Varija Bajaj on Fashion & Govt’s Support for Startups

Varija Bajaj on Fashion & Govt’s Support for Startups
Varija Bajaj, Founder - Office & You, Lela, and Varija Design Studio 

In an exclusive interaction with Ms. Varija Bajaj, Founder of Office & You, Lela, and Varija Design Studio, StartupTalky delves into various aspects of the fashion industry, government initiatives facilitating the growth of Indian startups and data protection for online users.

Ms. Bajaj has made an incredible mark on the Indian fashion landscape, celebrated for her exquisite designs tailored to women's workwear and fusion wear. As the creative force behind three distinct apparel brands, she holds a coveted position within the Fashion Design Council of India and has graced numerous editions of the Indian Fashion Week, solidifying her influence beyond the boundaries of conventional fashion.

Ms. Bajaj's remarkable contributions to the industry have garnered a wealth of accolades. From the prestigious Delhi Gaurav Award to the esteemed Economic Times Labels Award, the DLA Women of the Year Award, and the highly sought-after Build India Award, her journey has been adorned with well-deserved recognition. However, her impact extends far beyond the confines of the fashion world; she is a dedicated advocate for women's empowerment, harnessing her platform to shed light on crucial social issues.

Welcome to StartupTalky Ms. Bajaj. How are you today?

Ms. Bajaj: Thank you so much for having me. I'm extremely honored to be here at this platform and the efforts that you're putting in to bring the community together.

StartupTalky: It's a pleasure to have you here today, and I'm eager to hear your insights. Let's dive right in. How do you balance the demands of running three different brands altogether?

We have three distinct brands, each catering to different occasions and needs. Varija Design Studio, established in 2004, specializes in bridal and custom clothing for both men and women. In 2019, we ventured into the startup culture, allowing for greater scalability and affordability, catering to customers who seek quality beyond just wedding attire.

But in 2019, we also identified a need gap in the space for working women because a lot of brands that existed in the country were focusing on Western wear. When it came to workwear for Indian women, there was not a single brand in the country that was looking at the culturally sensitive environment that Indian women are exposed to. They are working in labor-intensive environments. So, recognizing a need for workwear among Indian women, we launched Office and You. It's designed with cultural sensitivity in mind, considering factors like labor-intensive environments, sizes, and color preferences unique to India. We offer both Western and Indianized workwear, including office sarees, to help women feel confident and comfortable in professional settings.

Another brand, Lela, focuses on party and resort wear for both genders. Lela blends Western and Eastern elements, aiming to provide affordable designer wear while staying innovative and trendy. Unlike Office and You, Lela's collections are seasonal and fashion-forward, catering to changing trends.

These three brands serve distinct niches, allowing us to meet diverse customer demands across various occasions and fashion preferences.

StartupTalky: As you mentioned, in the West, we've seen brands signify class and status. In Indian corporate culture, especially for women's wear, your brand holds a similar status. Now, looking ahead, what do you see as the industry's top challenges and opportunities?

Ms. Bajaj: Recently at a conference, I noticed a shift in how businesses approach tech. Before COVID, they prioritized service and product, but post-COVID startups focused on tech first, then the product. This means new brands like Zepto and Blinkit emphasize tech over products. In contrast, older brands are now trying to incorporate tech, like apps or website plugins. Tech is now fundamental for business success.

This transition presents challenges and learning opportunities. Even with 20 years in the industry, the post-COVID landscape has reset our knowledge. One significant challenge is the shortage of skilled personnel due to outdated educational systems. Many colleges still teach traditional skills, while the industry needs digital expertise, like Photoshop and Corel Draw proficiency. This disconnect leads to joblessness and a skills gap.

Additionally, the mental health challenges are growing. Graduates, skilled but unwanted by the industry, face depression. Some are adapting through online courses like Udemy, but not everyone embraces change. This presents challenges for both human resources and employers. It may take a year or two to address these issues effectively.

StartupTalky: Do you believe that the pandemic accelerated digitalization so rapidly that academic institutions were unprepared to adapt to these changes and advancements quickly enough?

Ms. Bajaj: Changing university programs is challenging. It involves multiple approvals and can take a year. Additionally, teachers need training, and they must continually upskill due to the dynamic information flow. Today's students scrutinize their educators, making it a demanding environment for teachers. Unlike in the past, when textbooks were limited, now information flows globally. This presents a significant challenge across the education industry.

StartupTalky: So, I'm moving on to my next question. Since you're an active advocate of women's empowerment, what role do you think fashion can play in combating social challenges?

