Ethical shopping has become a buzzword in recent years, with cool, socially-conscious brands like TOMS, Warby Parker and The Reformation hitting the mainstream. One business courting such success is Curator’s Den.
Started just two years ago, Curator’s Den unites independent brands that are driven by a purpose. Apart from crafting beautifully-made objects, these brands honour a separate, far nobler pact — to do right by the people whose lives they impact. Businesses hosted on Curator’s Den include Italian brand, Officine904, jewellery label Zariin and socially-motivated fashion brand, The Base Project. To give you an idea of the kind of humanitarian work these brands do… Zariin provides local artisans with a fair wage, and donates a portion of proceeds from each sale to the SOS Children’s Villages of India. Italian leather brand, Officine904, sustains the local community by using locally sourced leather while keeping its operations based in the founders’ rural hometown of Tuscany. In fact, each and every one of the brands in the Curator’s Den family carries a similar ethos to do good.
“While we understand the need for newness in one’s life, we feel it should be brought with items that can be treasured and layered for a long time,” says Curator’s Den co-founder, Nandini. Together, sisters Nandini and Neha built a retail concept centered on sustainable, trendless and timeless fashion. Their motto? To strive to go back to a time when things were built to last and used till it could no longer serve any purpose.
Nandini and Neha share the ins-and-outs of managing a small business and why they choose to shop with a conscience!
Tell us a little about your background.
Neha and I both grew up in India before moving to Belgium as teenagers. We are only one year and three months apart in age so we’ve been close since we were in our early teens. After two years, Neha went back to India to pursue her degree and I continued to live in Belgium for the next eight years. We spent the following 17 years living in different countries. Neha lived in India, then the UK before finally moving to Singapore while I moved from Belgium to France to Dubai to India and then Singapore.
Three years ago was the first time in 17 years that we were living in the same city. Neha was always very free-spirited, doing whatever job took her fancy while fulfilling her creative hobbies on the side. I’m an engineer by training and after three years working for an American tech firm, I decided that fashion was my calling so I made the move to Louis Vuitton where I worked for eight years. After that, I switched to a career in private equity before joining a startup in the online beauty space.
What prompted you to start your own business?
Both of us have always wanted to start our own venture. When we finally found ourselves in the same city again, we knew that we had to do something together — not so much because we are very similar but more because we trust each other with our lives. It’s very important in business to have unconditional trust. It gives you the biggest peace of mind.
As for the idea, we both love wearing unique things that we’ve sniffed out during our travels. I was never into the mass brands, even in my 20s. Both of us feel strongly about ethical means of conducting business.
What were the challenges?
Our concept is pretty unique. Majority has not heard of the brands [stocked at Curator’s Den], so we are asking them to trust us and our selection. Getting your name out without deep pockets for marketing is a big challenge. We started this business from our savings and we made some mistakes early on. Hopefully we are making fewer ones now.
What does a typical day of work involve for you?
Neha single-handedly manages our store, staff and administrative work. She spends three to four days at the store — connecting with customers and understanding their feedback. I manage our marketing efforts, social media, buying and business development. I have another full-time job so my work starts at 8.30pm after putting the kids to bed.
How do you juggle your time between being a mum, working a day job and being so involved in the business?
Some days are more difficult than others. I try to have a schedule but I don’t always keep to it. On a good day, I’m able to get up at 5.30am and you’ll find me sending out emails at 5.30 in the morning. If the kids go to bed at curfew (8.30pm) then I get a solid two hours or so to work. I utilise a lot of my weekends because that’s when the kids are busy with their own activities. Small, consistent efforts are probably what I aim for.
That said, Neha shares a huge portion of the load. She’s the backbone of the company and she’s got our bases covered in terms of managing the staff, administration and accounting whereas I focus on marketing & buying.
What is your philosophy when it comes to fashion and consumption?
Fewer, better made things are preferred over a closet full of fast fashion items. This is one pearl of wisdom we picked up from our mother. Our parents travelled a lot around India and our mom always brought home one saree and one furniture or decor piece made by the artisans of that region. We used to move every two years because of our Dad’s job but everything moved with us. I even wore one of my mother’s sarees for my wedding because nothing I bought in a store matched the sentiment of how carefully she had selected and preserved her #curatedfind.
Which elements of your personal style do you think translates into the product assortment available at Curator’s Den?
A lot of it I would say. We are definitely presenting fashion that is beyond seasonality. Neither Neha, nor I, were ever into fast fashion. We never throw anything away!
Our personal style is minimalist with an edge and we play on the edge according to our mood. It’s the same opportunity we try to bring to our customers
Tell us a bit about the buying process. How do you select which brands to work with and the pieces to sell?
Every brand we have in the store is something we’ve found on our travels. We know most of the designers behind these brands personally. Each one of them is trying to make fashion a little less selfish. We build our selection upon affordable, independent brands that are bringing a high standard of quality and individuality of design and purpose to the fore. We assess the brand’s manufacturing process, how much control and visibility the brand offers from end-to-end and the value brought to the customer before taking them on board.
How do you bring your message across?
We talk. We talk a lot to our customers. It’s the biggest reason why Neha is in the store three to four days in a week. Our staff is very motivated by our concept. The brands share stories of their artisans with us and we, in turn, tell them to our customers.
Our biggest concern is to be able to do justice to the founder of the brand. We take that responsibility quite seriously. If we can’t convey the brand’s story with passion, then the meaning is lost for us. That’s why we feel we are more their partner than just a retailer because we try our hardest to explain the brand to the customer.
SHOP THE STORY
What is your favourite way of discovering new designers?
In every city that I visit, I try to scope out the next hotbed of new and emerging designers. I also keep an eye on the listings in a lot of the trade shows. I am always on the lookout for designers who experiment with different materials and processes — particularly jewellery designers. Being an Internet junkie helps… If something is out on the Internet, I know about it!
We also have so many friends who travel. Sometimes, they’ll discover a brand that they really like and think of us. We were introduced to The Base Project this way — through a friend who had been to Africa.
We receive a lot of help from the designers we work with. They are continually introducing us to new brands on their radar. I think our network also grows because our relationships with our designers are really good. If they see something that fits our brand, they always make the extra effort to pass it on.
Which designers do you respect the most and why?
All the designers that we work with are amazing and incredibly brave. They could have gone down the commercial route but they chose the difficult path because it builds and motivates a community rather than an individual.
Baliza could have easily found a manufacturer on Alibaba but they chose to work with Ladli. It’s time-consuming but it’s the right way.
Zariin is helping jewellery artisans to transition to a more modern look as the demand changes. Their contribution to the SOS children’s villages sustains these local communities.
Officine904 could have found factories anywhere in the world but they work in the Tuscan community where they grew up and have seen the hardships of rural Italy over the last years. As a designer and an architect, they are helping these communities redefine their purpose and succeed.
These are the stories we love to share with our customers.
What is the change you would most like to see in this lifetime?
Education and three healthy meals a day for all.
What’s been the biggest lesson so far?
I believe we should have created smaller test scenarios than we did. For instance, we could have tried working with just one brand before expanding the product offering. We always knew we were going to be a multi-brand concept and we knew that we would create a product of our own at some stage. If I were to do it over, perhaps I would create our own product first before bringing other brands in.
Is there anything you wish you had known when you were first starting out?
Get an accountant from day one or teach yourself how to do it. Even if you are just a one-person business, maintaining your financials and cash flow statements is very valuable and can help you to identify the part of the business that generates the greatest returns.
What are you working on now and what are you looking forward to?
We are working on our first Curator’s Den project. It has to do with science and education and that is all I want to say right now…