Spending a ton of money on buying the latest, trendiest clothing for the festive season, your cousin’s wedding or an event can burn a huge hole in your pocket for an outfit you won’t be able to wear often. So, many are asking why buy when you can rent? 

The founder of The Stylease Entrepreneur Jheal Shah shares what it means to have a business with this unique revenue model, the journey of building her brand, and tips for aspiring entrepreneurs to think out of the box and reach the summit of success.

1. What’s your educational & professional background?

I went to school in Bombay, India. I did my ICSE and then went to Dhirubhai Ambani International School to do my IB (International Baccalaureate). I went to the University of Warwick to do my undergrad in Biology in Molecular Genetics Honours. I moved back to India for a year after that. And I took the decision to go to New York and pursue my Masters in Fashion Marketing from Parsons. 

It was super fun being in New York, being in the middle of the fashion scene and the school is almost on Times Square, on 42nd street. Later, I worked in Chicago for a year and came back to India. My mom is a fashion designer for over 25 years so I worked with her for a little bit because that was the point of my fashion marketing degree—to be able to take her brand forward. And at the same time, I wanted to do something of my own, so I went to IIM Ahmedabad where I did my Executive Education in Entrepreneurship, which also taught me a lot about business. It was great in terms of getting basic business knowledge. 

I had my first company when I was 18 and I ran that till I was 21-22. I sold that to my business partner, and he still runs it till today. That was in events and I had some prior experience but not in terms of finance as much, that was always my weakest point. So I decided to go to school for it. I got into Wharton’s and IIM-A’s executive programs and had to choose between them. My parents suggested IIM-A since gaining knowledge in how to run a business in India would be imperative in running my business and that’s why I went there. It was apparent that gaining knowledge in India was the key to doing business here. And that’s where I got the idea of my current start-up, The Stylease. 

This concept is not something new abroad; it’s actually pretty common. While I was talking to a marketing professor, the idea basically clicked and he’s the one who told me that the future of fashion is going to be in rentals in terms of subscription models, or like Uber for fashion. He talked about changing consumption patterns and mentioned that randomly in class. I told him I have a very similar idea and asked if he thought it would work. And that’s how it started.

2. What prompted the idea for ‘The Stylease’?

I’ve lived abroad in London, New York and Chicago for a very long time and over there renting high fashion is a fairly common concept. It’s not the same as India where rentals are seen as “Oh, because you can’t afford it you are renting it”. Over there it’s a lot more about practicality and sustainability. It doesn’t make sense buying a $1000 dress to wear it just for one wedding, which is not your own. 

And it becomes a lot more expensive in India as we have more events and we are all about family. Even if it’s your first cousin whom you barely talk to, you will be there for all the events. So the outfits after a while just start to multiply. I’ve seen it with my mom’s business as well, the bride or the close family of the bride will come to us after the wedding saying “Hey thank you for making this, I wore it once, I can’t wear it again because the family event is over or because it’s too heavy, so can you remake the outfit for me into something else”. 

Most people with such clothes don’t know what they want to do and some people are more open and practical and say, “Hey I will just make it into something else”. Some people don’t get the idea or they are not open to it, so they say, “Hey I will just make something new with a different pattern or different style”. 

So we as designers, as well as clients, just had a bunch of clothes that were available at one point of time. I knew someone needed to do something with these clothes, plus, sustainability was a huge factor for us. So we said if you don’t want to reuse or recycle your outfits, that doesn’t mean somebody else can’t wear it. This happens within a family as you are of a particular size, your cousin is the same size so she will borrow your clothes for a wedding. For somebody who just wants to wear an outfit for one occasion, once in a lifetime, renting is a great option. We reached out to people saying, “You might not have use for your clothes but instead of them sitting in your wardrobe, you can give it to us and others can wear it the clothes can serve their purpose”. 

We buy the outfits made in fabrics that stay intact; there are very few fabrics that last a lifetime actually. So instead of 7 years from now, the fabric tearing or you getting mould on it because you don’t know how to correctly store it, why don’t you give it to us and you can make some money in the process as well. We spoke to a bunch of people and everybody loved the idea of it. Getting our first hundred garments was not an issue at all because we knew the kind of people who would love this concept and we reached out to them. After the first hundred pieces, we had to explain a lot more to people the value of something like this, and it’s been three and a half years since we’ve been in the business.

