Hetal Patel’s business journey began in 2017 when she tried to source beautiful yet ethically made modern Indian outfits for her two daughters. Unable to find what she wanted, she eventually sourced the fabrics and made outfits herself. The response from family and friends was so positive that she launched her own brand VAAI London.
Hello, Hetal. Can you tell us about VAAI and your inspiration for starting a brand that reflects your British and Indian heritage?
Hetal Patel: VAAI is a womenswear brand with a mission of balancing contemporary fashion and design whilst maintaining respect for century-old artisanal craftsmanship.
I was born in the UK shortly after my mum and dad arrived from India. My mum couldn’t speak a word of English, but she was the most amazing seamstress. She worked in a production unit that would send garments to Paris. I intently watched and learned from her. As a child, I spent my summers in India surrounded by beautiful fabrics and intricate embroideries – which is where I found my inspiration. I was totally smitten by the world of textiles and garment making and began designing and making my own clothes from a young age.
How would you define ‘slow fashion’ rather than fast fashion?
Hetal Patel: My definition of slow fashion is simple – it’s the design and making of garments in a way that is friendly to our planet and its people.
Could you tell us more about how you source materials and the journey that your clothes will take?
Hetal Patel: I am proud to say that over two thirds of the VAAI collection consists of ethically produced and sustainable fabrics. I strive to use organic (GOTS certified) and handloom cotton and other natural fabric (including silks and peace silks). These fabrics are healthier for the environment and can biodegrade in due course.
Covid has made it difficult to travel to India, where I have previously sourced some of my fabrics. I am proud to say that I have connected with some amazing textiles producers here in the UK. For example, the current collection has a coordinated jacket and trouser set made from woollen fabric woven in one of Britain’s last vertical textile mills, making it an environmentally responsible low carbon footprint fabric.
Our garments are made in small productions units (hence supporting small businesses) in the UK and India using the best craftsmanship from both countries. I only work with manufacturers that are skilled in making good quality garments that are made to last. I don’t mass produce and make in quantities according to our direct consumer’s needs. This ensures that little or no stock is leftover thus reducing waste.
You work closely with small production units in Delhi, India, where artisans are paid a fair wage and enjoy good working conditions. How difficult was it to find factories that are run ethically?
Hetal Patel: It was difficult to find production facilities that are run ethically. At the start of the VAAI journey, I had to take a few trips over to India to physically check that the garments were being made in a planet and people-friendly manner. The search for ethical factories is an ongoing one and now that some of our travel restrictions have been lifted, I will take the opportunity to visit further units that I have connected with during the last year.
Can you tell us why you offer a bespoke service?
Hetal Patel: The bespoke service allows me to work closely with a client to create an outfit perfect in style and fit and perfect for their needs and requirements. The bespoke service allows a client’s vision to come alive. From the designer’s point of view, it’s a great way to avoid fabric wastage and create magic for a client. It’s one step further in being more sustainable and ethical in our slow fashioned practice.
You were originally a scientist. How has this influenced your approach to being an entrepreneur?
Hetal Patel: I’ve had numerous people ask me whether I miss life as a scientist. And my answer is always no. Creativity is in my DNA! The skillset that I acquired during my years as a postdoctoral researcher is very transferable. I must research every stage of the process of design and making of each garment. I must collaborate and liaise with people at all levels from production unit managers to models, photographers, and customers. I must manage budgets. Like academic research, this all needs a keen analytical and logical mindset.
I actually think that coming from another background gives me an edge in the industry as I approach things in a different manner.
We absolutely love the herringbone ruffle trousers in your latest collection. They look so elegant and super comfy. Can you tell us more about them?
Hetal Patel: The herringbone is a very sophisticated pattern which is why I chose this fabric. This textile has been specially woven on a power loom (mechanised weaving machines) by a small Keralan community using GOTS certified cotton yarns. It feels great to support communities that have been passing down their weaving skills for centuries. The fabric is a medium weight fabric making them perfect to wear all year around – important to our slow fashion movement.
I wanted to create a style of trousers that worked for all body shapes. It’s high waisted and wide legged which gives most body shapes a flattering silhouette. The ruffles elongate the body, adding drama and style to a simple well-fitted pair of trousers.
Do you have a current favourite in your collection?
Hetal Patel: It has to be the hand-embellished jersey knit! We’ve spent a lot of time over lockdown in sweatshirts and it’s been so nice to be cosy and comfortable but what’s really been missing is the glamour. I wanted to continue with the cosy and comfortable theme but add a little sparkle, which is why I created this knit. The jumpers are only available in limited numbers and each piece has been hand-embroidered in London working with a talented local seamstress.
What plans do you have to make VAAI even more sustainable?
Hetal Patel: Almost two-thirds of our collections are manufactured using natural and sustainable fabrics. I’m aiming to manufacture all our garments using 100% natural and sustainable fabrics by 2023.
I realise I leave a ‘bigger than I’d like’ carbon footprint by having some our garments produced abroad and therefore I will continue to grow our manufacturing here in the UK.
I believe in arming our customers with the knowledge of how to style and care well for their garments. With customers that visit me at our pop-ups I teach them how to style their garment in at least three different ways. This promotes sustainable slow fashion and is overall better for our environment.
I’m always asking myself: how can I make the VAAI pieces even more perfect for my clients? How can I enhance our slow fashion movements and be more friendly to our planet and its people? I think it important to work with other brands that work with similar goals to VAAIs. We will have a bigger impact on positive sustainability movements if we all do our best together.