Fashion icon Iris Apfel once said, “What’s my style is not your style, and I don’t see how you can define it. It’s something that expresses who you are in your own way.” As people learn to be comfortable in their own skin and the world moves towards self-expression and individuality, most fast fashion brands are under scrutiny. SAA’s very own creative director and founder, Ashaa Vigashini strongly believes—one-size does not fit all.
Ashaa’s venture into the fashion industry was a mere coincidence, very much like the fashion icon. “While I was in school, Chess and Bharatanatyam (a classical dance form with origins in Tamil Nadu) were the biggest parts of my life!” she gushes. Like most high school students Ashaa was torn between following her passion for the arts and the more ‘secure’ route through engineering college.
“My parents took me to a career counselor, who asked me to draw,” she pauses before bursting into laughter, “To this day, I still draw stick figures and hope that my clients trust me with the process.” Although her parents urged her to follow her passion in Bharatanatyam—a rare event in the Indian household—she decided that she would take the safer route. “My father graduated with a degree in leather technology from Anna University, and used to take every opportunity to show me around the reputed, large campus,” she narrates, “So that became my goal, I had to get into a top-tier university.” The effort and hard work paid off. She landed an admit to the Geo-Informatics department at Anna University.
“I still have no idea what Geo-Informatics is all about, to be honest, but I applied for a couple of internships so that my resume would look great,” she chuckles. Nonetheless, Ashaa’s creative spark never died. She spent most of her time practicing and choreographing with her dance troupe, Get Ready Folks, at the University. It was around the third year symposium (an event where the entire university would get dressed in their best traditional outfits), that fashion design began to creep into her life. “I was a three-year-old stubborn child rolling my eyes when my mom started dragged me to dance class. Ever since then, I have been wearing custom-made clothes designed by her for my performances and practice,” she recollects, “Eventually it became a norm in our house to only wear clothes that my mom designed, but only when I got to college did I realise that it wasn’t as common to go to a tailor when you want new clothes.”
Post her graduation, Ashaa decided to take a gap year. As a fun exercise, she began designing clothes for her friends. That marked the origin of SAA. “My friends call me ‘Asaa’ as a joke, so I decided to use that Identity for the label because it was more popular than my real name,” she giggles, “Coincidentally, my mom’s name is Saradha. It was as though the universe was telling us that we were meant to start designing together! My mom was reluctant at first, but I assured her that I would take the blame if my friends didn’t like it.” The mother-daughter duo began by designing outfits for about six of Ashaa’s friends.
“My dad, P. Murali, is an entrepreneur. He runs Viralli Enterprises, a 25-year-old leather garments manufacturing company. I spend most of my time at the company, working as production manager under him and understanding how to run a business, but it isn’t very common to see people my own age choosing the path towards entrepreneurship.” Once again she found herself at the crossroads. She had to choose between pursuing her passion project full-time and a ‘more secure’ corporate life. “Honestly, I never saw myself as an employee as much.” she shrugs. Passion took over and Ashaa decided to give entrepreneurship a shot.
Very soon, word spread about custom-designed clothes by SAA and Ashaa’s amicable and outgoing personality only proved to be an asset. In fact, that was what made the brand stand out. “I would spend a lot of time talking to my clients, getting to know them and even their insecurities (if they were comfortable sharing that kind of information with me),” she explains the process behind each one of her outfits. “Understanding who the wearer is and trying to tell their story through the outfit is a very important part of the design process, so it usually takes about 25 to 30 days to design each outfit, even if it results in a simple kurta.”
By August 2018, Ashaa decided that her brand needed a bigger presence. She took to Instagram as @designwithsaa (Clothing for He/She/They) to spread the word about her design and her process. “It was the first time I was taking ownership and putting my design out there for everyone to see,” she admits, “I’d like to know who was designing my clothes, so I figured that I had to put my face out there to make my brand more approachable—and that was intimidating.” The personal touch however only brought her more clients—from India and abroad.
Sometimes a client or two would come with an exciting brief. “I want an outfit that demonstrates detachment,” was one of the requests she received recently. “My mind went straight to a loosely fitted silhouette.” With this in mind, Ashaa went about her process of talking to her client, discussing their lives and their respective interpretations of the word detachment—not just with clothes but in every way possible. “Our conversations ranged from social media to personal life events before we started breaking that down into design elements that could be converted into an outfit.” The result fell far from the initial idea of the loosely fitted silhouette. “We landed with a dress and a detachable layer on top. It could be worn together or as two separate outfits.”
Storytelling has always been an integral part of Ashaa’s life, especially as a dancer. “The funny thing about Bharatanatyam is that most of the stories we try to tell revolve around narratives like jealous friends or unrequited love. These are things that any millennial can relate to,” she reveals laughing, “The art-form is traditional and hence seems unapproachable to many, so I spend a significant amount of my performance time on telling the story in a relatable way before the dance.” Eventually, she met Apoorva Jayaraman and Sumathi Vikram, co-founders of The Rooted Foundation who intended to do the same on a bigger platform. “I joined the foundation as a social media strategist, which gave me a good perspective as to how I should grow my brand.”
Several instances proved that the time invested in the design process would bear fruit. The brand had grown with more than two thousand followers, an in-house tailor, a fashion designer and a bigger client base. “The growth has made us think about launching a line of outfits. The real challenge is in how to make it fit into our ideals of storytelling so that it doesn’t just end up becoming fast fashion.”
Parallel to designing, Ashaa has been providing wardrobe styling services as well. “Dressing up is something that makes me happy, so I decided that during the pandemic I would use fashion as a medium to spread happiness.” She would once again sit down with her client and understand their story before opening their wardrobe and navigating through exciting permutations and combinations for different occasions. “My clients become really good friends at the end of the process and even come back to me much later and thank me for giving them the confidence to wear outfits they love and feel good in.”
Life is full of lessons. “From strategizing during chess tournaments to working under my father’s guidance at Viralli, I learn something new every day that I apply to build my business,” she says. As SAA grows, Ashaa wishes to help people grow more confident and be comfortable in their own skin while opening them to a world of opportunities in the realm of fashion.