Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Picture this: You get engaged and start planning a wedding — an Indian wedding. You request time off for the three days leading up to your long-weekend wedding and two weeks after for your honeymoon. And then your mom calls you and tells you she’s booked your trip back to Delhi, or Jaipur, or Bombay to buy clothes for the ceremonies for you and your family. So you’re out another five days (at least) from work, another thousand dollars (at a minimum) for the flight, and two 14-hour travel days. Not to mention the hours on end you’ll spend getting everybody’s measurements, picking out fabric and jewelry, and going to tailors. Who has time for that?
Deepa Talwar wants to fix this. Her company, Asha Market, is trying to revolutionize the way the Indian clothing market works by streamlining the process in every single way, and it’s proven to be even more difficult than she expected.
Factor in the number of Indian weddings in America (Talwar’s back-of-envelope math suggests there are about 25,000 each year), the events per wedding (three, on average), the outfits, and the average size of the wedding (400 people, roughly), and it’s no surprise that the Indian wedding market is a billion-dollar industry. And somehow, still, the vast majority of couples are going to India to shop or are sending someone to go for them. “The market is so broken that people are willing to spend $1,400 on a flight to go buy their clothes,” she says. “And then you have a week to figure out all of your outfits, plus everyone else’s in your family — it’s actually an impossible task.”
Even if Indian-American brides don’t go to India, they’re stuck ordering online from expensive Indian designers or going to stores in the Indian neighborhoods where the process often has the same downsides as a trip to Delhi or Bombay. Talwar calls it a “necessary evil,” remembering when she had to go to Devon Avenue in Chicago to shop for her sister’s wedding. “You’re at the mercy of the salespeople, who won’t let you touch anything and just pull clothes out one by one.” Six hours later, she ended up with a “humongous” mint green lengha, a traditional Indian outfit with a cropped top; a long, flowy skirt; and a scarf-like dupatta. “It cost $1,500, and I’ll never wear it again.”
Or, brides’ families do the shopping for them, often “guesstimating” sizes, as in the case of Nadia Chaudhury’s Muslim ceremony in Queens. Her cousin in Bangladesh did the shopping and sent the clothes over; Chaudhury remembers that “the shoes didn't fit my husband, so he didn't wear shoes.”
In new bride Maheen Akhter’s case, she found pictures on Instagram that she liked and sent them to her mom and mother-in-law, who shopped for her in Dubai and Pakistan: “While they were abroad they would WhatsApp me pictures of outfits, and if I liked them they would go back the next day to purchase them.”
Why is this such a hassle? Talwar started to look into why it felt like everyone was getting ripped off. She talked to friends and researched the industry, and it seemed like nobody had a perfect solution: People traded outfits with cousins, they talked to designers over WhatsApp in 50-message exchanges, and they had their masis back in India shop for them. And the delta’s not all that big — the kind of formal, fancy outfits you need if you play a role in a wedding might start at $800 on Devon Avenue and $450 in New Delhi, so price-wise it’s not even always worth it. So Talwar set out to solve the problem.
Before launching Asha Market, Talwar worked at Visa — she was there when the company went public — and then worked in operations and growth at Uber. In her year there, she says the company grew from 60 people to 698, and from 12 cities to almost 120. “The same storylines you’re reading about now are the ones I experienced in 2012,” she notes. “I left because of the culture, mostly.” From there, she built a team at Thumbtack, a company that matches customers with local professionals like movers, handymen, and event planners. Last year she decided to start her own company. “I wanted to work on something of my own that involved India and women and was mission-driven.” She landed on fixing the business of Indian wedding attire.
With her background in growth, Talwar took a logistics-minded approach to her startup. “There’s an operational element I don’t think people see: The way you should make clothes is economy to scale.” Multiple pieces should be made at a time so that you can bring down the cost. Her initial idea was to make an Everlane-esque line. “We went to India and the goal was to find a designer, make nine pieces, bring them back to the United States, and get out of there.”
But what actually happened is that it took Talwar two months to figure out the landscape and how to get her bearings, and another two months to find a designer and start production. There were some wrenches in the plan — ”we messed up the lengha, which I thought was horribly hilarious because I didn’t think you could ever mess up a lengha” — and she soon realized that she needed to pivot. “Making clothes is hard. You lose money really quickly, and you’re taking a risk that someone likes what you make.” So when she found out that nobody wanted her Everlane-style line of staples, she had to ask herself what she was really trying to solve for.
