With a bachelor’s degree from Nottingham Trent University, UK, Swarupa Sathakarni studied at the Pearl Academy of Fashion, Chennai and is the brains behind Label Swarupa Sathakarni. With her dynamic nature and incredible consideration for her clients, Swarupa tailors each clients’ clothes in alignment with their unique personality. Passionate about her art and adamant to utilise her creativity to the best of its ability, Swarupa’s label is a class apart from others
What (or who) inspired you to become a fashion designer?
I knew from the 7th standard that I didn’t want to go down the route of engineering or medicine and I wanted to do something in a creative field. I had always been interested in sketching and my family knew as well, that I would only fit into a creative field. My brother had suggested Aeronautical or Marine designing but I simply wasn’t interested in the theoretical part of it. My cousins encouraged me to pursue fashion designing and helped me with the process. While people are more encouraging towards their children joining creative fields nowadays, that wasn’t the case around 10 years ago. My journey into fashion designing was quite unexpected and it was only after joining fashion designing that I became more confident in my ability.
How did you go about starting your own label? And what were the difficulties you faced along the way?
I feel that a majority of creative people often find it difficult to work under someone or work in a routine job. After finishing college, I worked in merchandising and in the ethnic section of a company. I hardly lasted in that job for a year. I wasn’t happy and was unsure of what to do next. It was then, in 2013, that I decided to break out of my comfort zone and travel to Hyderabad alone to find work.
It was like being on a roller-coaster ride. I worked under a designer and used to work from 8 am to 8 pm. This job allowed me to interact with customers who listened to my suggestions. I created concepts on ethnic wear (specifically, saris) and the owner gave me full liberty to work as I please. I explored different styles and worked hands-on with the production houses. That is how I gained experience. For 8 – 9 months, I worked here and gained experience.
After a year, I decided to come back to Chennai. While people in Chennai liked designer wear, there weren’t a lot of stores selling those kinds of clothes. This is when I decided to start doing freelancing. I started designing and modeling my own clothes, and this worked as an effective marketing strategy. It was through word of mouth that my business grew.
I decided to start my own label. People often find my second name, Sathakarni, to be quite unique and since I was working independently, I decided to name my brand, Label Swarupa Sathakarni. I took orders from people and went to production houses myself. I really liked what I was doing, perhaps that’s why sourcing my clients, designing, and being hands-on with the production houses didn’t seem like too much of a task to me.
Your label offers a wide range of bridal wear, Indo-western clothing, and customized casual clothing. How important is the diversity of your label to you?
My main priority is the client’s comfort. If I feel they will not be comfortable experimenting with an outfit, I don’t push them to do so. I listen to what the client has in mind while giving them my thoughts on their vision. While my style is not extremely traditional, I like giving an Indian touch to western clothing. I prefer adding an ethnic and slightly traditional touch to western clothing.
What materials do you like working with?
When it comes to bridal wear, you need to play with silks and heavy embroidery and I really love playing with those fabrics. When it comes to casual wear, in the South Indian weather, people usually prefer cotton and me, personally used to mix-and-match with a lot of cotton and mixed linens.
Speaking of the materials you use, sustainability in fashion is growing increasingly important. What are your thoughts on it?
I am proud of myself for [contributing to] sustainable fashion. I don’t like leaving even a little fabric [when producing clothes]. I keep experimenting with tassels on blouses and dupattas, and I sit with my tailors during production and guide them in not wasting fabric. [After the plastic ban] I started making fabric bags. A lot of clients are often attracted to colorful cloth bags, especially because it’s recyclable. If you have an A4 or A3 size piece of paper, you can change a whole outfit – you can use it as a patch on a Kurti, too.
Even when younger, I always played with old saris and converted them into anarkalis which you can wear to functions and events. When it comes to recycling or re-creating something, I model it on myself and post it on my social media page, so I can market it and spread awareness to people. I have seen fellow designers take it a step further by creating clothes from say, banana fibers. But I felt that I should work with what I have on hand. Instead of just throwing away small pieces of fabric away, I use them to enhance the outfit.
Is there a particular target demographic you keep in mind when designing your clothes?
I feel like my label garments should be available from affordable prices to higher prices, as well. My target demographic is neutral. I don’t specifically target only the mass crowds or the niche crowds.
Just a few years in this industry and you have already made quite a name for yourself and your brand. But of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the fashion industry is incredibly competitive. How would you say that support from friends and family has helped shape your journey?
