Exclusive: Gabriella Demetriades on completing a decade in India, working for a sustainable future and embracing motherhood
A LITTLE OVER 10 years ago, Gabriella Demetriades, a South Africa-based model, made her maiden visit to India, which was to last for three months as per her contract with a modelling agency. But, during this period, she signed another modelling assignment, which needed her to be in India for a year, and by the end of it, she was in love with the country. A decade later, besides being a successful model, she successfully established her label Deme by Gabriella, a premium luxury brand for women, began a series of sustainable initiatives and launched platforms that promote reusing, and is presently raising a child with actor Arjun Rampal. In an exclusive full-length chat with Indulge, the model turned-businesswoman spoke about her initial years, setting up a business in a foreign land, sustainability, motherhood and her upcoming projects. Excerpts from the conversation:
Q: It has been 10 years in India for you — from a model starting out in another country to someone who is raising a child here. Did you imagine your life to be what it is now, when you were leaving for India?
Long, long ago? No! (Laughs.) You have a vision about how you want your life to be and I am definitely a person who visualises how I want to feel and what I want to achieve. I don’t necessarily visualise those in pictures as in I don’t have a picture of how it should be but I know how I want to feel…
I can’t believe it has been a decade. To be honest, it has been amazing. When I had come, I was supposed to be here for about three months, but I signed another big contract with beauty brand Chambor, which needed me to be here for a year. After which I kind of fell in love with India... It is welcoming. Of course, the journey had its ups and downs, especially since I was working here, but otherwise, it has been nice (smiles).
Q: From being a model to starting a fashion label, how did it happen? Can you take us through your first collection?
I started Deme out of my love for fashion and my need to make women look and feel sexy. And while there were many designers in Mumbai, there wasn’t a brand my peers or I could turn to... I noticed a gap here and therefore, I decided to start Deme, a brand that is premium, but affordable and makes women look and feel their best. It started from the second bedroom of my apartment in Bandra, and my first collection included 12 pieces in a very basic silhouette, and earthy colours, but it is something that is still very close to my heart.
Q: How did you go about it — from where did you source fabric, and who stitched the dresses for you?
I was planning it for quite some time, and my mother also made a few trips to India. We went to Delhi together to source fabric — mostly silk, chiffon and a silk-satin blend. We would cut and drape it on mannequins and look for people who could stitch it the way we envisioned it and eventually, we found a master in Bandra, who understood exactly what we wanted. Now, we have a unit with 4-5 inhouse designers who develop everything together from scratch.
Q: Was it difficult to position the new brand in the initial days?
Honestly, people embraced it more than I could imagine. Indian women are some of the most beautiful women in the world and they like to look sensual without being tacky, which is a great space for a designer. Besides, I had a good network of friends from my modelling days, and some celebrities from Bollywood. The first month that we started, we had four people at a beauty award show wearing Deme, including Lisa Haydon and Shibani Dandekar. I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is insane’. I will never forget that moment. And, it did help me. Slowly, we started with pop-ups, and we would end up selling our entire collection. Soon, we went online and then eventually, set up my brick-and-mortar store in Bandra in 2017, which I designed myself.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced?
We’ve faced many challenges, right from starting with limited money that I had to fund Deme, to growing it into a profitable business. But my biggest challenge has been in finding the right people. Who you work with is everything, and it’s taken me seven years to learn that hard lesson. Now, I have a very amazing team that has been working with me for years, but I did get a few scary people along the way, people who were dishonest. But honestly, I loved everything about it and although I’ve made some mistakes along the way, I would do it all again.
Q: You recently launched a collection using Liva, a sustainable fashion fabric brand from the house of Aditya Birla Group. How would you describe the fabric, and what made you use it?
I loved the fall and flow, and how we could create drama with Liva, which is a 100 per cent nature-based fabric, and adds beautiful flow to the garments. The drape and fluidity of the fabric, combined with the high comfort and sustainability factor, made it a great fabric choice. The collection has a lot of colours that I have now made my own, like soft lilac.