What she landed on was reselling other people’s clothes. At first she tried a website, which didn’t work in the sense that Indian vendors are cash-poor, so they only make about 100 to 400 pieces and then never make more, instead moving on to newer designs. “With a website, you buy a bunch of pieces, you take your own photography, you sell out, and you’ll never get restocked. It doesn’t make sense.” The next iteration was personal shopping, where people would talk to Talwar and her team through Facebook messaging or WhatsApp, and they’d helped customers personally and handle everything — recently, they’ve started to move slightly away from this to focus only on batch orders. They also testing a B2B play that they’ve seen a lot of demand for, similar to an Avon or Mary Kay model, where other women could have “stores” in their own houses and Asha Market would sell to them as their wholesaler. “The B2B model makes a lot of sense because you can physically touch and feel everything.”
Currently, Asha Market is focusing heavily on its Etsy shop and on selling into group orders of 10-plus pieces for wedding parties or groups of wedding guests. For her 2014 wedding, Indian-American bride Meera Krishna went to India to buy clothes because “she felt that there was more choice there.” However, she had a difficult time finding all of the clothes she wanted for her chic Indo-Western wedding outside of Austin: “The one challenge was getting 10 identical saris, since ‘bridesmaids’ are not common in Indian weddings,” she says. “Lots of salesmen we spoke with were very confused as to why we would want 10 matching saris, and most of them didn’t have 10 identical outfits.” Talwar’s company, catering to an American audience, solves for this.
The biggest challenge is working with suppliers in India. Talwar, armed with advice from mentors with experience in Western fashion, walked into her first meetings in Delhi with a pitch deck, but designers in Delhi don’t operate like that. “Their advice was totally irrelevant,” she says, because the industry is unorganized and it’s also unbranded — people typically don’t know or care what labels their clothes have, compared to in America, “where you walk into a Nordstrom and know what brands you like, and they’ve been stocked by a buyer with an MBA.”
Part of what makes things difficult is how male-dominated the industry is. When Talwar went on sourcing trips in India, she’d walk into markets filled with tens of thousands of people and they would all be men: the vendors, the tailors, the people getting the fabric and working in the stores, and almost all of the designers. She’d have to hire an agent to go with her, and the vendors would talk to that person instead of her. “I’d have to say, ‘It’s actually my business, and this is what we’re looking for,’ and they’d think I was a joke.” Beyond the logistical issues, the mostly male industry doesn’t produce much information about styling — what to wear, how to wear it, and how to save money.
Especially these days in the United States, when there are so many younger Indian-American brides who haven’t grown up following Indian style, as well as mixed weddings, the response for a service like Asha Market provides is eager. “There’s no guide to what to wear that exists, really,” Talwar says. “And people our age — in their late 20s and early 30s — don’t often buy their own Indian clothes, so sometimes we also play a role like a coach or a wedding planner.” Their curated selection of Indian clothes and group ordering means that people can plan for whatever it is that they need — whether it’s one person buying outfits for three events for a cousin’s wedding or a bride ordering lenghas for a group of bridesmaids — seamlessly. It makes sense from an operations perspective, too: Focusing on just large group orders and the curated shop makes Asha Market a more scalable business.
But wedding guests are Asha Market’s real customer base. In the US today, almost a third of guests at Indian weddings come from outside of South Asian-American communities. “If you don’t help your non-Indian guests go on the journey with you, you’re sort of doing them a disservice because they’ll be confused the whole time,” Talwar says. “Appropriation isn’t an issue with us — the point of an Indian wedding is a big celebration where everyone is excited and involved. Nobody wants to leave a third of their guests out of that.”
And that’s what really drives Asha Market: The company wants to be a “safe space” for people to feel comfortable and confident in Indian clothes. “I’d like to think we can do a better job than someone’s masi because you can ask us questions you wouldn’t ask an aunt you don’t really know, or a shopkeeper,” she says. “Clothes, as silly as it is, help you fit in and participate. We want to make sure nobody feels like an impostor.”