Anupama Sukh Lalvani and Sonal Sood
Photography: Sonal Sood
Anu Lalvani, Sonal Sood and “Broken” pendant with stainless steel and jute.

Interview: Design philosophy applied to business

Design a Company publishes interviews with people from the creative industry who have started a company using design processes.

Anupama Sukh Lalvani founded En Inde, an Indian jewelry brand based in Delhi. I got to know her through the company’s retail space in Meherchand Market when I lived in India. En Inde have now closed the store because they want to focus on their global branding and distribution.

So you are going global?

Yes, we have been working with an agent for almost two years, and we are now in eight to ten stores in the world, not including India. It was a very fast response that we got from a global audience.

You were trained as an architect. Tell me about the transition to becoming a designer?

I trained in Manchester, England and moved to New York straight after getting married and graduating. I wasn’t confident enough to practice as an architect at the time. I felt it was safer to work in interiors and interior architecture. I was working with ABC Carpets and Home. At the time, I was exposed to the best of the best design ceramics, furniture, textiles, lighting. Working with ABC and being exposed to celebrity clientele at that time in New York gave me a broader vision of what design could be. In fact, I went to art school before studying architecture, so at heart I am an artist, but my parents were adamant that I should study architecture, so I studied architecture and became an architect. I am very thankful. Studying architecture gave me a systematic way of thinking and taught me project management. And above all, it taught me the real value of collaboration.

Systems are good!

It was confusing at the time, but there is a lot more clarity today than 20 years ago. I Came back to India in my early 20’s and traveled extensively and studied art and architecture through my travels, and that took me to Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, which is the most beautiful astronomical site. I had already visited these sites at the age of 15, but when I went back to visit them, it became clear to me that I had this spiritual bond with India that I hadn’t realized growing up. I didn't grow up in India. I am born Indian, but I left India when I was two years old. We moved to Iran during the time of the Shah. As a family, we then moved to Nigeria, and then I went to England to study, then back to Nigeria, then New York and Switzerland. I’ve had my fair share of living in different countries, and I’ve been travelling quite a bit within Africa, Europe, South-East Asia and South America.

You have travelled all over. What is your relationship with India now?

My relationship with India till today isn’t a tangible thing. My parents were very bohemian in their outlook. They weren’t very religious; they were more on the artistic side of life. They explored music and art and architecture in a very different way than other people were doing in India in the seventies. We were exposed to music and art from very early on… and spirituality because my mother was very spiritual. To date, if I think of what connects me to India, it’s something so deep I can't tell you. It’s a cliché to say “the colours, and the spirituality” – it’s a little bit deeper than that. What made me connect was Gandhi and the philosophy of Gandhi because I was studying him at the time. I started with apparel design, and it was all inspired by Khadi (a term for handspun and hand-woven cloth, which Gandhi was a proponent for). This was after I had my first child and moved to India because of my husband's diplomatic work. I created a collection for children's garments and women’s apparel. At the same time, I met some interesting jewelry designers who were travelling to India. One of them was Pippa Small. She came to my house through another friend; she had her arms full of crystals and stones and shells, and she was this tall, beautiful woman from England.

“I wanted to do jewelry that empowered women.”

It got me inspired to work in jewelry. Before I met Pippa, an adornment to me was always about gold and diamonds, because having come through an Indian family, and marrying into an Indian family, it was all about gold and diamonds. My family's nature was always to revolt against the Indian system of dowry, how women are pretty much weighed in gold and diamonds. I just didn’t want to do that kind of jewelry; I wanted to do jewelry which made sense, that empowered women, and that made them feel stronger. That was how my journey with jewelry begun.

From the small amount that I read about you, it seems you have gone from yoga clothes to jewelry?

When I was in New York, I worked full-time; I was quite burnt out and felt that I needed to connect with my spiritual self. I found my yoga teacher, Dharma Mitra. I have now been a Yogini for 20 years. I was teaching yoga at the Canadian High Commission and ACSA (American Community Support Association) in Delhi and doing private classes. I realized that everybody was wearing the wrong clothes for yoga. I got into designing yoga clothing. I didn't want to do Lycra, so I thought: “How can I experiment in Khadi?”

That was when you started a business?