3. Did you always know you wanted to work in this space?

I always say fashion is not really a career in my house, because it’s a lifestyle. When I was born, my mother hand-made my first outfit. I’ve never bought an Indian outfit in my life until a couple of years ago. I can count and tell you that for the first 21 years of my life, I have bought one Indian outfit. I’ve grown up around fabrics, so it comes very naturally to me. I don’t think I decided to work in fashion consciously. I am more of a business person than I am a designer or creative person. And to me, fashion has always been a very creative business till something like rentals came along where I don’t have to worry about what colour it is, or what design it is or what pattern goes with what. My mom and my sister are both fashion designers so it happened ever-so-naturally and worked out really great.

4. What was your first milestone and how did you get there?

The opening of the store was our first milestone. The first couple of orders we got were through friends and family, which is something we sort of expected because we knew they liked the idea. We started our pilot program in October 2016 and we did a pilot for about 6 months where we didn’t advertise. We had a basic social media page, used word of mouth, texted a bunch of people, called them and sent out hampers. 

Through a lot of the feedback that we got amongst the things we could change, everybody wanted to touch and feel the clothes. That was the first constructive feedback we received. We had to then build upon this so we moved our warehouse and set up an actual store. It is in an estate in Andheri East and people can come and see all the 600 outfits that we have, try as many pieces as they want, get their fittings done on the spot, check out the jewellery that matches their pieces… all under one roof. The store, I think, changed the entire game for us as a company.

5. What are your tips for an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to enter this space?

My tip would be to always believe in yourself even if everyone else thinks you’re foolish. That’s absolutely okay as long as you have a logical plan of getting to where you want. I’m not saying dream big and just dream blindly, it also needs to be a little practical but it doesn’t mean it can’t be something brand new that nobody has done before. 

I read a quote this morning: “People will laugh at you if it’s something they’ve never heard of before because they don’t understand how it works”.

We get advice from our clients on a weekly basis and I’ve been doing this for three and a half years, so it’s endless. Every new designer I try to get on board with will again give me new advice. But the unique thing about the business is YOU. So you need to make sure you run it according to what you want and what you envision while taking advice from others as guidance, not the rule.

“So if you are doing something new, expect people to not get it, don’t be disheartened. The fun is only in doing something new or changing something that’s already pre-existing and turning it into something better because those are the only companies that are successful and do well.”

6. What were the 3 best business or financial decisions you made?

One of the best financial decisions would be to keep the store in the industrial estate. In retrospect, hands down it’s the best decision we’ve made. I’ve seen so many small businesses shut down because of overhead costs. I know it sounds great that ‘Oh, I need a social media person, or I need somebody for the store, I need somebody for this and that’. 

But you actually don’t if you are willing to put in the work. So for the first two years of my business, I didn’t hire a single person. I did everything myself because I’m a big believer of: If you don’t know how to do it, how can you teach other people to do it?

My sister has taught me the basics of Photoshop, I might not be good at it and it might take me four times the amount of work as my graphic designer.  But I can point out and tell him/her what to do, which if I don’t know how to articulate what is wrong with it, it really is not helpful to the other person. 

Another really good decision we made, at least on the financial front, was while I hire people who have some experience, I actually prefer to work with freshers. They are one of my favourite people to work with. At one point in time, the oldest person on my entire team was 23. The simple reason is bright, young, fresh minds come up with ideas that are different and new and not something you see before. What happens to a business like mine is, we are breaking a lot of barriers at the same time. And if I do it by traditional methods, they don’t understand it, I don’t understand it, and the message just doesn’t get across. But when I sit with a 19-year old intern and explain the basic concept to them, they are like “Oh, that’s so cool, let’s do it this way,” which is a way I haven’t thought of because I’ve never seen it. 

But their generation is also very different in terms of being more digital, being more online, being more open to new ideas – coming up with stuff that’s really creative with a purpose. So it’s something I 100% believe in and that’s how we usually hire. We have hired experienced people a couple of times in the past when a project really required it. But my graphics people, social media and photographers are freshers. It’s a lot more fun being around young energy. 

