Lockdown in a Sustainable Fashion Brand in Europe with Shayonti Chatterji

The transcript was recorded and edited by Audrey Coggins

The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

Early June 2020, barely three months after the first lockdown was announced across the Netherlands, Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy spoke with Shayonti Chatterji, the founder of Urban Medley, a Sustainable Fashion Brand that supports the Indian handicrafts and artisans by bringing it to conscious consumers of the global market. She shared what it was like to have started a business on the eve of the lockdown when neither the launch plan nor the marketing plan was prepared for the pandemic. Shayonti spoke about the decisions she had to make to adapt, modify and move on; and how the lockdown showed that we were all connected, whether we wanted it or not.

I am aware that Urban Medley was launched only days prior to the lockdown here in Amsterdam in March 2020.

Shayonti: When Urban Medley started, of course, it was a bit of a dampener because we launched on the eve! We had heard of the news of the virus in China earlier in the year, but China is halfway around the globe to Amsterdam. However, all of a sudden, it zoomed right around the world to us. Everyone was impacted.

We were not prepared at all for the situation. The business and marketing plan was not geared for such chaos. So we had to adapt, modify and move on. This has not been easy.

Can you share the story behind Urban Medley?

Shayonti: I believe tremendously in the power of stories — even before Google decided that content is king. All throughout my life, I have learnt more from the stories I have been told than I have learnt even from books. I was always fascinated by the Indian handicrafts and artisans to have to give. Without going into details about finery and artistry of the traditional Indian arts, what stood out to me was how it morphed into carving out space for itself in the global scene today.

Of course, other countries are also major contributors to the handicraft stage, such as African traditional art. But I think that India could be considered as a pioneer; traditional printing, weaving, fabric and designs alive, but at the same time has morphed into something which has a global appeal. So it’s no longer that one could be wearing an Indian dress, but you’re now wearing an Indian scarf or carrying a bag made in India because it matches perfectly with your outfit no matter where you are.

So this is where I felt I could contribute in a small way: to provide another launching pad — there are many — to these artisans. The first reason is that many of these traditional arts are sustainable, and naturally so. So they didn’t have to change their materials or process lines because of the awakening of sustainability. They’ve always been traditionally sustainable. I also decided to work with these designers, who not only were brilliant with their own designs but also had a conviction and philosophy that they’d only work with artists who were sustainable.

I wanted to bring to conscious consumer shoppers the sustainable fashion so that we contribute to reducing their carbon footprints. And at the same time, I wanted to support these artisans. These art forms are such that if they are not commercialised, if they do not find a global platform, they will simply die out. These masters do not write books. They do not give courses. These art forms are passed down to the next generation. So if the next generation isn’t able to make money, they might as well go and do a social media course and learn. So the world will lose. We will lose really beautiful artisanal skills.

So that was the whole concept and drive behind Urban Medley.

So Urban Medley was born to save the arts and crafts of India and to support the economic growth of Indian artisans. What does Urban Medley offer?

Shayonti: For the moment, we are focusing on accessories. Scarves, shawls and capes. So for now, the ‘not size-specific’ products. These items are not limited by the wearer’s size or shape. The plan is to diversify into products such as bags and belts. I chose first to concentrate on accessories because I feel these items have a wonderful fluidity to it with their mix-and-match quality. A dress is a dress. But a black dress with a white scarf might look very official. But if you have a pretty, jazzy scarf with the same black dress in the evening, you can walk into a discotheque with it.

A lot of our products are nature-inspired. But what is more important about our shawls is that it is peace silk. Not many know that silk is made by boiling the silkworms, which is cruel. But in the process of making peace silk, you wait for the silkworm to discharge the cocoon. So the silkworm is able to develop into a butterfly, cuts itself out of the cocoon and flies off, leaving the cocoon behind. It is only after that that the artisans pick the cocoon and start weaving the yarn.

Of course, since the butterfly cuts itself out of the cocoon, the silk is cut. So this is the difficulty — and skill — of the weavers. The weaving process becomes much more difficult. Whereas, if you kill the silkworms, the cocoon is intact and you can get a single thread when you’re weaving.

So our shawls are made from peace silk, handwoven and handprinted.

I know that your business, by its mission, relies heavily on supplier relationships. With the lockdown, businesses like yours faced many challenges with non-payment, cancellation, borders closing, supplier bankruptcy. What was your experience?

Shayonti: For me, it was an almost existential scenario. I was not able to participate in various offline events where it was important that customers come and feel and see the products. So obviously, sales were not happening. When a new business starts, it’s quite an uphill task to develop the brand and reach out to the people.

