What made you come up with an idea like Yatra?
I owned Elahe for a couple of years, and it has gone on to become one of the biggest boutiques in the country. But I’ve always been inclined towards fashion, retail and design. When I got married, there weren’t too many fashion options in Hyderabad, so I started doing these trunk shows. I’m a commerce graduate with a penchant for fashion.
Not many people know that I joined fashion school but couldn’t complete it because I got married midway. I had two options: finish studying fashion, or get a graduate degree. Back then, you were kind of looked down upon if you weren’t a graduate, so I chose the latter and left fashion midway. That’s something I wish I had done, and it explains why I started doing trunk shows.
In 2003, the idea of having one big show came to me. In December 2004, we did a couple of shows with the best names in fashion, like Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Malhotra. And it was in 2005 that Yatra was born with a handful of five to ten designers. We realised that every time we linked up with big designers, it took a lot of investment but their sales for one day were not up to the mark. That’s when I thought that the affordable line would sell in one day; not many people indulge in luxury shopping on one particular day. Adding to that were the trips I’d make to fashion colleges, where I saw so much untapped talent without a platform – the market in those days was dominated by the bigger designers.
Furthermore, while I was doing these trunk shows, a lot of people would ask me to do theirs as well. There came a point when I was no longer comfortable inviting people to come and shop over and over again. Considering all these factors, we decided to create Yatra. I’d bring everyone under one roof, and people would want to come on their own instead of having to be invited.
And after that?
In 2006 we went a little bigger when we changed the name to Fashion Yatra, and included 40 designers in the show. Believe it or not, the entire show was put together in exactly a month. When that was received well, it gave me the courage to work on two shows the next year. That was when we introduced our Valentine’s Day show, Souk – the night bazaar. When Souk got such a strong response, I realised I could move ahead yet another step.
My sister-in-law lives in Chennai, and she asked me to do a show there. I did, and after that we went to Kolkata, followed by New Delhi and Bengaluru. By around 2007 or 2008, I had toured all the major cities in India. But I had to cut down my work in 2009, as circumstances required me to be with my family in Hyderabad – that’s what limited the shows to Hyderabad and New Delhi.
Because I had a partner in Delhi who was very understanding and could handle most of the arrangements without my constant presence, I earned a good reputation in the capital. Since parting ways with her, I’ve continued my shows there, thanks to that good standing. I discontinued editions in other cities as they needed so much from me, and I unfortunately wasn’t able to give that at the time.
By then, you had established a special standing in Hyderabad.
Yes. That’s why we started an October show in 2009, a pre-Diwali show that ended up being the third exhibition of the year. This one was bigger than the other two, with bigger names in fashion design. Now we do three shows in Hyderabad every year and two in Delhi. In fact, this year we plan to do two or three international shows, too. Talks are on, and there will hopefully be an official announcement by early March.
Putting a show together isn’t easy. How and why do you handle it all by yourself?
To be honest, I don’t find it difficult. If I weren’t a designer or fashion retailer, I would have gone into marketing. Many of my friends say that I can sell anything, that it comes to me naturally. I don’t think conceptualisation and organisation for putting on a show require much effort. Even for Yatra, I was a one-woman team with a few people working under me. It’s just now that we’ve started outsourcing some of our work, though we have a core team of strong people – one of them is my sister-in-law, Radhika, who helps me with virtually everything and is the backbone of the show.
There are so many exhibitions in our city. How would you assess Hyderabad’s fashion retail scene?
Fashion retail is doing very well here in Hyderabad, so much so that I haven’t heard of an exhibition faring poorly. Our city has a lot of buyers, and that number is growing every year. Hyderabad parties seven days a week; something is always happening somewhere, so everyone always needs clothes. And in a city like ours, we can’t repeat clothes too often because it’s more or less the same crowd wherever you go.
What of the competition?
I don’t compare myself or my work to anyone or anything else, and I’m constantly thinking of ways to better myself; my competition has always been myself. I don’t go to other exhibitions, and I make sure that my people don’t either. We have a strict rule that participation in Fashion Yatra means that you cannot tie up with any other exhibition in the city. There are millions of designers in the country, and we take in just 50 of them. If those 50 then work with others, we lose our exclusivity. If people want to see the same stuff over and over again, they’re better off visiting the boutiques!
Nowadays there’s a new exhibition springing up every other week. When you started off, you were more or less the only one. Does it ever bother you?
It’d be a lie to say that it doesn’t, but then I’ve always been a fighter with spirit. I simply have to excel. There was a time when there were far too many exhibitions, but quite a few have gone out of business; the nicer ones are still around. We were the first to arrive on the scene, and we were one of the best – we still are because of hard work. I keep bringing in new faces, and I’m always improving in terms of the quality of my designers.
There is space for everybody; if you’re good, you’ll stay. For example, the people who come to our exhibitions are some 5,000 out of the millions we have in the city. The way I work is not by aiming for those 5,000, but by reaching out to the others. That’s why I’m generous with my advertising campaign – I don’t mind earning a little less if I can reach more people.
What do you see for Fashion Yatra five years from now?
It’s a fashion journey, so I see it on an international stage, doing shows with new talent.
And for you? Where do you see yourself?
I see myself happier, more peaceful, fitter and more confident. I take each day as it comes, but I aim very high.
Coming back to the present, we hear you do a lot of brand and event management these days.
I’ve started doing branding and consultancy, following my earlier work doing trunk shows for international brands like Bottega, Ferragamo, Paul Smith, Judith Leiber, Christian Louboutin and Alexander McQueen. I did Louis Vuitton’s first show in Hyderabad years ago, and Tarun (Tahiliani) has been a great friend for many years – whenever he’s wanted help with a show, I’ve lent a hand.