The third decision would be to not go with the stereotypes. For example, we suddenly went viral a year and a half ago. We don’t know-how, so we don’t know how to replicate it, which is a fact that’s not great. But we really went viral on social media and after that, we decided to use the campaign and use that page for a good cause. We did an entire LGBTQI campaign where we put trans people or gender-fluid people in garments that really suited them and their soul and their personality; it was meant to be more than just about representation. I think to me that was a grit business decision in terms of getting a following of people who believe in what we believe in. I wanted to run a business that genuinely made a difference to people so with time, that’s one of the campaigns that we did. 

We’ve gotten heavily into sustainability since then as well, as I would rather run a business with that purpose than blindly run it to earn money. To me, I think it’s great to run a purpose-driven company or a purpose-driven business.

“What we made sure from day one is that we were unit economically positive, which means that every single order I send out, I make money. It may be a margin of only Rs 200 or Rs 300 on an order if it’s a small one.”

7. How long did it take you to monetise your venture?

I think it took about two years. Monetisation is different to different people. But we make sure we make money on every order, which means I never lose money. And from that point, it was only about getting enough orders to breakeven or to have my operational costs for every single month. It took us about a year’s time to break even operationally. 

When it’s wedding season, we definitely break even and make more money to run the rest of the year. But I think two years into the business we were a lot more comfortable in terms of being like, ‘I know in this year in these 5-6 months I’m going to make way more money than the other months for me to balance it out and breakeven’. 

8. Are you looking for funding? 

We are a bootstrapped business so far; however, we have been looking for funding. We were pre-coronavirus as well, and we spoke to a bunch of people who told us to be in touch. We’ve not had a chance to restart any of the conversations as the wedding season also has been a halt and a stop. So we’ve started reconnecting with the previous investors whom we’ve spoken to but for next year we definitely need to find funding in terms of expanding the business as a whole and see growth.

9. Who are the key employees one needs to secure to work in this space?

In the beginning, we went to a couple of high-end designers because you need a particular number of names on your website for it to be legit, which is how the world works. We went to a couple of designers in the high-end section but we got shot down every single time saying: “You don’t have enough designers or you don’t have enough outfits from other high-end designers for me to put my label on there”. 

Then we went to mid-price designers and they were open to the idea. Securing a couple of designer names was very important, which sold on another platform and other stores as well. That was one vendor group that was crucial to us and we started securing that from the beginning. 

The second vendor group which is important to us was the people who owned these high-end outfits because they are a much easier sell than designers are. Designers care about brand value. The people who own these outfits are just grateful for the fact that they don’t have to take care of these outfits along with space they now have and the opportunity to buy more. People earning money from selling their own clothes can be empowering. That’s the second vendor group we went to.

The third was hiring people. The first thing we did was to hire somebody for the digital space because we are not targeting people in their 40s and 50s. They are incidental clients but our clientele is between 23 and 35 who are active on Instagram. So social media was important to us from day one. We built our website but in retrospect, I could have done a lot of things differently with my website. Simpler platforms like Shopify or WordPress, depending on the kind of website you are building, are easy. We built a super-techy website and then I realised I had to change it as it was expensive in terms of making small changes for the new things we were launching. Now we run on Shopify but for your social media and digital space, you really need to hire someone to make your online store look aesthetically appealing. It can be somebody basic, it can be somebody super high-end, that depends on your budget. 

10. How do you intend to expand your business in the next 5 years?

We got lucky as earlier when we used to speak to investors, everybody was weary about the physical space saying you need to have a store in Delhi, Hyderabad or Kolkata and then shift to two-tier cities. If it’s important for people to see the product and then order, how can you only have a digital website? We were very adamant on not putting money into real estate. Spending Rs 2 Lakh to upgrade your website is logical. But paying Rs 1 Lakh every month for every store wasn’t. 

Now, everybody is a lot more open to digital because they’ve seen a shift in consumer behaviour, especially since COVID-19. So for the next 5 years, our goal is to make a hybrid model in terms of online as well as a physical store.

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