In my first year of college, I had doubts about myself. I had finished my schooling in my native place and had started college in Chennai. During the initial months, I felt quite homesick and was unsure if I could pull it off. My close friends and family, however, we’re quite proud of me for doing something different.
I was always sure that I wanted to do something creative and I liked sketching and designing, so I was never uncertain about the subject – it was just the change in culture. Whenever I felt low, I reminded myself that I had to push myself forward. My dad had a huge impact on me [in this aspect]; he was always saying encouraging words. Apart from my mum and friends [who supported me], there were quite a few relatives who didn’t necessarily understand what I was studying. It was in the second or third year when I had fully accepted what I was doing. After finishing college, I went to Hyderabad and learned through my experience working there; knowing how to deal with the production people is a huge task and I pushed myself to be confident in this.
Do you have a unique creative process when designing?
Creating a fashion line for a show is very different from creating designs for a client. The process starts with sketching and you take a particular inspiration or concept according to the person (that’s how we learn in college, as well). So, we take a concept and color board and mood board and it’s important to keep the client and their body type in mind while doing so. I observe a person and their personal style before I design for them. I consider the client’s likes and dislikes and then present to them what I have in mind for them… In fact, quite a few friends have told me that this [my way of interacting with and listening to clients] is my most effective marketing strategy.
You studied in Chennai and then worked in Hyderabad for a year – would you say that the places you have lived in have played a part in influencing your designs?
How would you describe the fashion scene in India? How does it differ from international fashion industries?
Definitely, it is so much different [from international fashion industries]. There’s been a huge change in South Indian fashion, especially in the last five to ten years. [In regard to international fashion] we still take a lot of inspiration from international fashion… this generation is much more open to wearing experimental clothing and so, there is a drastic change in the number of people wearing such outfits. I do make experimental outfits but I usually use them in photo shoots w celebrities as they attend award shows and shoots and are more open to such clothing.
Would you say that the experimental concept in fashion is a recent trend?
I would say, that where I live and in places around it (like Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad), it is relatively recent.
While we’re on the topic of the Indian fashion scene, what do you think sets you apart from other fashion labels?
I think I am very particular about the client’s comfort zone and whether I am comfortable designing certain clothes… Each client, each personality is different. When designing for you, this is what I keep in mind. Quite a few clients have told me that while they like seeing celebrities model my outfits, there is a certain comfort and familiarity that comes when seeing other customers wearing my designs. This is what, I’m told, makes my label unique.
You have designed for quite a few celebrities. How was that experience?
In Season 2 of Tamil Big Boss, Aishwarya Dutta was very particular about what she wanted to wear, and she wanted to look amazing. She approached me and I styled her for Big Boss. I did not expect the reach to be as big as it was. Later on, I styled the covers of Femina Tamil, She Magazine, and We Magazine. If I feel like the process is comfortable with me, I say yes to any opportunity that comes my way. My greatest satisfaction, however, comes from my client base; I love interacting with them and making them feel comfortable. When they say that they feel great in what they are wearing, I feel like I’m on top of the world!
Of course, when you create a brand, you have to market it and people do get inspired by celebrities quite often. But my favorite part remains, designing for my clients.
What advice would you give to aspiring fashion designers?
I have seen a few young, talented people coming up with their own label straight away. Which is a great thing; maybe, the influence of social media has helped them learn quicker. But, I would advise that after finishing your studies, for at least a year, you should come out of your comfort zone. You can learn under someone if you want. You should be clear about what you want to do after that, be it continuing to work under a company or coming up with your own brand. You can jump right into starting your own label but experience matters. A lot. It would have definitely taken me longer [to reach where I am today] if I hadn’t spent a year working and gaining experience in Hyderabad.
Given that you have been a part of this industry for a good few years now, what would you say that you love most about being a fashion designer?
Making people really excited and happy about what they are wearing. I can’t describe the feeling of when people are really happy and wowed by how they look. That feeling is amazing!
What’s next for Label Swarupa Sathakarni? (Are there any upcoming collections people should look out for?)
Well, [given the lockdown] everything is on hold. But [prior to lockdown] I have signed a project with a South Indian serial and I have planned another collection, as well. Currently, I am thinking of ways of coming back which will be comfortable for clients as well. In fact, I started making complimentary masks for clients. Once things do get settled down, we will go into fully-fledged planning mode [for the label’s future projects].
A brand that puts its clients and their needs before all else while being extremely sustainable, is a rare sight to see and in this, Label Swarupa Sathakarni is unique in its own right.