Do you miss rambling along the cobbled streets of Venice looking for that perfect scarf or beaded bag to go with the maxi dress you just bought two hours ago? International travel may seem like a faraway dream during the current Covid-19 crisis, as is the joy of shopping in the artsy, upscale boutiques of Europe, with nothing but your credit card and a love for European fashion in tow. But now, thanks to young, Wharton-educated, startup entrepreneur Aisha Saraf Kothari, you can take literally take a ‘fashion vacation’ by logging on to aispi.co – AiSPi a unique fashion project that is in fact a 21-day virtual trunk show (it began on 22 June and ends on 13 July), that brings together two dozen European brands together, just for Indian fashion lovers. We speak toBelgium-based Aisha, who has divided her time between New Delhi, New York, Spain, France, and Antwerp, about her one-of-a-kind shopping space.
Where did the idea of AiSPi come about?
When was the last time that you went to Rome, Florence, or Paris and visited boutiques that were outside of the ‘main shopping streets’? Or even if you did, how many of those stores were well curated, with quality products? Were they in your price range? Was the process to find those stores seamless? Or did you have to send out 10 WhatsApp messages, research 10 different travel blogs and hunt on Google Maps?
AiSPi (i-spy) is a fashion project that bridged the gap between consumers and the hidden gems of the fashion world in Europe. When you travel, you take out time to research the best restaurants, hotels, and experiences. When you leave the city, you want to walk away with a memory, but a memory that is unique to you. Instead of going to the same mainstream shops, through AiSPi’s organized platform, Instagram or email, you can have personalized lists of local European boutiques at your fingertips! Your fashion will express your personality and experiences. Now when someone asks you where you bought your bag from, it will lead to an hour-long conversation about your trip to Prague!
How did you combine your love for startups and your very own online fashion business?
The reality of the matter is, when you have something stable, it allows you to take riskier and more value-based decisions for your own startup. When I had the idea for AiSPi, I was working in mergers andacquisitions, and strategy, and I realized that if I was to build something where I really wanted to create value and not just revenue, it was going to be a longer road. I also realized that at that point I would still need to have a stable source of revenue, which I could also pump back into my business. However, it is not always possible to combine jobs. Staying in the M&A world where I was servicing corporates and then trying to work on my startup would make me live in two very different worlds which would be constantly clashing. That's when I approached my mentor and partner at EY, as I was always working with him and so we got talking about this. I started helping him as a startup consultant in his new division, and in return, he started helping me out.AiSPi presents Fyodor Golan
How did you get all these influencers and bloggers under one roof to curate the special experiences you have on your website?
Our team sat down and we thought hard on what we’re going through right now, and where we can, as a fashion platform or as a company that has always stood by the feeling that ‘fashion is an experience’ –play a role. That’s when we realized that today people are in a not-so-positivestate of mind. Normally, a vacation generally gives them a breather to refresh and rejuvenate, which is unfortunately not possible at this point in time. That is why we thought of this idea of a virtual vacation; it consists of taking people for 21 days with a new travel experience each day, a new conversation every day, and also a new designer who is going to come on board and talk about what they are doing. A Travel Duet helped us curate these virtual tours to various hidden gems all across Europe.
We have on board renowned power houses sharing their expertise in their own unique waybe it Pinky Reddy talking about the multiple roles played by a woman, Devita Saraf on power dressing in the business world, or Sheetal Mafatlal on bold fashion choices, to name a few.
Additionally, we have a pool of chic Instagram influencers and stylists sharing their unique ways to style our products and highlighting their favourites from AiSPi.
The idea of discovering boutiques on the website – how many are currently available for perusal, and how did you curate the list?
AiSPi takes recommendations from the best influencers, stylists, and pioneers of the fashion world. We then unearth the story behind these boutiques, understand price points, product quality, and create a validated selection to present to you. For our current virtual trunk show, we have on board 26 amazing, niche designers offering all things fashion –be it bags, shoes, clothes, or jewellery.Some of the brands include L’alingi, Fyodor Golan, IzaakAzanei, Rosantica, Nita Suri, and 0711. They have been coveted by stylists and been worn by celebs and women in the news, like Daniele Bernstein, Negin, and Hailey Bieber.AiSPi presents L'alingi
Some of the items are stunning – are they what you would personally pick up while shopping?
Each brand or product is handpicked by us. We try and ensure that we collaborate with designers who are exclusive and have unique products. These stunning pieces would definitely make it to my personal shopping list.
What was the criteria for selection of the boutiques and the products?
We then unearth the story behind these boutiques, understand their price points, quality of product and create a validated selection to present to you. Our curation is completely independent, based on expertise and research. Boutiques and designers do NOT pay us to have a page on the website.
-Fashion forward: Fashion forward can mean many things, on trend, sustainable, timeless, classic. At AiSPi fashion forward can mean all of the above as we are looking for finds that are hidden gems.
-Value for money: Given my business background, I always believe there is a fair price for everything. You are either paying for the brand, the style, or the material. Therefore, at AiSPi we always justify the price range; you need to have a feelgood factor about what you buy, and not a guilt factor!
-Local and/or emerging: The end result at AiSPi is that you find things that are hard to find. The fashion on AiSPi is geared towards local brands, which can be big or small in their own way. While we steer away from mainstream brands, we do encourage multi-brand stores. This is because we see that the selection of each multi-brand store reflects the curation of the city. Similarly, we work with young, emerging designers that are willing to personalize and customize clothes for our clients.AiSPi presents Nita Suri
And if one orders say, a dress from a shop in Amsterdam, how long is that particular item on the website – is it only during the duration of the Trunk Show until July 13?