Q: You also have two more sustainable initiatives, Upcycle Deme and VRTT Vintage. Tell us about them.
The problem is we buy too much, which means, we waste too much. Under Upcycle Deme, customers can bring back any dress that they have purchased from us, and our designers will help them make a new dress using nothing but the existing fabric and some natural dyes, if needed. We hope to expand it enough that customers can bring to us any dress or fabric that they have, but for now, it is limited to our own dresses. VRTT Vintage is a luxury resale platform that I have launched with two other partners, where people can sell or buy pre-loved luxury goods. It is in our effort to go 100% sustainable without generating more carbon footprint.
Q: You recently embraced motherhood. How are you finding this phase of life, and how has it changed you as a person?
Motherhood is amazing! I am the world’s most tardy person, when it comes to meetings. I am always running late and I will always blame it on traffic or a previous meeting, but when you have a baby, everything is so well-organised. You wake up on time, and you allot your time consciously towards things that really matter to you. And regardless of what you are doing, if you’re a working mother, you’re always thinking about your child. Earlier, I would take on a lot of work, but now, if it is about figuring out what is most valuable. Time is so precious, and you want to spend as much time as possible with your child, you don’t want to miss out on something cute or new that they are doing.
Q: And how has the child shaped your relationship with Arjun Rampal?
It has made us closer. We weren’t lacking in that department either, but it has brought a lot of happiness to everybody around, including us, grandparents, cousins and everyone involved. Having a baby is like an injection of joy to everyone’s life. We are living on cloud nine right now.
Q: Deme was born to fill the void you felt existed in the market for women’s Western wear. How content are you with the clothes available for kids? Can we expect to see a collection for kids at any point?
Good question! There are some really great brands I love in India right now for kids, like Born in Bandra. I don’t think that will be my space though, as I have a lot on my plate with a new business and new ventures.
Q: Tell us more about these ventures...
Deme will launch a menswear collection, which has been in the pipeline since the day the label was started, but it is something I want to do differently — the collection will have a different aesthetic, voice and even branding. And, finally, we are in the completing stage, and I am liking what I see, and I am hoping by winter, we will be able to bring it out. I am trying to make it a lot more androgynous, in a sense that it is classic and features everyday pieces like denim and jersey. It is kind of genderneutral, and that is why it is taking so long, because it is difficult to find that pair of pants that would fit you and your boyfriend, and look great on both of you!
Besides all that, I’m working on a podcast, which will release this month. The name hasn’t been finalised yet, but I will be working along with Diva Dhawan, and it will basically be two women talking about life as they know it.
Q: We’ve seen you in films like Sonali Cable and Oopiri so far. When are we going to see you acting next?
I’ll leave the acting to Arjun. For me, it’s all about fashion and seeing what I can do in that space right now. The only time I will be on a set will be if I’m doing some costume designing.
What do you like about designing: ‘That I get to create and make people happy.’
What would you tell your 20-year-old self: ‘Don’t colour your hair.’
Biggest pet-peeve: ‘I have many! Body-shaming. People do it so casually. I don’t think a comment on anyone’s weight should be anyone’s opening statement.’
A lie you often tell: ‘I am five minutes away.’
Three wardrobe essentials: ‘An amazing pair of vintage jeans, a classic white shirt and a great pair of sneakers.’
Gabriella on fitness: ‘I am a fitness enthusiast’
“I am a very, very big fitness enthusiast. I played sports all the time. I do play football a couple of times in a week here as well, but that’s not my main form of exercise. I go to the gym religiously every morning and I keep changing my workout between CrossFit, kickboxing and running. Fitness has been a part of my life since childhood, and it is my beauty regimen. A good workout will do for your skin what no beauty product can, that and lots of water. When it comes to diets — I love food and I have a great relationship with it. I was vegetarian, but during pregnancy, everybody suggested having seafood for protein. Now that phase is over, and I have gone back to being a vegetarian. I am trying to be vegan and I have started replacing my milk with soy milk, it is depressing (laughs). However, I want to do it for the animals.”