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Payal Khandwala On Creating A Fashion Line That Resonates With The Spirit Of Modern Indian Woman

Payal Khandwala On Creating A Fashion Line That Resonates With The Spirit Of Modern Indian Woman

Artist-turned-fashion designer Payal Khandwala, conceived her eponymous label in a moment of impulse. The year was 2012, and she had chanced upon an opportunity to showcase her designs at the prestigious Lakme Fashion Week. Back then, she was working as a full-time artist and was already making the clothes she wore. She decided to take the plunge. “At the very least, I’d have 16 new samples for my own wardrobe,” she thought. The Parsons graduate looked at the opportunity as a challenging shift in canvas. Marrying her artistic palette with personal style, she created a fashion line synonymous with the spirit of the modern Indian woman. The strong synergy between the world of fashion and art has since guided Payal’s designs.

The brand that started as a one-woman show in Payal’s living room is now handled by a dedicated team of over 70 people. From starting the retail operations at Good Earth to selling in multiple stores, Payal has managed to create her own niche. Her line has a vibrant colour palette and gorgeous contrasts that stand out as the signature details in her design. The garments are a la mode, yet comfortable. Among her designs, you will find versatile classics that can be worn for years and then passed on to the next generation as heirlooms. Much like her, Payal’s muse is gentle and non-conformist. She favours personal style over trends and is a champion of slow, responsible fashion. 

Payal Khandwala

Payal owns looms across Varanasi and West Bengal, where her team designs textiles from scratch. The idea is to re-invent the Indian handloom and create an ecosystem where both the artisans and handicrafts flourish. This is an ambitious undertaking and Payal keeps the ball rolling by making it equal parts work and fun. She likes to keep things simple both at work and in her personal life, which involves not taking herself too seriously. Payal is always up for a good laugh and shares the story of her sartorial failures as readily as she talks about the wins. Even after a decade of launching her label, she remains excited about it as if she is just starting. 

Payal’s patronage of Indian handloom and the story of her fashion brand is truly one for the books. When we were ideating for #POPxoWomenWhoWin, the fashion savant found a ready space in this list. In a recent chat with POPxo, Payal talked about marrying art and style and carving her own space in an otherwise cluttered Indian fashion industry. Excerpts below:

How do you begin your day? What does a typical workday look like for you?

I wake up at 8 am and then my husband and I take our doggo for his morning walk. After returning, I check emails, news, get ready, and head to the studio. Back in the evening, it’s daughter time and then the doggo has to be taken for an evening walk again. I like to have a quiet dinner with my family, pup, and cat. It is followed by some cat and dog videos on Instagram or maybe some Netflix before bed. Of course, each day presents its own mix of multitasking household duties, groceries, homework, gardener, the vet, dentist appointments, ac serviceman, stove guy, etc that we all share. But perhaps that’s a little mundane to list and all too familiar for most. I’d say my day is like most people’s, really just a regular day.

How did you land your first job?

My first job was with Garden Vareli when I was studying at Sydenham. I worked with the design team that made their ready-to-wear line. I was really a trainee but they were generous enough to compensate me. I was 17, but I knew I had no real interest in commerce and my first love was always drawing and textiles so it was perfect.

Can you tell us a bit about your transition from an artist to a fashion designer? What inspired the switch?

It was an impulsive one. An opportunity arose to show at fashion week. I was already making the clothes I wore because when I was painting full time after I was back from New York I couldn’t find the clothes I wanted to wear. And it was easier just to make them. I’d studied fashion in Bombay before I left to study Fine Art, so I figured it would be a nice shift in canvas. I had the training and the raw materials existed or could be created. Plus, no one seemed to be putting all the elements that were important to me, quite together with the way I would have liked. I knew if they were women like me that felt this vacuum that existed for clothes that represented the voice of a new India and separates that focus on style and quiet luxury, then we’d be onto something. 

Payal Khandwala

Let’s rewind a little. Can you share your first designing memory with us?

