WESTxEAST Is Creating Style Without Borders
“Fashion is beyond cultures, beyond identity. It’s a form of a unique sense of expression that anyone and everyone can use in whatever way they wish.”
Liya Thachil has just succinctly summed up her company’s purpose and mission so clearly and articulately that part of me almost feels like the interview doesn’t need to go any further. But she and her co-founder Tania Chackumkal have so much more to share - a story that will feel familiar to female entrepreneurs in some ways, but is uniquely theirs as well. That’s exactly what their company, WESTxEAST, does so well - it blends the usual with the unique, letting its customers put their own spin on fashion - a spin that melds the new and the old, the traditional and the modern, and of course, the West and the East.
Born from Necessity
South Asian weddings can often last for days, with multiple events and celebrations. Honoring those traditions is important - even to those who grew up continents away from their familial roots. But American Indian women born in the States face multiple hurdles when it comes to planning a modern wedding that incorporates South Asian traditions - especially when it comes to ceremonial wear.
As many first- and second-generation South Asian women are finding, it’s hard to stick to ceremonial fashion traditions when the materials are across an ocean. If a U.S.-based bride wanted to have herself or her bridal party outfitted in traditional garments, they’re in a difficult position, as there is no easy way to purchase customized designed ceremonial outfits. They can spend thousands of dollars on a plane ticket - and cash in valuable vacation days - to go directly to the source. Or, they could risk it and try to work with vendors remotely, a terrifying proposition when you realize that not only is there a time, and often, language barrier - there’s a perception barrier as well. For example, “coral” and “orange” definitely aren’t the same color. However, language differences might perpetuate the correlation between the two colors for many Indian vendors. Consequentially, many brides could be - and have - been in for quite a shock when they open their shipments.
That’s where WESTxEAST comes in. After seeing enough of their friends and family frustrated and stressed during the wedding process, these two entrepreneurs decided to take matters into their own hands. They work with U.S. and Canada-based clients to create one-of-a-kind South Asian bridal pieces from concept to execution. Liya and Tania manage the process from New York, but still use vendors and suppliers in India to create authentic pieces. By streamlining and systematizing the process, they’re providing a way for their clients to honor their heritage without the anxiety, travel, or cost.
“All of our bridal clients have extensive pictures of their gowns and things they like. We basically collect the pictures, and then we talk to them (to understand) exactly what they’re looking for, and we piece it together.” Brides are given three different sketches of how their vision could come to life, so the effort is truly a collaboration and a reflection of the individual. When a design is chosen, the real work begins. Fabrics and trims are selected, and dyed based on the universal Pantone system - this way, there’s no ‘neon orange instead of coral’ nightmares. “Color is a major thing, and there needs to be a way to make things in a universal system,” Liya points out.
That’s one of the many ways that Liya and Tania are modernizing the South Asian bridal market. They’ve been able to source from high-end Indian suppliers for fabric, embroidery, and the like, so that they’re using the highest quality materials in their garments. They’ve also visited their manufacturers to ensure the quality was up to par. And since they’re based in New York, they work directly with a production manager who is on the ground in India, they’re constantly using WhatsApp to check on a design’s progress, from colors to stitching to embroidery. The production manager makes sure that everything is running on time and on schedule from a production perspective, so that Liya and Tania can focus on working with the clients. But that doesn’t mean they’re hands-off the actual logistics of the production process. If there’s an issue, Liya says, “You kinda have to jump into superhero mode. [Things like] calling different post offices to locate a box...it’s been an adventure.”
This is how WESTxEAST is revolutionary. They’re taking some of the key qualities of the Western business world - universal systems, production checks, and high attention to customer service - and applying them to help each bride get the beautiful Eastern-inspired wedding gown of their dreams. It’s the third aspect that WESTxEAST really prides themselves on.
“Customer service-wise, we do above and beyond for all our clients, just as a minimum,” Tania says. “Because their word matters a lot. That’s how we’ve gotten every client thus far. If they have a bad experience, we’re ruined.”
Liya echoes that sentiment. “Instagram can only get you so far. If you're not able to back up what you post, then forget it.”
Navigating a Changing Landscape - and Attitudes
Despite having a killer idea, great business chops, and a client base that desperately wanted their services, it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Liya and Tania. They’re faced a multitude of challenges, including the age-old product and consumer demand debate that will resonate with plenty of other entrepreneurs.
One of the earliest challenges was making the decision to start a company at all. When the women took the leap and moved to New York, their families were worried that they were taking too great of a risk. It took some time for their families to see the traction they were making - though once they saw their daughters dressing people within their community, they started to get it. And while their success has proven that they made the right decision, the women are honest about the fact that they struggled in the early years.
“All we really had was each other,” says Tania, hitting on the isolation that so many entrepreneurs - especially women - can face in the current startup environment.
