Some of the best business ideas come from personal spaces. When Aashni Shah got engaged at 21, she was studying filmmaking in London. Like thousands of NRI brides before her, she actually had to travel to India to buy herself something festive to wear for her special day.
“Even if I wasn’t looking at only designer clothes, there was just nothing nice to wear. There were stores in Southall and Wembley but they were awful. So I came to Mumbai and visited the Sabyasachi store in Kala Ghoda, and I fell in love,” says Shah, now 37. This was circa 2012. Cut to 2023, and Shah has opened her first boutique in the same space, where Sabyasachi, India’s most successful fashion designer stood until recently.
Shah realised that there was such a vast difference in how Indian designers made clothes and what was available in the UK, or elsewhere in the world. “Most of NRI fashion was crystals, and OTT embroidery and snake bindis and beehive hair,” she says, laughing. Imagine the former Juhu resident show up like that! She was an editing intern at Prime Focus―a media services company that works with film studios, broadcast and advertising industries―since she was 18. She had told her family she was moving to London to pursue an MBA, but enrolled herself in film school instead. Soon enough, she realised the huge gap in the bridal wear market overseas, and rented out a small space in posh Notting Hill. This became Aashni & Co, the first and most well-regarded Indian bridal boutique outside India.
“It was all self-funded and it still is,” admits Shah. “We are completely a bootstrapped company, which is why it has taken Aashni & Co 11 years to come to Mumbai.” The little Notting Hill boutique sold Indian bridal wear as well as western ready-to-wear pieces by Indian designers. Only the wedding clothes sold; they flew off the rails. “I think it was still too early for people to put down ￡400 for an outfit by a relatively unknown Indian designer when you could get one from, say, Jil Sander,” she explains. Within six months, Shah turned it around and filled it with Indian festive wear only.
What were the challenges to create a new space in a new market, and what came easy? “Rent in Notting Hill was a challenge, but we soon moved to a bigger space. But [selling] Sabyasachi was easy; Anamika Khanna was easy. Whatever these two designers gave me sold immediately. I had a flock of Arabs who came down every summer like a herd,” she says, laughing. “It was like that scene from Sex & the City. They were utterly stylish underneath their burqas, and they shopped Sabya and Anamika in bulk.”
Shah stocked several leading names in fashion―right from Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla to Manish Malhotra and Gaurav Gupta. “I had no idea of fashion or retail. I still dress like a production unit person, in a white shirt and trousers,” she says, laughing. “In 2012, few designers had websites, leave alone Instagram. I made cold calls to their stores and asked for meetings. I had to Google the top 20 names! But they trusted someone who had zero experience. Plus, I bought out their collections at first; I didn’t know the concept of consignments existed until a year or so later.”
Within a couple of years, Aashni & Co put together Wedding Show, an annual bridal sale at London’s The Dorchester hotel. Designers did not pay to take part then and Shah made commission on sales. “We had charged ￡30 as entrance fee. We had to have it ticketed as I didn’t want any riff-raff coming in. We have never encouraged a crowd, had a fashion show or hired a celebrity to draw a crowd. My designers are the celebrities,” she says, smiling.
The Mumbai store is equally ambitious and impressive. It is a large two-storied space at the charming Rampart Row where Sabyasachi’s sumptuous Mumbai boutique stood until this April, when he moved to a full building just around the block. “Sabyasachi was definitely very helpful,” says Shah. “He knew I was scouting for a space in Mumbai or Dubai. So it kind of just fell into my lap.”
Will selling Indian clothes to Indians in probably the most crowded pincode be tough, considering that two of India’s best multi-designer boutiques―Ensemble and Ogaan―are mere steps away from the new space? “But Kala Ghoda still is the hub,” says Shah. “Indians want more Indian clothes, so there is no challenge there. Indian fashion is having such a great moment, the shapes have changed and evolved into such global tastes. Indian clothes are certainly becoming easier and more convenient to wear anywhere. Couture designers are now making ready-to-wear, and RTW designers make their versions of lehengas, too. It’s all mixed up in wonderful ways.” Shah also says she has some designers, like Ashdeen and Shantanu Goenka, create collections that will be exclusive to Aashni & Co.
Mumbai’s Aashni & Co has been designed by Sameep Padora, the young new dean of CEPT, and the architect behind some of Mumbai’s most beautiful restaurants. “He’s really under the radar, like me, so our personalities matched,” says Shah. “Besides, the temples and schools he has designed blew me away.” Padora has created a tree-like canopy across the store’s ceiling. “The rest of it is much like the Notting Hill boutique, with lots of wood panels and moss green walls,” says Shah. The basement also has a little tea bar for shoppers. “That’s common to Indians and British,” she says. “They are both obsessed with the weather and they are both obsessed with tea.”