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IN CONVERSATION WITH PIYALI GANGULY

— JASMEEN DUGAL

EXCLUSIVE! 14 years back, Pia Ganguly opened bridal and couture house 'Pia Ka Ghar' to empower women engaged in 'kantha', i.e. stitch painting in Bengal, by bringing the indigenous art to the western consciousness. In 2010, she began retailing Sabyasachi sarees. Expanding with rapid sales growth owing to her knowledge, experience and quality service, today Pia has Sabyasachi, Anamika Khanna, Tarun Tahiliani, Rahul Mishra, Abu Jani- Sandeep Khosla, Amrapali and weaver clusters on her roster. In conversation with the pioneer of Indian luxury fashion retail in the U.S.

 

Let's go back in time so our readers can get acquainted with the person behind fashion house, 'Pia Ka Ghar'. Tell us about your journey, Piyali. What inspired you to conceptualise 'Pia Ka Ghar'?

 

I've lived in the U.S. for almost forty years. In the early days, there was no access to good saris for the Indian diaspora. I used to dream of buying saris from my favourite stores in Calcutta — chiffons, tangails, silks. We had to either go to India or wait for someone to bring us back a few saris, which could be of questionable taste and quality. In 2003, I decided to formalise a loose relationship I had with the textile industry in Bengal — I was working with katha artisans in Shantiniketan, intending to promote inclusive growth in the subcontinent. So I start importing the kantha saris — Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak has just written a book about how people like the kantha artisans, 'the subalterns', have no voice, and had to be represented. Anytime I have an opportunity to see myself as Fairy Godmother, I jump. This has been corroborated by Sabyasachi! Also, I imported saris from Ananda, Calcutta and Manjusha, the mouthpiece of the government of Bengal. What started as a casual affair led to marriage as more people said, 'the best saris in our closets are from 'Pia Ka Ghar.'' I wanted to bring the best saris from India to the world at large.

 

Did you have formal experience in retail before launching 'Pia Ka Ghar'?

 

None whatsoever! I worked in a Tech company as Senior VP and was responsible for Sales, Admin and Accounting; I had that in the bag but no retail experience at all. However, sarees are in my blood as my mother loved beautiful sarees — she wasn't a curator or collector but she had impeccable taste and a good eye.

 

Your fashion house is homegrown but has a global context at the core of its philosophy. How challenging was it to be a pioneer of Indian luxury fashion retail in the US?

 

A fashion house takes on the character of the person who creates it. I always thought I was 'the girl with the colour of the world in her eyes.'  Our company is located in California but we love to travel all over the world. That gives it the global context and sensibility at the core of our philosophy. What connects us as human beings is that we are responsible for each other's well being as per Aldous Huxley's perennial philosophy.

 

Tell us about something you learnt while you were starting out? Did you face roadblocks?

 

A very important lesson was to remain frugal — all the companies that folded before our eyes became cash poor — having just the right amount of cash was important to staying afloat. The biggest roadblocks were that this is a capital intensive business and we were bootstrapping. Secondly, dealing with India was a huge challenge. In the U.S., delivery timelines and quality are religions — India thrives on chaos. To introduce processes took a long time. Thirdly, we had to make sure that everything was done legally and legitimately without cutting corners; all t's had to be crossed and i's dotted. Most importantly, I insisted to our staff that if we took money from someone, we had a duty to deliver what they were promised.

 

In 2010, you took on the responsibility of bringing Sabyasachi sarees to the US and became his largest U.S. retailer. Why Sabyasachi? Tell us what drew you to the label and how it's being received in the U.S.

 

Sabyasachi at that point in time was, I believe, at the top of his game and this was a tryst that was supposed to happen.  We got along, and that is at the basis of carrying a big brand. You understand the designer and his or her ethos. I always said that he was the brother I never had and he said I was the sister he never wanted. For I never lacked the courage to tell him the truth. Big designers are often surrounded by sycophants and favour seeking folks. It's hard for them to stay grounded unless they get a reality check from time to time.  You have to be able to say, 'no, this is not you, you can do way better'. I learnt a lot simply by watching him for hours, dye-ing on a hot sunny roof, designing collections, talking to the press, hand holding customers and of course, losing his patience at the imperfections of others.  Since I watched the label from really up close and personal, I saw the meticulousness and sheer genius that was the hallmark of a Sabyasachi garment. His collections, 'Ode To Tradition' and 'Peeli Kothi' were beyond International standards. He has come back to such designs in his recent twentieth anniversary show but the brand is now firmly established as a luxury bridal brand.  I'm really happy that I had a hand in its growth in the U.S. for we worked tirelessly for him.

 

'Pia Ka Ghar' is a luxury boutique that represents the finest Indian haute couture designers. What does buying entail? What is your criteria for selection?

