you get lucky” is the corollary to this.
And what is the worst?
When I was riding high at the peak of my profession at Ray+Keshavan, I decided to quit and start something new. Many people I know just could not understand why I was planning to start again at the bottom in a new field, when I could “be a design guru” or “get a life”, “relax, travel, see the world”, etc. I decided to follow my instinct and do the start-up instead. I don’t think that being told to put my feet up was good advice. I’ve learned a whole new discipline which I find incredibly stimulating and I wouldn’t trade the last few years for a more relaxed life.
What has been the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
COVID of course was a huge challenge, faced by most businesses, and definitely faced by all luxury fashion brands. Surviving Covid was hugely challenging, but here we are, still standing. A greater and more difficult challenge is that the world of fashion is predicated on glamour, newness, constant change and instant gratification. Most people buy clothes without thinking about the consequences of their choices. They do not know that fashion is a hugely polluting industry where a rubbish truck full of polyester clothes is taken to landfill every second. They do not know that as an oil-based plastic, garments made of polyester will not biodegrade. Even recycled polyester will lie around as trash for thousands of years. This is terrible, but people are simply not aware of it. We have to educate them and encourage them to choose to wear natural fibres that are kind to the only planet we have. And this is an ongoing challenge.
What are the future plans for your brand? And could you elaborate on some of the celebrities who have worn Varana?
Since we launched we have had customers from over sixty countries at the Dover Street store alone. While that tells you a lot about London, it also indicates that Varana has a global appeal that crosses borders. We have a devoted clientele of high-profile customers who seek us out season after season. We’re also hugely encouraged by celebrities who have chosen to wear Varana. Actresses like Sharon Stone, Olivia Colman, Elizabeth McGovern, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as well as Bollywood actresses Alia Bhatt, Sonam Kapoor, Lisa Ray and Twinkle Khanna to name just a few. We plan to take the brand forward through a hybrid model of our own stores; online through our own website and to select boutiques and specialty stores in other countries. We’re also looking at direct-to-customer channels such as pop-ups in different cities. We have just started taking our baby steps out in the world and we plan to do many exciting things in the years ahead.
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