Yes. I remember it well. I created a monster. It was my farewell party at school. For context, I was 15. It was 1990. And I designed a black satin and tulle outfit. Much to the horror of my unsuspecting mother and even after her repeated gentle ‘are you sure?’ imploring that I chose to ignore. I went ahead with my grand plans, and yep, it had big puffy sleeves, a trumpet skirt bottom, a fitted bodice. It was truly a disaster. Even looking at it with the 80’s hangover lens, it was at best forgettable and at its worst quite ghastly. I suppose it’s nice to make all your mistakes when you’re younger at least. Hopefully, I’m making fewer ones now!

Your label would be soon completing a decade. How has been the journey so far?

It’s been a treat! I started solo from the living room and now we have a family of 70 and Vikram, my husband, and partner in crime handles the business so I can focus on the creative aspects. We work continuously with our weavers in Bengal and Benaras. I get to work and play. I get to wear all the samples for free. I never have to shop for clothes except for t-shirts. We even make accessories in brass and leather, so I can plug-in components to help complete the vision I have for the clothes. We have a robust online store, a new flagship store at Kala Ghoda, we rebranded, our first store with all its memories now serves us well as our studio, our workshop is right upstairs. I have a team I adore, that has stayed with us through thick and thin/covid and has helped us grow from strength to strength. It’s been quite a ride. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

What would you say has been the biggest turning point in your career?

I think opening our first flagship store as a fledgling label just two years after we launched and its subsequent success was a gamble that paid off and put us on the map. It was also the perfect way to communicate the philosophy of the brand and experience that came with it, and it differentiated us from a market that is otherwise quite cluttered and competitive.

Payal Khandwala

What would you term as your biggest professional accomplishment so far?

I like giving women beautiful, realistic options that can maximise their personality and put a spring in their step. To suggest options for all their wardrobe needs if they subscribe to the DNA of the brand is perhaps my biggest professional challenge and achievement. The idea is to create a brand where you can find something to wear to school for a pick-up, to work, for a cocktail, on vacation, and at weddings under one label and one house aesthetic. That said, in the end, it’s not the clothes, it’s the women that wear them that will change the world and the confidence the clothes give them makes all the craziness behind the scenes worthwhile.

What are the skills or qualities that have helped you succeed?

I don’t see myself as the boss of anyone. My team is my family and I couldn’t do this without them. So they know I trust them, and they also know their support and their criticisms are both equally respected. I truly believe this helps us grow together with the freedom to express ourselves at the studio where most of us spend the better part of our days. And when I’m stressed, I don’t let things linger. I can switch back to moving forward mode quite quickly after a problem-solving or fire-fighting session. I think creating an environment where everyone in the team feels empowered, creates a space where people enjoy coming to work each day.

A mantra that you swear by in your professional and/or personal life?

Humility, honesty and hard work. I like to keep things simple, I don’t take myself too seriously. I find it helps to keep things light-hearted and be able to laugh at yourself. 

Payal Khandwala

What advice would you give to youngsters considering fashion design as a career option?

I would say find your voice and take your time. It may not happen right after you graduate. Find what you want to say with the clothes you want to create. Are you suggesting something new? Is it simply copy and paste? Have a point of view that comes from experience and always look inwards for the answers. Work for someone, learn from their mistakes, prepare to work hard, and focus on a product and an ethos that is always sincere.

According to you, what are the three fashion essentials that every woman should have in their wardrobe?

A saree, nicely tailored trousers, and a well-proportioned shirt or tunic. If not Indian, then perhaps I’d swap the saree with a long shirt dress or jumpsuit.

Considering that you have a packed schedule, how do you unwind?

I listen to music and often to talks by Alain de Botton, my favourite modern philosopher. Sometimes,  I’ll escape to the bathroom and put on a clay mask. For a good laugh, I watch repeats of Seinfeld/The Office/Brooklyn 99, but I also love watching shows on serial killers. I know that sounds like a strange way to relieve stress, but I love the study of human psychology. And lately, I’ve been sucked into F1. This is equally bizarre coming from someone who doesn’t even like sitting in a fast car and also has motion sickness. But I’m a Gemini so I guess perhaps it makes sense?

Featured Image Courtesy: Payal Khandwala

16 Sep 2021

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