We mainly sell via our pop-ups and trunk shows, so that we are able to curate for our audience, occasion, and relevance. Also, many times what we curate and pick is limited edition. So yes,for this trunk show it is until July 13. Do keep an eye out for our next trunk show to find out what we have in stock!
Will the items on AiSPi still be available post this?
It completely depends on who and what worked for our audience and their needs. Some yes, some no. We also want to ensure our audience has a new product to purchase, we wouldn’t want to repeat our offerings. Plus, many of our products are exclusive and limited editions!
Can anyone log in and shop at AiSPi – and how long does it take for an order to be delivered?
Yes, anyone can (until 13 July)! Due to Covid-19, our orders take between 3-6 weeks to get delivered. Some pieces are made to order and the timelines for thoseare mentioned.Alessandro De Benedetti at AiSPi
And the jewellery and bags and accessories – were there any of your personal faves in there?
Quite a few actually! Rosantica is high up on my list; I love the brand, followed by 0711. I also love AkanshaSethi’sjewellery; her work is amazing, especially her Art Deco-inspired transformable collection. It’s stunning! You can wear the same piece of jewellery in multiple ways, as a pendant, as a pair of earrings, even a brooch.
I enjoy wearing sunglasses, and Timeshades is my favourite brand, offering some really edgy styles. We also have some unique pieces from A Better Feeling.
Is there anything for men?
For men we currently have sneakers, denim jackets, and the sunglasses which we have online are unisex, however we are extremely keen to expand into menswear, which we are looking at very soon, so keep an eye out for this.AiSPi presents Time Shades
Do you plan to do more such trunk shows for Indians?
Yes most definitely, we think through AiSPi, it’s one of the best way to provide Indian consumers niche products from Europe!
Which are the other cities worldwide that AiSPi will go to?
We’re a little torn between if we want to expand into menswear first or spread with our existing product offerings into other regions. But definitely we’re exploring the latter as a strong option.
I am highlyenamouredoftwo regions, one being South Korea and the second being South America. Whenever we visit South Korea for any of our fashion curation trips, we’ve witnessed some of the best products of great quality, design, and pricing. I would love to explore Colombiain South America; the fashion there is phenomenal, with very unique fashion aesthetics.
Will you also take niche Indian designers and products to cities around the world via AiSPi?
Yes, why not? When we think of expansion there are so many different ways that we can go about it–is it about expanding into different vertical which is menswear, is it about taking to India other cities or regions or is it about taking India to the world. I think it could depend on a few things. We are very open; we believe in going into everything with an open mind so I would say why not, it would all depend on where the market takes us!
Please tell me three of your fave nichefashion brands, that you wear from Europe.
Three of my favourite brands–one would have to be A Better Feeling. I’m really biased towards their sunglasses. The second one is United Nude–it’s this super cool shoe brand, absolutely amazing comfortable shoes, and bags from Rosantica or 0711.AiSPi presents Rosantica-Elliot bag
Why was it important to have the proceeds go to charities both in India and in Europe?
The need to give back to society is now, more than ever! AiSPi has partnered with two NGOs to ensure 100 percent of ALL profits generated from this campaign, be donated to charity. The first one, Jan Sahas in India (my first home), works towards empowering women and young girls by eliminating discrimination, preventing violence, and educating. The second one is Le Refuge in Europe (my current home), they support young LGBT + people rejected by society, driven away from home.
We believe we have a responsibility as a business towards not only our consumers, suppliers, stakeholders but also the community. In the time of social distancing it is imperative to show social and global solidarity as we all experience and live this pandemic together.
Which are your favourite fashion destinations in Europe and why?
My favourite would have to be first of all Milan. It has this edgy fashion sense which I didn’t realize until I launched AiSPi. I always had this impression that Milan is completely industrial. One of my first AiSPitrips was to Milan and when I started noticing everything from theAiSPi lens, I figured that I really love the sense of fashion in people of Milan; it's super edgy, super forward. There's also a flair of culture and romanticism in Italy. I'm really looking forward to visitthe Nordic nationsbecause they are so different fromwhere I am, andbecause they have a minimalist fashion culture and I am not a minimalist person myself. Also, Turkey also has some really well-priced fashion finds.0711 for AiSPi
Lifestyle Insider is a kind of junction point, connecting people with diverse interests that touch on the more luxurious aspects of lifestyle – fashion, design, travel, food and spirits, art, watches and jewellery, cars, yachts, and aviation, and technology. People today don’t fit into boxes and categories. In our individual ways, we are interested in diverse themes, products, and the challenges that face our world today. You will judge how well this effort of mine caters to your passions and proclivities.
Lifestyle Insider is a showcase of all that is beautiful and luxe. Behind every creation, is a designer, chef, entrepreneur, or a design maison. I have delved into my own appreciation for objetsde luxe that I have admired over the years – be it a love of fashion from the world’s top Parisian and Italian fashion maisons and their ’90s muses, or the care that goes into sari and Indian textile collections in my own family. Growing up on four continents, as the daughter of a former Indian Ambassador, I’ve seen a remarkable array of historic places and met a myriad people. My aim is to bring my world view into this website, a curation of what I find particularly stunning, unique, and newsworthy.
It’s an exciting time for brands all over the world. With change comes opportunity. With the global ‘reset’ and uncertainty on many fronts, there is a chance to write a new script. Let’s be those pioneers.
A bit about me:
A luxury and fashion journalist with 25 years of experience in publishing and magazine journalism, I have edited some of India’s top fashion and luxury magazines. I got my BA in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, and went on to receive my Master’s in English and French from the University of Strasbourg, France. I have also studied German and Film. I live in Gurugram, India, and look forward to once again exploring our world with a new-found freedom.
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