But I realised that while it was a drain on resources, I had to stay relevant. I’d seen messages on several other fashion websites announcing a temporary shutdown on productivity or international shipping. Now, I have a speciality and background in business development, I think that was a wrong step. I realise I shouldn’t be judging since everyone has their own reasons for doing this — the world was in absolute turmoil over the Coronavirus situation — however, as a business, you could be conscious and stay relevant to your people.

You don’t have to be ashamed that you are marketing your products even when there is a pandemic.

You don’t have to be ashamed that you are marketing your business at a time when there is pandemic. There is nothing wrong about it. We all have our roles to play in the economy. I cannot be a doctor. I cannot be a nurse. I’m extremely respectful of what they are doing. There is no harm in talking about my business. I talk about it consciously — don’t have to scream “Buy my product! Buy my product!”

You only need to talk about the product. Talk about the journey. Talk about the story. I think today, ‘brand’ is no longer so much about the product, it is about the story. I think it’s good timing to share your stories, views and values — since you may not be able to make sales — with your consumers. Now, consumers have time, good or bad.

‘brand’ is no longer so much about the product, it is about the story.

One needs to be mindful of what is happening in the pandemic scene, but there is no harm in marketing. That is a decision I took for Urban Medley; I would continue on social media.

In addition to that, I reached out to platforms who were conscious about sustainability and writing about the topic. I found that the response times with these platforms were much quicker than if I hadn’t. Everyone’s restricted to their home zone. People now have the time to read their emails, read their social media platforms — so it’s a good time to actually ‘catch their eyeball’.

I will say that this lockdown gave me a little breathing space to redefine what my next steps were to build my business.

I do what to bring attention to the way that bigger brands have stopped payment to suppliers in developing countries: I think it is absolutely horrible. All said and done, these brands are strong. They do have some reserves. It is disgusting that they are not mindful of their suppliers and the misery they have, day to day.

Myself, as a small business owner, just starting out, I had an order from a supplier based in Chennai, India. I still haven’t received the products. My supplier is unable to send it because of the serious lockdown in India. E-commerce had stopped. Postal services came to a standstill. But I remember my supplier emailing me with just one line of text: I need to pay the workers. They need to go back to their villages.

It wasn’t a small amount, even for me. But there was no question about my response. I didn’t even have the heart to discuss or stall payment. I think also, that this attitude is shared with other small businesses, as contrasted with bigger brands. This is the time to show business ethics, social responsibility and prove yourself to be of relevance.

This is the time to show business ethics and social responsibility towards suppliers in developing nations.

Interestingly enough, some young entrepreneurs have reported that these months in the pandemic have been their best months during this time.

It does sound like it’s been a very different journey for different businesses and entrepreneurs. You did take a very novel step to keep your suppliers fed, which isn’t easy for a business that is weeks-old and isn’t making sales. What is your take on the next few months with the lockdown, pandemic and your business?

Shayonti: Of course, as things are opening up, I would like to reach out to more people about the business, ethos and products. As lockdown stops, I feel people will want to step out, go out and connect again, as this is what people have been deprived of. So, I want to try to see if I can make inroads.

I also want to be mindful of people’s changed affordability given the pandemic’s far-reaching effects, so maybe I will dive into the pricing policy of the brand. One also has to look into smart-marketing. It’s not so much about advertising, it’s what exposure that can be gained organically with experts and community influencers.

I think what the pandemic has done to us is to allow us to see how connected we are and how important it is for us to help each other, whether we want or like it.

The pandemic has shown us just how truly connected we are and need to be.

I want to shed light on suppliers, especially during this time. Suppliers in many cases consist of supply chains, consisting of small, marginalised artisans and workmen who do need our support.

I also want to address the misconception that sustainable fashion is expensive. It’s not true. If you remember, ‘special, organic’ food in the supermarkets were extremely expensive and kept under lock-and-key. Today, as more and more of us are adapting to it, the prices are coming down. And it’s the same thing with sustainable fashion.

For more info on Urban Medley’s beautiful handmade, artisanal accessories, please visit their website.

Watch the follow-up interview with Shayonti from August 2020 https://youtu.be/AphpbhxKKyU

About the Guest

Shayonti Chatterji is passionate about Entrepreneurship and New Business Development. She believes in harnessing the power of storytelling and understands the strength of a good story and how it can impact lives. She has the ability to see the bigger picture in most cases. She is a team player, motivator and always open to new ideas and initiatives. Causes she supports: Education for girls, Economic Empowerment of the marginalized, End to Hunger. She believes in dreams.

Urban Medley is a platform curating exclusive artisan made sustainable fashion accessories. As a brand, we promote, help and support, ethical production methods in addition to being sustainable. Mainly we are promoting traditional forms of weaving and printing customizing them for a global audience. www.urbanmedley.com

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.