That's right. Going forward in design, I went back to Switzerland because my husband got posted there, and I put everything on hold except the jewelry. Apparel was very difficult to manage because I was pregnant with my second son, I decided it was easier to manage accessories rather than apparel. We were only away for two years, and when I came back, the jewelry was something that I could easily make at home. My friends were my amazing clients at the time. My collections were sold again and again, so I got busier and busier. I had one craftsman who I worked with in my studio at home, which was in Gurgaon, and it’s still in the same studio today. Nothing has changed except the capacity of the production and the kind of work that I do.

So you’re becoming a global brand, but you have a studio in Gurgaon, with a few craftspeople?

Yes, that's right.

So, how many are you?

It’s a small company. I have my two craftsmen whom I work with in my studio at home; I have one craftsman who works in steel in a factory in West Delhi. In Lajpat Nagar, I have three administrative and sales staff, one accountant and my business partner Sonal. That's it!

You had already established a brand when Sonal arrived five years later?

That's right. Sonal joined me because my friends saw a real growth potential here. They said: “Sonal has a business background, and she has worked with Dior, she has this impressive résumé, and you’ve got this incredible idea of how you want to make products. We think the two of you will help each other.” When you have a partner like that, whom you can bounce ideas off, it’s quite remarkable. It started with doing trunk shows and pop-ups and being in Indian stores. People in Dubai and London and Geneva started to notice. Then we had trunk shows in New York and San Francisco. So it has been a slow and organic growth.

Was it organic growth from friends and then onwards, or did you think about people whom you wanted to approach?

After doing these smaller shows in friends’ homes, I was doing melas (“mela” refers to gatherings and fairs) at the German School, and the American School but the bigger ones were the pop-ups, that wasn’t just friends, it was open to the public. It was a grand success. That was the first time I ever felt more confident. Sometimes you wonder if friends just buy because they are polite. When you open it up to everybody, they don’t know who you are.

The way you work when you design and produce your designs, have you tried to work in the same manner when you work in entrepreneurial processes?

It’s beautiful to have a small enterprise when you are working in organic design processes, when you want sampling done you cannot work with big factories. You need to work one-on-one with people. I think when real design reveals itself, it’s not me sketching something, sending it to a factory and then that being made. I conceptualize something in my head; then it becomes a dialogue with my craftsman. That dialogue is more visual because I learn a lot from what he can do with his hands and what techniques he can teach me. For example, I show him some technique from Papua New Guinea on a necklace that I’ve bought, and say we need to work with this, and he will come back to me and say “We can't do that because that is in grass, but we can do it in jute.”

When working with rigorous materials like stainless steel, the material determines what it can be and what it cannot be. You cannot make stainless steel do what resin can do. You start to respect the material and work accordingly. With my steel craftsman and then with my thread craftsman, I am working one-on-one. That has been a revelation to me, that it’s not just the design, design is only a small percentage of any product. In the end, you can call it design, but it’s a collaborative process of understanding the materials and the technique that goes with it. The biggest revelation to me as a designer is that very little is design and most is a collaborative effort that respects the material and the techniques that go behind making a product.

When you are together with a craftsman, and you are in a sense making a prototype, could that be sent to manufacturing or does it still have to be crafted?

I have been asked this question by venture capitalists who want to fund the company and take it to the next level. There are a few hundred designs that can be replicated with volume in a factory. Having said that, that’s not why I am doing this. It’s difficult to explain to investment bankers or venture capitalists that I am trying to make products that are satisfying as a creative process. If my goal were to make a lot of money, I would have done that a long time ago. To make many different designs for many different women, that is more exciting

So you are more haute couture then?

Voila! I believe what I do is couture. When we signed on the agent two years ago in London, they discussed volume, but luckily, the agent understood that I’m not willing to make volume. I’m willing to make maybe two to five pieces per design, but not more than that. That is something that the retailers must understand. This is a hand made craft and simply cannot be mass produced.

Here in Oslo, we have a boot and shoe provider called Dundas footwear. They have a template for their Type 01 boot, but each specific boot is made of a certain kind of material and colour and is only made in one set of sizes from size 37 to 46. So there are only nine pairs of boots in each specific design. It’s a different kind of business model.

Our business model is different compared to other jewelry companies that have dyes and templates made. If I took the best sellers from the past seven years, I would probably come to a solid 300 designs. But it’s not something that fulfills me as a creative person. It’s not why I am doing this. When we opened the store, it was very close to my heart. Because I designed and we, as in Sonal and I, merchandised everything, because I collected things on my travels, it became a very personal adventure. And when people come today, they enter into my world, into what my idea of living is.