Not only were they going at it on their own, but after a few years, they had to use the often-dreaded “p” word - “pivot.” WESTxEAST wasn’t actually originally in the custom design space - it was conceived as a platform to connect newly-affluent consumers in emerging markets like India to luxury fashion and goods, without having to get on a plane to New York or London. It was a similar thesis to their current offering - connecting consumers to products they typically wouldn’t have access to. But after a few years, they realized that the demand wasn’t quite there the way they had been expecting.
Tania explained: “You’re definitely seeing a shift in the consumer willing to spend that amount of money on such items, and it just kind of reached a point where we were stagnant, and we weren’t really going anywhere trying to get into that emerging market - or rather, getting the correct brands and designers to align with us - and it didn't’ seem like the payoff was going to be very high. And in many ways, the vision was a lot more cloudy.”
They had to take a step back to reevaluate their business model - and their business goal. If the market wasn’t there to buy luxury goods, did that mean that their business done for good? Well, not quite. It turned out that their niche was right in front of them the whole time - thanks to some familial misunderstandings. As Liya explained, their families initially thought that the business was a custom design house, and were always asking them to make things for upcoming weddings.
“I guess the market was in this space all this time,” Liya says.
Once they realized that there was a different opportunity, they jumped at it. They used Liya’s own wedding as a test run to see if they could design, source, and manufacture the bridal parties’ outfits - and it was a smashing success. After that - they were in business (again). But the road was a long one. Liya is open about the anxiety they experienced. “There were times when I didn’t feel like I was going to get anywhere. And now we’re slowly but surely inching forward, and I feel like a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] we found what our brand was always supposed to be about. It took a little bit longer than most, though.”
Going it alone is a theme in WESTxEAST’s story. “I can’t say that anyone really got us,” Liya says. “VCs were looking for certain buzzwords, like ‘direct-to-consumer’ or ‘subscription’ - and we definitely don’t fit in any of those buzzword categories.” Because they weren’t in the fashion tech space, VCs found the concept intriguing, but they never got the feeling anyone was actually going to invest in them. And it wasn’t just that they are in a more production- and inventory-focused part of the fashion world. Being that their business has always hinged on South Asian consumers, the mostly white, mostly male startup space hasn’t really been enthused - despite WESTxEAST tapping into an underserved market with billions in spending power. And unfortunately, that hasn’t just been their experience with investors.
“We’ve been here for four years, and haven’t found an advisor or mentor or anything, so…” Tania trails off. Liya filled in, “I would love to have a mentor that really sees us and believes in us.” The women want to have someone to tap into that not only had experience in the logistical side of the fashion world, but also had similar life experience. However, because women as a whole are already underrepresented in entrepreneurship, not to mention women of color, WESTxEAST has been thrust into the role of trailblazer. They’re not giving up on their quest, though. Not having a mentor from a similar background, who understood where they and their consumers are coming from, is something that Liya and Tania see as a big pain point - but “hopefully, that will change.”
Building an Inclusive Future
In addition to continuing to grow their custom bridalwear base, WESTxEAST has also started selling ready-to-wear clothing that they designed themselves. Staying true to their “style without borders” motto, their clothing is South Asian-influenced, but built for the modern woman. One of the standout pieces is a pre-pleaded sari - a garment that is traditionally worn by draping up to nine yards of fabric around a woman’s body. The draping is complicated and time-consuming, a skill handed down over generations, but hard to perfect for women who aren’t immersed in the culture everyday. The pre-pleated sari “allows anyone to just hook it on and throw it over your shoulder, and it will look like it's perfectly draped,” says Liya. It also gives women the flexibility of incorporating the look into their day to day lives, she says. “You don't have to wear a sari skirt. You can try a variety of styles, and it’s something that you can even wear into the office if you pair it with a white button down.”
By making traditional dress more accessible, they’ve been working on ways to bring the South Asian aesthetic into situations that aren’t so formal, so that woman can incorporate it into their daily lives. “You don’t want to always just buy something so you can wear it to a function. It’s a very wasteful way of thinking, where if you invest in silhouettes where you can get a lot of wear, and you can actually wear out, I feel like that is a lot more impactful,” says Liya.
And they’re not just thinking about how to bring traditional South Asian fashion into different environments. They’re also thinking about how to bring fashion into a more inclusive future, in a myriad of ways. Liya explains, “As two women who come from fashion, it’s really annoying to have to see the same type of girl model in the same clothes over and over and over again. Our thing, our message at the end of the day is that anyone can wear anything they want.” Whether it’s purposefully casting models with different skin tones and cultural backgrounds or showcasing their clothing on a variety of body types, they’re dedicated to celebrating diversity.
“For us, at WESTxEAST, it’s always going to be about breaking any sort of boundary or rule that you have in place when it comes to your wardrobe.”
Here’s to a borderless fashion future.