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Sujata Keshavan: Making design matter

  • The co-founder of design firm Ray+Keshavan speaks about her decades-long experience in the industry
  • Keshavan’s new venture Varana is an artisanal luxury fashion label with a flagship store in London

(Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint)

Our neighbours are Victoria Beckham, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin," says Sujata Keshavan, referring to the location (and the competition) of the flagship store of Varana, an “artisanal luxury fashion brand" she co-founded with entrepreneurs Ravi Prasad and Meeta Malhotra in 2016. “And we are in the Alexander McQueen building," she adds, for good measure.

Located on Dover Street, in London’s Mayfair area, Varana sets its sights very high indeed. In spite of its relatively short and somewhat discreet existence, not to forget the steep price points of its products, the store, which opened in 2017, claims to have a devoted clientele already. “We have a high conversion rate by industry standards," Keshavan says. “One out of two people who walk into our store ends up buying something."

From tunics costing a few hundred pounds, Varana offers exquisite cashmere garments going up to several thousand pounds. “It’s not a decorative brand at all," Keshavan says, “it’s defined by clean lines and simple cuts." Varana’s DNA, she says, signifies “a quiet joy". Every few months, she travels to London to check on the cosmopolitan team of designers—Indians, Europeans, Japanese—who work with her.

Something of that elegant simplicity also fills the congenial offices of the label, located on Brunton Road in Bengaluru, a few feet away from the house where Keshavan lives with her husband, writer and historian Ramachandra Guha. The workshop on the ground floor is busy with activity. Up a short flight of stairs, we meet in a room that seems mindful of Varana’s serenely austere aesthetics. It is sparsely furnished except for a large monitor on one wall and a rack of clothes in a corner.

“The brand references history, culture and craftsmanship," Keshavan says. “Our idea is to take to the world fabrics, textiles and visual motifs that are uniquely Indian but also make them modern and contemporary." The name Varana came to her during a boat ride with her son on the Ganga in Varanasi, the land where the scriptures say the rivers Varuna and Asi meet. The logo captures the riverine feel, with its gently undulating fonts. “It’s also a word that travels easily," Keshavan adds, once again referring to the brand’s big aspirations. Having opened its first (and, till date, only) store in London, Varana aspires to travel very far.

Such ambitions aren’t unfamiliar to the 58-year-old icon of design in India. In 1989, when she was only 28, Keshavan founded Ray + Keshavan in partnership with her former boss, Ram Ray at JWT. For the next 17 years, until it was sold to public relations company WPP Plc. in 2006, the company worked under her watch with an eclectic range of clients and forged a formidable international reputation. Infosys, Kotak Mahindra Bank, the Himalaya Drug Co., Bharti Airtel, several airports across the country—Ray + Keshavan’s portfolio remains long and distinguished. Its services, though pricier than most of its rivals, promised holistic design solutions, driven by a culture of immersive investigation ingrained by Keshavan.

“Design is not just about being decorative," Keshavan says. “It could apply to many parts of a business and help transform it." The most visible element of her work, she admits, is creating a brand’s logo, but that’s just about 10% of the contribution. Far less conspicuous is the all-round thinking across various parameters that is required to lift a company to the next level. It was this invisible allure of interdisciplinary thinking that drew Keshavan to study design in the first place.

Daughter of an engineer father and painter mother, she was academically gifted, equally honed in the sciences and the arts. Faced with the option of going to medical school, or doing a BSc in mathematics, or joining a fine arts course, she ended up enrolling at the National Institute for Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. “It was there that I really got interested in textiles," Keshavan says. “I almost took up textile design over graphic design."

She went on to do a master’s degree from Yale, where she studied under the legendary designer Paul Rand. But it was NID that sharpened her skill at crafting while deepening her design thinking, aptitudes that would go on to inform her approach to solving a myriad business problems later.

NID first opened up the vast possibilities of design as a field of work to Keshavan. “On Day 1, the students were told that design can extend from creating a safety pin to a highway system," she remembers. The sheer capaciousness of the discipline—its ability to address the smallest to the largest problems—would profoundly influence her work on industrial design with major multinationals over the next three decades.

One of Ray + Keshavan’s most successful projects, for instance, was with Himalaya. In 2000, when the company took up the commission, Himalaya was already a large and established entity, with over 150 products with different names. “We worked to create the umbrella brand," Keshavan says—this involved redesigning the logo, and providing the company with internal strategies to help it build an international identity.

While such learnings from her illustrious career in the industry still come in handy in her new venture, Keshavan says she is now working at a level far higher than she ever has. “It’s like you’re starting to learn how to swim in the sea, but you decide to cross the English Channel," she says. “Lots of people tell me I am brave, but privately they think I am foolhardy."

Call it a wager with fate, a reckless adventure, or what you will, Keshavan is unwilling to compromise on the core values of Varana—to remain faithful to its Indian roots while attracting a global demographic. Over the years, while travelling in various parts of the world, she was struck by the absence of any home-grown high street brand from India. It seemed to her, Keshavan says, that apart from Indian cuisine, not much else in the retail space from the country had made much of a global impact, except in the form of mergers and acquisitions or exports.

And so, it was out of her abiding interest to create an autonomous world-class brand (featuring products at the higher end of the spectrum, giving the competition a run for its money) that Varana emerged. From its inception, the exquisite quality of the brand’s products remains one of its key selling points. Contrary to fast fashion, the label caters to customers looking to keep their purchases beyond one season. “I have always been obsessed with high quality," Keshavan says, “and I mean by that world standards, not our local standards."

Such lofty goals, laudable as they are, are going to make it difficult for Varana to break into the subcontinental market, which is acutely price-sensitive. “We often cannot take a brand to a very high level in India, even though we have very deep and wide traditions," Keshavan agrees. “With Varana, I wanted to allow our artisans to work slowly, beautifully, to the best of their abilities, and see if our experiment might pay off."

Later this year, Keshavan and her business partners hope to launch an Ayurvedic brand in London called Almora Botanica, which will feature products made with natural and organic ingredients. “We are starting with things that don’t need to be ingested," she says. Some of these moisturizers, clays and serums are benefit-based, and were dermatologically approved and test-marketed over the last one year.

“Now that I am working in a new category of design, I am learning amazing things every day," Keshavan says. “I have no thought of retirement at all!"


What are your interests outside work?

I read all the time, mostly literary fiction, usually recommended by my son.

What are you reading currently?

I am still reading ‘Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, 1914-48’ (by Ramachandra Guha).

Your favourite travel destination?

I love to spend time in our home in the hills in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu.

Who is the one designer you look up to?

The legendary Paul Rand, who trained me at Yale. He taught me that form divorced from content has no value.

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