These were all done as favours for friends – all the money I needed was coming from Yatra, so I did this out of passion and goodwill, without charging anyone a single penny. At that time, I didn’t even realise that I was actually doing publicity work for all these brands – not only social PR, but handling the press for them. During that time, someone called me a ‘PR and brand consultant’ – I realised that was what this work was called.
Thanks to those projects, I now have a reputation in the event management industry. Today, if anyone is doing an event, I get the first call; only if I decline it will it go to anyone else. That’s why I decided to start my own PR company – Akshat Media Works. I have four strong clients: one jeweller in Tibarumal Jewels of the Ram Bharos and Pankaj Gupta group, Soul gym and spa, and two designers in Tarun Tahiliani and Shantanu and Nikhil. I’m also in talks with a big construction and township company that has approached me.
How do you handle the guest lists for these events?
We aim for couture buyers. While we definitely want the good-looking faces, my goal has always been to bring balance. Genuine buyers constitute 50% of the guest list, and the rest are potential buyers. My main focus is to broaden my clients’ sales.
With everything you have going on, it must be quite hectic. How do you manage your time?
I value it. You might find me five minutes early, but not late. There was a time I would stress out both myself and the person I had to meet. If he or she was late when I reached the venue, I’d keep calling them and stressing on the situation. It took me a while to understand that others don’t value time as much as I do, so I’ve started taking out a book when I arrive. Now I read while waiting for people. If you value time, time will value you. What you lose will never come back, so try and do as much as you can today.
What role has your family played in all this?
My family is my strength, and I can do all I do only because of my husband. I got married into a joint family; had it not been for my husband’s encouragement, I wouldn’t have been the person I am today. He’s supported and pushed me to do these things, and I’m grateful for that.
I also have to mention my son, who never complained once – I’d be rushing in and out of the city for something or the other, but he never took issue. His exams always took place around the time I’d have my Delhi exhibition, so I’d try to stay available. There were times when I wasn’t around, but he has always been very understanding.
I’ll bet you missed some parent-teacher meetings?
You could say that! Because I did 12-15 shows around the country each year, I wasn’t around all the time, even though I tried to be as much as I could. He was at Oakridge, where they give you a calendar at the beginning of the academic year. I’d schedule my exhibitions around his dates, but it wasn’t always possible to be around.
You mentioned a joint family. Was everyone else okay with your travelling and round-the-clock timings?
Despite the generation gap between my in-laws and me, they have always been understanding of my work. Maybe it’s because I never thought of them as my in-laws but welcomed them as parents, but they changed and grew along with me. And then my mother and father moved to Hyderabad, and parents are the greatest support anyone can ask for.
How would you describe yourself?
I’m a combination of the good traits of my elders. I got my father’s philanthropic nature – he’s the most generous person I know, and anyone seeking his help will get his full effort without a second thought. My grandfather taught me a lot about marketing when I was young, so those skills come from him. My sense of fashion comes from my mother, who is from a very polished family that has always been keen on designer clothes. I got the best of everyone, and I was blessed to marry into such a loving family that allowed and encouraged me to grow and blossom.
Do you take success seriously?
I still don’t get it when people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Kamini Saraf’. I don’t know how to react to that! If I weren’t the level-headed person I am who’s nice to everyone, I’d have lost my true friends. Those friends are the same ones I’ve had since the very beginning. I may have made new ones, but I haven’t lost a single friend during this journey of mine.
Speaking of success, Yatra has another aspect to the great things it has achieved. It has served as a platform from which ordinary housewives have become entrepreneurs. I’m so very proud to see these women launching their careers in fashion and fashion design using something I created, and the fact that this is the benchmark in India only makes me prouder.
What about failure?
I had two big shows that went really wrong, but those experiences taught me that I needed to start Yatra. One was called Fashion Files, which I did with a friend in Hyderabad in December 2004. That backfired badly. We brought in 25 big names, and things went wrong. That’s when I realised that I didn’t want to do luxury, and that I wanted to focus on the affordable segment that caters to more people. I invested greatly and things turned out poorly, and I learned that I should instead have others make the investment.
In 2009, I thought the time was right to do one more show with big designers, but ended up burning my fingers again, this time in Kolkata. Fashion Yatra Creme was not a regular show, but a classy exhibition of another level. You’d walk into what appeared to be the set of a party, with French dancers and a host of other exciting elements. Unfortunately, the concept was ahead of its time, and we chose the wrong time to put it on.
Did you ever consider turning your back on the whole thing and quitting?
Not for a second. After that, I was determined to do the mega-scale designer shows in Delhi once again, and I had the strength and ability to come back bigger and stronger in the capital.
What else can you tell us about yourself?
I’m a fitness enthusiast, to say the least – you can wake me up in the middle of the night for a walk, and I’ll happily come along. For two hours every day, you’ll find me at the gym. I also love designing, be it clothes, gift wrap or anything else. Organising weddings is another favourite – I’ve done all the weddings in my family, and like a true professional! I can be overly sensitive and get hurt very easily – I don’t show it, but it happens.
Through Yatra, we do a lot of charitable work. We support Nanhi Kali, with 100% of our proceeds going to this NGO that supports the education of young girls. We have educated 2,500 girls in Hyderabad alone, and with every exhibition I do, I sponsor the education of 100 girls. We also contribute to People for Animals, HELP, the Ushalakshmi Breast Cancer Foundation, and anyone who may ask for help. ..... as told to Anahita