Ms. Bajaj: In the workplace, gender should not matter; it's performance that counts. Fashion reflects society; it's not about imposing trends. For instance, during the Nirbhaya case, fashion was influenced by people's preferences. Designers must decode the unspoken language of consumers and be sensitive to societal changes.

Understanding what's happening, like COVID, attrition, or Gen Z preferences, is crucial. Gen Z, for instance, may spend their parents' money on expensive streetwear. Brands must adapt and prioritize the consumer's needs over personal preferences. A designer's role is to selflessly translate these insights into creative designs and brand strategies.

StartupTalky: There was a time once when India was the world's BPO. Right now, it's the center of innovation. So, pertaining to that, how do you see the G20's Startup 20 initiative benefiting Indian startups in their global development?

Ms. Bajaj: I believe that the journey had already commenced a couple of years ago, around 2016 and 2017. During this time, there was a surge of enthusiasm for startups, which ignited the young generation's passion for innovation.

The support provided by organizations like Startup India and Invest India has been truly remarkable. They have gone above and beyond in their efforts. The incentives for startups, the invaluable mentorship, and guidance on investments have been nothing short of brilliant. These initiatives have led to the establishment of numerous incubation centers and have transformed the mindset of individuals who previously may not have considered investing in startups.

In the past, it was uncommon for people to think about investing in businesses. Today, everyone seems to have some inclination towards investment, whether it's in mutual funds, LIC, or long-term investments. Even those who may not have the capacity to innovate themselves want to explore startup investments.

This trend is highly promising and dynamic, not only for startups but also for individuals like us. It's fascinating to see the daily influx of calls and emails from potential investors. Becoming co-investors or co-owners and witnessing the journey together brings a sense of pride and fulfillment.

The recent G20 Summit organized by the government has expanded the horizons for startups significantly. We are no longer confined to the Indian market; we are now exploring opportunities in other nations. However, it comes with its fair share of challenges, such as intercountry trade agreements, duties, and registrations. Nonetheless, it presents a whole new perspective, even for our brand.

For instance, after the G20 Summit, we are contemplating the idea of expanding internationally. We have been performing well in India, especially in the e-commerce space, which has been further boosted by the digital age. Considering our cost advantage here, we are eager to explore international markets. Of course, we are curious about how the G20 will address import duties, but if it supports startups in this regard, I believe we are on the verge of something monumental. We are sitting on a time bomb, and I predict that it will explode in a positive way in the coming years.

StartupTalky: Certainly, the government needs to ensure these initiatives effectively reach the intended businesses to bring them tangible benefits. Now, considering your role in the fashion industry involves handling substantial customer data regarding preferences and behaviors, especially with the new Digital Personal Data Protection Act of 2023 in mind, how are you ensuring the stringent protection of this data?

Ms. Bajaj: We have implemented various measures on our end to manage data effectively. I would say that, in terms of data utilization, we are still in the initial stages, and we continue to explore its full potential, provided there are no unforeseen issues. However, it's crucial to emphasize that we are fully aware of the confidential nature of the data we collect. Consequently, we take rigorous steps to ensure its security and confidentiality.

Access to this data is restricted to a select group of team members, and we closely monitor and control who can access it. Unlike some other organizations, we do not freely share this data. Instead, we maintain a stringent policy to safeguard the utmost confidentiality of our data within our organization.

StartupTalky: I would just move on to my last question. What advice would you give to the aspiring fashion designers and the entrepreneurs?

Ms. Bajaj: Entering the fashion industry is an exciting journey with a myriad of opportunities beyond design and technology. From styling to journalism and more, the industry offers diverse career paths. To thrive here, passion and a hunger for continuous learning are vital. It's not about holding a degree and settling; it's about remaining dynamic, innovative, creative, and setting trends rather than following them.

In a crowded space like fashion, setting yourself apart is crucial. Even if others do something similar, you must find that unique edge. Today's consumers are discerning, seeking products with stories, appeal, and solutions to their needs. In the tech space, innovation extends beyond virtual trial rooms. It encompasses everything from sizes and cuts to data sourcing.

Many companies worldwide are transitioning from unsold stock to customized offerings by harnessing data. However, data's power depends on how it's used. Having vast data is meaningless if you can't extract valuable insights to make informed decisions and create the right products.

StartupTalky: It was really nice interacting with you, Ms. Bajaj. It was a pleasure having you with us today and thank you for your valuable insights.

Ms. Bajaj: Same here, and I look forward to having more such interactions. Thank you for having me.

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