Serial entrepreneur and fashionista Kalyani Saha Chawla tells us a very interesting and inspiring story—her own.
On my way to meet Kalyani Chawla (nee Saha) at her lavish mansion in Harcharan Bagh, Vasant Kunj, I wondered what she would be like. Former country head of luxury brand Christian Dior, successful entrepreneur, and socialite—her tags are many. But when Kalyani walked into her home office, there were absolutely no celebrity airs about her. She was warm, articulate, and attractive sans makeup.
As we sat down with coffee, the conversation kicked off with her being a self-made woman and what it was like. Reminiscing, she talked about her childhood in Kolkata, and how she grew up with fashion and art all around her.
As the eldest grandchild in the family, Kalyani was the apple of her grandparents’ eye, and they became the biggest influence in her life.
“My paternal grandmother was the most impeccably dressed person I knew. A voracious traveller, she used to read magazines like Vogue. She would buy fabric from New Market in Kolkata and ask her tailor to duplicate those clothes. She used to give me her sarees to experiment with—cut off the borders and put it on jeans, etc,” Kalyani recollects fondly.
“My grandfather was a pioneer businessman and freedom fighter. In our joint family, dinner conversations were always about work. I am an amalgamation of all these factors.”
Now in her 40s, Kalyani is a serial entrepreneur—a garment exporter, art gallery owner, runs a marketing agency, and is co-founder of luxury e-commerce portal Lulu and Sky.
Growing up with fashion
Kolkata may not have been the most fashionable place when she was growing up, but Kalyani reminisces that her mother—who used to export children’s garments—made sure that little Kalyani and her sister always wore beautiful frocks and lacy socks and ballerinas, rounding off the look with satin ribbons on their heads.
“Fashion was something I was born with. My maternal grandmother—who wears only sarees—had weavers from all over the country coming to sell their weaves to her. She used to get me amazing clothes from her travels. She bought me my first bikini when I was 13,” she recollects.
Art above academics
Kalyani’s mother wanted her to become a doctor. But growing up with art and culture around her, Kalyani—who studied at Loreto School—had no interest in academics. “My parents were huge art lovers. We went to plays, music concerts, museums, etc. In fact, now my mother and I run Montage Art, an art gallery in Kolkata,” she says.
Kalyani used to own a retail store in Kolkata named after her, where she used to design clothes. She calls it her foray into art.
When she was 22, for two years in the late 1990s, Kalyani ran four different magazines through The Indian Express in Chennai (where she did her B.Com), although she had no background in journalism or marketing. “I was branch manager so I did reporting as well as marketing. I have also worked in hotels including Oberoi in marketing,” she says. For some time, she dabbled in corporate gifting too.
After that, Kalyani came to Delhi where she met and later married Vishal Chawla. Kalyani got into garment exporting, catering to premium fashion houses like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Jimmy Choo as well as Mango, Zara, and Ralph Lauren for 13 years from her factory in Noida. Although they are now separated, Kalyani says she is still friends with Vishal, with whom she ran the business.
Entering and leaving Dior
Kalyani joined Christian Dior 11 years ago, where she became vice president and built the brand in India. She says:
“I did a lot with Dior which was not necessarily in its guidelines. I was fortunate that they trusted me with what I wanted to do for the Indian market, which is different from any other market. There are global strategies made every season. But you have to twist it around whenever you can, keeping the house rules and ethos in mind. That’s what I did with Dior.”
But after a point, she wanted to do something more challenging. “Dior comes very easily to me. I needed a change. So when I said I want to start my own business, Dior was supportive,” she says. Dior is now part of Koi Communications, the communication and marketing agency Kalyani runs.
A new venture
With their shared love for fashion, it was only natural for Kalyani and her friend Tina Antoniades to want to turn it into a business. Thus, targeting the 15-50 age group they co-founded Lulu and Sky. “We wanted to enter e-commerce as people are shopping online for everything nowadays,” she says.
But Kalyani was humbled by the digital world as she knew nothing about it. “The digital world is another animal altogether. I am barely four months old; I am sure we will have more challenges. We started off with a bang but consistency in the quality of our merchandise is the challenge,” she adds.
If the experience at Dior enriched her capabilities, with Lulu and Sky Kalyani learnt about positioning and presenting differentiation. “We have very strong USPs—our goods are all international. You are getting great variety in fashion from London, Paris, New York… The third USP is pricing. We are making international off-the-ramp fashion affordable!” Lulu and Sky will soon be combining a marketplace model with multiple brands along with selling their private label.
Lulu and Sky got lucky where marketing is concerned. “We got many celebrity endorsements—Alia Bhatt, Parineeti Chopra, Priyanka Chopra, Sonakshi Sinha. They didn’t have to do it, but they tagged wearing Lulu and Sky and that piece would be sold in two days,” she claims, adding that they have gained thousands of customers since launching in December 2016.
Lulu and Sky also plans to launch a beauty range soon but not for profit. Kalyani says: “We have tied up with Colorbar for Rouge Lipstick, a CSR initiative, the proceeds from which go to ModiCare Foundation for children and young adults’ education.” Recently, Kalyani also launched Rezon, a line of luxury silverware lifestyle products.
Like most women entrepreneurs who juggle multiple roles, Kalyani finds time for her daughter, 17-year-old Tara Tahira, her routine workouts or a game of badminton.
But how does she thrive in the business world which is dominated by men? Kalyani says that as a woman entrepreneur she has never faced challenges. “I do my job well and am not taken in by pettiness. I hate politics. If someone has a problem, I will be straightforward with it and sort it out. ‘Be professional’ is my motto,” she says confidently.
When we said goodbye, I left with this thought: for some women, fashion is a hobby. But for Kalyani, fashion is an art, one she holds close to her heart.