 

We are delighted to have transitioned this year from one major brand to several major brands — Tarun Tahiliani, Anamika Khanna, Anita Dongre, to name a few.  We are doing a show with The House of Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla on April 27- 28 in Silicon Valley. We have a very niche, very loyal clientele and buying entails keeping them in mind when I'm looking at collections. Criteria for selection is the age group we are buying for, their aesthetics, their needs. Neel, my son, who runs the business now has come up with an 'Events About Town' collection with lesser known designers at more frugal price points for folks who want to wear beautiful clothes but should not have to rob banks to do so!

 

How do you edit a designer's collection from the runway for it to retail at 'Pia Ka Ghar'?

 

I don't ever buy weird stuff that one sees on the runway.  We aim to deliver perpetual value like a Patek Philippe watch or Van Cleef and Arpels earrings. I like to keep it real. I'm not a fashionista; I'm a very ordinary Bengali girl. Some of the designer creations are Fabulous but unless one is invited to Dracula's castle or Aristotle Onassis' yacht, I don't know where a customer would wear them. Better to stay with clothes that one can wear to the WEF.

 

How would you describe the designer-buyer relationship?

 

I'm so glad that you asked me this question. The Indian designer, big or small, needs to understand that to market their clothes in the U.S. — that is what we do — requires a hell lot more money than in India. When they come on trips themselves — and a lot of them are coming these days — they realize the folly of their ways.  Secondly, they do need to understand the folly of absentee landlordism. You can't not have a permanent station here and hope to make a sweeping visit to create a market. That kind of approach is transactional and probably necessary now that the black money buyers in India have said bye bye and the big weddings have not rescued all the designers. However, they need to put their faith in people like us to develop the market for them and compensate them according to International standards. Thirdly, the designer-buyer relationship needs to be long term and a highly ethical one. The designer cannot cut out the retailer and grab the retailer's client. In the U.S. this is highly unethical and cannot be done — Indian designers don't have these constraints unless they are enlightened. Fourthly, designers often bring their wares in suitcases and avoid duties etc.  They don't charge sales tax in the cities where they do their shows. This hurts their representatives in the U.S. who have to operate legally. We have worked with Italian companies before and are starting up again — they don't really dream of going around us. Fifth, the designer buyer relationship needs to be one of complete trust where both have each others backs.

 

India's handicraft legacy has potential under the right stewardship. What is your opinion since you have experience retailing artisans and weavers? Is there a tie-up or a vision for upliftment of weaver clusters?

 

We have always focused on our work here and we haven't focused on the politics of the textile industry in India. We have retailed the work of our kantha artisans until they found their own way via social media to our customers. Other weavers and artisans are on the same path. However, I think there could be a concerted effort to find some of us out in the far flung frontiers and give us that responsibility of marketing these subalterns — our master weavers in Benaras can't speak English but their educated sons are getting them on to the Internet; the good ones are Highly Suspicious of these new fangled ways of selling that don't include kulfi phalooda and cuts of tea!! The weaver clusters would benefit from our knowledge of the markets and be able to sell their products rapidly.  Also, the feedback that we can provide about their work can help.  For example, I work with a bunch of weavers in Benaras and in Kanchi and sometimes I have to ask, 'what on earth were you thinking putting these colours together?!' They are not even half brothers… they come from a different village altogether.  'Yes, Didi' they will say, nodding their heads gravely.    

 

Who is the average shopper at 'Pia Ka Ghar' today?

 

Our target market is highly literate and sophisticated people, who are fashion savvy. I like to buy 'intelligent' clothes for them to wear to Silicon Valley events as well as global events like the WEF.

 

What is the future for 'Pia Ka Ghar' ahead?

 

We've come a long way from an Old Curiosity Shop! However, the future will hang tight with that old characterisation, like an unputdownable book. It will be the best solution for the needs of the customers.  It will be something for them to stop and stare at and pick up for their next event or non-event.  Just because.  It will be a celebration of life and living in one world — with designers not just from India but from other lands. It will be like my mother's Loreto geography book that I read as a child. In each chapter, the child visits new lands and learns about the culture of that land.  We will find the best and bring it to our portals and make the most discriminating customer ecstatic.

 

On a personal note... what are your guilty pleasures when it comes to shopping?

 

Unquestionably, shopping for jewellery with Mrs. Laura Piccini at Fratelli Piccini housed in the Ponte Vecchio, Firenze.  She has worked with me for almost thirty-five years and at 86 she still comes to the showroom daily, dressed up.  The best view in Firenze is from her offices. Handbags from Bottega Veneta is another guilty pleasure because the Italians really know how to make the finest handbags. When it comes to non-guilty, heaven help me, because I love shopping from the pavements of Janpath to bylanes outside the Kali temple in Calcutta to wherever we travel all over the world — at luxury stores as well as at pavement artists!
 

PIA KA GHAR
Piyali Ganguly
 
23-APRIL-2019
 
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