I first met Sana Rezwan Sait when she held a trunk show for her ethical online store Indelust in her posh Chelsea apartment near the High Line. Before the party, I only had a partial idea of the quality of items featured in the Indian-focused shop. But under the soft glow of lights from the high ceilings of her home, set against the white walls, I was bowled over by the luxuriousness of the products Indelust sells – the intricacy of the embroidery on a Rahul Mishra top, the weight of a wooden Rachana Reddy clutch, the delicacy of Shana Gulati earrings, and the statement made by Akaliko brass, rose gold, and crystal earrings.
I hadn’t seen list level of luxury in the ethical fashion market since Maiyet launched.
Sana, a petite Indian woman with a British-Indian accent and bobbed hair (and place on India’s best-dressed list), welcomed guests with champagne and petite hor d’oeuvres. So excited was I, I made her promise to meet up with me for a longer interview. That is how I found myself in the quiet, sandalwood-scented back courtyard of the High Line Hotel (her suggestion) enjoying a hibiscus tea while she told me about her background.
Sana grew up in Bengaluru, India, and left at 18 to study at Nottingham University in England. She started her undergrad in psychology, but found the regimented, black-and-white framework for viewing people depressing. So she went to London. “I wanted to do something in fashion, but I didn’t have the skill to draw or come up with outfits. I didn’t have a lot of options like I would now,” she says. “Fashion marketing was one of the options I had. I absolutely loved it, because it had an element of business and an element of creativity, and an element of research. I became obsessed with it. I studied through my summers, never took a break.”
When she graduated, she went on to work in the press departments of Stella McCartney, Georgio Armani, and Jasmine de Milo. She bounced back and forth from London to India, helping her family retail business; consulting and doing market research for Chanel, Givenchy and Emilio Pucci; getting her masters in fashion buying at Istituto Marangoni in London; working at Liberty, an upscale department store; and finally opening a concept store in India called Maison, which stocked international upscale brands like Phillip Lim, Thakoon, Givenchy, and Saint Laurent.
“It was one of the first of its kind in India, offering luxury women’s wear,” she says. She also ran a creative agency on the side in India, since people, when they saw her store’s website and graphics, wanted to hire her to do their own. It was then she met her now-husband, who lived in Chicago. After she got engaged, she decided to give up the store and move to the U.S. She spent almost nine months trying to figure out what she wanted to do while she wrapped up her store, until she attended a fashion conference.
“I was sitting at this conference surrounded by all of these CEOs from massive brands,” she says. “There were over 100 to 200 people there. A panel of CEO’s were talking about what happened in Bangladesh. These people were dead, gone, for the sake of fashion? Is it that important? Nobody stood up and said, ‘This is what I’m doing to help the situation.’ It was upsetting to me.
“If things don’t change at such a high level, at the level of influencers that really run the market today, who are making billions from all of us, to not have taken any corporate social responsibility, it really upset me. It made me think about where my things are coming from, how they’re getting made, who is making them.
“In India, there’s an incredible design sense that is emerging there. I wanted to find a way to capture that, and instill a sense of ethical production.”
At the time, Sana was was freelancing for Elle Magazine and covering fashion week for them in India. “I happened to visit the Maiyet store launch, and I met the founder, Paul van Zyl,” she says. He put her in touch with Rebecca van Bergen, the founder of Nest, a not-for-profit that partners with artisans to help bring their product to market. “I went to Rebecca and said, ‘I have this business plan, I know you work with artisan groups with India, how about you come in and audit the artisans we work with, in addition to the artisans you work with.'” Van Bergen was down with the business plan.
“Next thing, I’m on a flight to India, traveling around, sourcing products, convincing suppliers to come on board,” Sana says. She started with 10 designers, convincing them not only to come on board with a new company, but also to sign a supplier contract and ethical code, stating that if not that very moment, eventually they would be carefully reviewed. (Indelust is in the process of reviewing all the designers now.) She was looking for brands that are either emerging, or make a positive sustainable impact on the community, with a focus on designers who do small runs. She launched the site last November, and now has a staff of 10 people. In addition to India, she also has pieces from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. She’s launching a baby collection in the fall, and a tableware line for the holidays.
It helps that Sana herself is Indian – it gives her much-needed focus, insight, and efficiency when trying to find ethical makers. “I think when you are sourcing from all over the world, it is really challenging to get suppliers to do anything more than just sign a pledge. If I want to do this, I want to do this right. Because of our geographic focus, I am able to work closely with my suppliers to ensure supply chain transparency.”
The site possesses a subtly global aesthetic, something traditional that you can’t quite put your finger on. It is so clearly the work of a woman with excellent taste and fashion industry experience, who views the designers and artists as creative equals instead of people to be helped, and truly believes in the value of Indian design.
“The curatorial eye comes from my experience of working in Europe and living in India,” she says. “It’s a mix of the design aesthetic, and applying what I’ve learned over the years. I think that’s what makes it different from other websites. I get to give back, and showcase my country in the best way possible.”
“I’m going to quote from one of the designers, Rahul Mishra, who said something to the effect of that he uses fashion as a vehicle to revive craft,” she continues. “Fashion is dynamic; it needs newness constantly, every three or six months. But without fashion, it is difficult to make handmade or artisanal pieces relevant in today’s world. Things that were being made 2,000 years ago might still be very cool, but not always. We’re using techniques that have been around for generations upon generations and applying them in new and interesting ways.” So think embroidery skills applied to a box-cut top, traditional silver jewelry techniques formed into a very of-the-moment earring jacket, and rich beadwork on a pencil skirt.
Tehzeeb Merchant, designer of the jewelry line Akaliko, is inspired by the Art Deco architecture. The resulting pieces, which are often made with recycled and upcycled materials, are timeless and without geographical orientation. They are just chic. And En Inde jewelry is made in a shop with craft workers trained in traditional Patwa jewelry making techniques. “The designer wanted to bring this organic sensibility to the work, but in a modern way,” Sana says. “Every piece is unique.”
So no, it’s not all saris. “When people think of India, they think of Bollywood, bright colors, embellishments, they think of Goa, the hippy stuff. It has an image of being not well made,” Sana says. “I want to break that mold and showcase something that is extremely avant garde.” Indeed, looking through the designer page, I am struck by the breadth of styles and looks possessed by the bio photos. Some designers are in traditional garb, but more have fresh undercuts and man buns, uptown style, and everything in between.
And what about the big brands that are “inspired” by Indian design (read: rip it off)? “It’s funny to me. I can’t be offended by it. Every designer sources fabric from India, they think they’re the first ones applying it to their designs, but it’s been happening for years! My friend and I were walking by a store in the Meatpacking, and there was this block-printed, flow-y dress. And we’ve seen it at Club Monaco, we’ve seen it at Anthropologie, everywhere. And Hermes did a version of the sari a few years ago. You can’t deny people to be inspired by India. But, be respectful of it. Go to India, find some cool designers, and ask them to create something for you. We have so much talent in this country that we must acknowledge.” Which is what Rana did.
“There’s a sensibility of Indians wanting to celebrate the craft and artisanship that comes out of their, and put it into their own context,” Sana says. “It’s the way they choose to design it, not necessarily influenced by what is going on in the West. That’s what makes it so intriguing to me. They are people who have traveled abroad, but they are producing things that are even cooler than what’s going on in the West.”
“There’s so much happening in India that I want to showcase,” Sana says. “Over and above that, the future of Indelust is about experimenting, but making wise decisions. Giving my customers what they want, at the same time fresh, unique, and new.”