“It’s not so much about the product; it’s about the idea behind it.”

If you go on my Instagram, you will see that I have very varied interests, not just art and architecture, but cooking, deep-sea diving, yoga – there are so many aspects. I think that human life as a rat race is something of the past, it’s not what people want to connect with anymore. People want to connect with a better quality of being. I’m trying to sell that. It’s not so much about the product; it’s about the idea behind it. I think the only way we can move forward is to live in complete harmony like that. Maybe it's a very utopian way of thinking, but it’s just how I want to sell the idea.

With the store, you got to know your customers better?

Absolutely, it was beautiful. The exchange was great.

Don't you think you would miss that – the interaction with the customers?

No, because I am a bit of a control-freak – it’s not that I don’t want the interaction, I just don't want too much interaction. One has to learn when to allow it in and when to put a stop to it. It’s all about balance in the end.

It seems like you are applying your design philosophy to business in the sense that you want it to be a design-driven business rather that a manufacturing-driven business?

Exactly, and that is more fulfilling to me. To become a manufacturing-led business, I would find that quite easy, and boring. It would just reach a pinnacle, and then you would search for more and more, and I think that my yoga has taught me to keep that in check. It’s a design-driven business. When you contacted me, I liked the way you had phrased your email; “…design-driven business”, because it is one.

Have you had any interesting obstacles during your venture?

I think to run a company, to work with somebody so different from myself as my business partner. When we started, Sonal was of the manufacturing-led business approach, because that was what her business school teaching had taught her. Now we have a beautiful synergy because we are totally in sync.

The biggest obstacle I find is to let go of the control and to allow people to have their methodologies. When you’re in a collaborative process, then you must allow, with complete trust, the other person takes the lead at some point. That has been the most difficult for me as a person – not as a business woman, but personally – to give up that control.

Being a woman entrepreneur in India has been a completely different challenge. It has been challenging and exciting because we have learnt so much. It has been an eye-opener to see where women stand with regard to the political and social injustice in this country. There is injustice throughout the world, but in India, it is much more pronounced. What we ‘ve learnt as women entrepreneurs is that anything is possible; if we can do it – anybody can do it.

Another challenge is the supply chain. On the manufacturing side, I have no control regarding timelines. The process for the steel is very long; it’s just 15 percent of my work in the beginning. The remaining 85 percent is a waiting game, of making sure it’s all done on time, the quality control of the pieces that come to me. For the international market, that is paramount. We are second season strong in Japan, and they are very polite, but they don’t want a single scratch on the steel. Steel scratches are the nature of steel. This is now being communicated.

They are quite particular, the Japanese?

Very, and God bless them for that. I am very happy that they are because that makes me want to get better and better. It’s also a challenge to this idea of “Made in India” because of India's past and how there is a lack of consistency in product manufacturing over time. Indians have not created a great reputation for themselves. This is something we constantly have to fight against on the global market, to prove that this is pure quality and pure handmade.

So you are feeling that you are succeeding?

I believe so! Ha ha.

I mean, in a general sense – with your company?

It depends on what you call success, I think we have managed to streamline the supply chain, which is a huge thing, I would tell you, two years ago it was not the case, I was a nervous wreck. There are a lot of follow-ups – the constant follow-ups making sure that things are being made on time. Having spent a lot of time in Switzerland, I am crazy about timelines.

Tell me about an epiphany moment that you’ve had as an entrepreneur?

All designers feel that they are working solo on a project – that all great inspiration comes from sitting alone with a sketchbook in an atelier. I used to believe that completely. My biggest epiphany was when I realized there is no such thing as inspiration. What I found is that my inspiration comes as I work in my studio. The processes that lead to design or technique, within those processes is the inspiration. As you’re sitting and working, things just come to you and possibilities become endless. I have completely given myself into that. My craftsman doesn't leave until 9 pm; I go to bed by 10.30 and in the morning he is back. We constantly work. I’m very lucky that what I love to do is going to feed me…and there is the collaboration part. Collaboration is the most beautiful part of the design world.

Christian Leborg

Christian Leborg

Christian Leborg is a visual communicator and branding consultant. He specialises in building brand strategies and brand identities. Christian has worked with several specializations within visual communication as well as teaching and being an author. Christian now works on his third stint as an entrepreneur.