AISPI – THE FOUNDER STORY

28-Oct-2020
Aisha Saraf Kothari

Its funny that for someone who has been a part of AISPI for almost two years, I have never met Aisha even once. Given the disparity in our locations (she is based in Belgium and I, in India), my correspondence with her is reserved to WhatsApp and email. Yet never once has she failed to inspire me, whether with her brazen professionalism or her exemplary communication skills that defy the physical distance between us. I am excited for our readers to catch a glimpse of the powerhouse that is Aisha Saraf Kothari.

Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I was born in India and spent the first seventeen years of my life in New Delhi before moving to the United States for business school. I studied finance and management at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and also dabbled in certificate courses in film making and Spanish. Living in the United States reaffirmed my belief in myself and my dreams; with hard work and a smattering of courage, I knew that everything that I dreamt of was possible.

How did you conceptualise the idea behind AISPI?

The idea behind AISPI came about as a result of my love for discovery and travel. I am a compulsive list-maker; every time I travel, I always make a detailed itinerary of where to eat, what to do and where to shop. Ironically, the first two columns were always spilling over with names, but the ‘where to shop’ column remained relatively empty other than the standard high street stores. This was my lightbulb moment; I wanted to find a way to connect the global traveller to the talented fashion community of Europe that, very often, remains hidden behind the big names.

Unlike a lot of other startup founders, you still continue to work in finance at EY while working on AISPI. How do you think simultaneously working two jobs in such diverse professions has led to your growth, both personally and professionally?

That’s an interesting question and I think there are a couple of points to address here. Personally, I wanted to cultivate a company that prioritised it’s values first; working a part-time job at a corporate company not just enabled me to do that but also allowed me the creative freedom with my own start-up (PSA: I am extremely fortunate to work with a company and leadership that encourages and supports me and my company; not all corporate jobs are cut from the same cloth). My role as a business consultant allows me learn so much; I am able to bring immense value to my own company and the one that I consult with because of my dual perspective.

Coming back to AISPI, tell us a little bit about the early days behind the business. How did you get it all done?

I live by one motto : what is the worst that can happen? I will admit, it was pretty daunting for me at first; in the early days of the business, there was so much work that had to be done and I had to learn to do it all! There were a lot of moments that taught me so much; from walking up to a store and asking to work with them without any credentials to changing outfits in a designer’s kitchen, I have done it all! It was only my unshakable faith in myself and AISPI that got me through the early days of building the business.

You have strongly promoted a remote working culture, much before the pandemic fostered a trend of working from home. How did you make your hires and manage teams remotely? What, according to you, are the benefits of working remotely and would you have any tips for other founders/companies struggling to get through the current situation? 

As a person, you can always find me working at the oddest hour; I am a complete night owl and I can, on occasion, easily work even up until 5 AM! I find that a regular office set up is a hindrance of sorts to my creative process and a combination of remote work along with in-person professional interactions (similar to what you would find in an office), is best suited for me personally.

At AISPI, a remote or hybrid work culture works well for us because it allows us to hire and collaborate with people from all over the world. It also enables them to have a more flexible schedule and encourages applicants from all walks of life (our past hires have included everyone from a working mom to young students) to work for us. A remote/hybrid work culture allows us to prioritise skills and talents as a hiring criteria as opposed to a location – a very important factor to consider when hiring in today’s day and age.

For those struggling to accommodate to the new normal of working from home (or anywhere, really), I would suggest a well organised method of communicating with your employees or teammates; the right kind and methods of correspondence go a long way. Secondly, I would also suggest to connect with your employees on a deeper level; take the time to know them beyond their professional title. Accessibility goes a long way too; I ensure that I am always readily available to all my teammates whether we are working from Belgium or corresponding across time zones.

Which were some of the first brands that you worked with? Do you have any memorable stories to share from the initial days of AISPI?

I am the most grateful to some of our earliest collaborators; one of my favourite brands from the early days of the company who we worked with was Belgium based footwear label NOË. The team at the store was extremely welcoming and very encouraging of AISPI; it was my first interview and photoshoot! I also enjoyed working with Courchevel based store Wild Albert; it was a little over three weeks since I had begun working on my ideas for the company and my husband played photographer as I modelled some of the outfits (not one of my finest moments!).

I am so thankful to all the brands that we have worked with till date, but I am the most grateful to those who showed relentless faith in me and my ideas in the company’s early days.

What kind of services and products does AISPI offer today? What are the kind of brands/creatives you envision AISPI working with?

We offer three kinds of services for our clients; we help curate lists packed with local brands and standalone stores that you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. This service is our discovery service and is the most popular among those who love to travel and discover new places (whether via a plane, car or simply from the comfort of your sofa). Our trunk shows also enable our clients sitting across the world to access local European designer labels; in the past we have hosted several trunk shows in India in the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. We also offer our community a chance to delve deeper into how the industry works.

For brands and creatives from the fashion industry, we offer a collaborative platform of sorts that enables them to connect with consumers and peers especially from my homebase in India. We love to work with brands that are passionate, open-minded and looking to grow; as a young platform, there is nothing more that we enjoy than the opportunity to collaborate and work with brands that share the same values as us.

In the new normal, how do you envision the future of fashion and what are some changes that you are making or have made pertaining to how you work?

Fashion has had a very interesting trajectory in the past few months; from brands switching to designing masks to collections designed to lounge at home, so much has changed! In my opinion, the new normal will definitely prioritise a more collaborative approach to working and a way of dressing that transgresses beyond seasons and trends. Investing in quality pieces is something that we have always championed for and we are excited to see the different creative possibilities this enables.

As a fashion business owner, what are some of the top challenges that you have seen designers and brands go through in the face of COVID-19? How do you recommend brands go forward to get through the current crisis?

Our topmost challenge was the lack of consumption; the global uncertainty and general turmoil bred an atmosphere where people’s priorities shifted from spending to saving. I would suggest brands to listen to their consumers and work with other brands in a manner that encourages a collaborative spirit as opposed to standalone ideas and activities.

AISPI has been hosting trunk shows, both in-person and virtually, since the early days of the company. How do you think this has helped both you and the company? What was the idea behind the trunk shows?

Incidentally, the trunkshow concept came about very organically; one of our earliest clients Karena Laungani convinced me to come down to Mumbai for our very first trunkshow at the Luxury Lifestyle Weekend. This has helped us tremendously because it showed us that the Indian market was ready for the kind of products and services that we offer. It also helped us add very tangible value to the lives of our clients; we aim to bridge the gap between the Eastern and Western markets with products that provide value for money and are timeless and fashionable.

Aisha at one of AISPI’s trunk shows in India

Let’s talk a bit about the AISPI Virtual Vacation. AISPI collaborated with two charities as part of the company’s efforts to do good through fashion. What was the thought behind the idea? How did you do it effectively and in such a way that it came across as genuine and not as a marketing gimmick?

The thought behind the campaign was simple, we wanted to add value to the lives of the designers that we work with, our clients and most importantly, those who had been affected by the pandemic in it’s early days. We ensured it came across as a genuine effort by pledging to donate 100% of our profits to charity; a rare feat, especially at a time when everyone was struggling, mentally, physically and economically.

How do you see yourself moving forward personally and professionally? Where do you think AISPI is headed especially with regards to the current global scenario?

On a personal front it is a really exciting time for us; I am due with my first child in January next year! Professionally, we are sprucing up our website and planning our next trunkshows. We are also excited to expand into different categories, including menswear (our most requested one yet!) and so many others.

-Interviewed and edited by Soha Joshi

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