Meet Neha Sahu, the designer whose hand-painted juttis have carved a niche in Bollywood wardrobes
It was the fascination with vibrant colours and the urge to play with bright hues that led Gurgaon-based Neha Sahu, an engineer who was working as an Assistant Professor for a University in Gurgaon, quit her full-time job and paint juttis, a footwear that is very popular in northern parts of India. Her initiative, which started on social media about three years ago, kicked off well and today her hand-painted juttis available under the brand name Haelli is worn by Bollywood actresses like Swara Bhaskar, Sara Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha. In an interview with Indulge, 30-year-old Neha recalls how it started, the challenges she faced, the role social media played and her vision for the brand. Excerpts:
Q: Take us through the journey of Haelli. How long did it take for you to turn your idea into a business?
Neha Sahu: Haelli started off as an experiment of creativity. I have been painting since my school days but around three years ago, I shared some of my work on social media and received appreciation. It then took me around a year to understand the whole idea, connect with different vendors and get insights about my target audience.
Q: At what point, did you see potential in your idea?
NS: I started it through social media, which sometimes makes thing delusional - one moment you are hit and the other moment you receive so much criticism. In the initial phase, we also exhibited in a few shows around Delhi and the response was phenomenal during these shows. The customers were amused to see our hand-painted juttis and we were asked to bring new collection and designs. It was then that I realised we can take this idea very far...
Q: Take us through your designing process of your juttis from scratch.
NS: We source the leather and design them into juttis. Once a jutti is ready, the leather is prepared for painting. We create prototypes and then sampling is done. We also try various painting techniques and once we are satisfied with the designs, they are painted over the juttis along with a mix and match of various colours.
Q: How long does it take to paint them?
NS: It takes between five to eight hours to paint one pair. But sometimes when there is any specific design or a special request, the painting process even takes a day or two as well.
Q: What was the most challenging part of your five-year-long journey so far?
NS: Quite a few! Initially, balancing a full-time job with a start-up was quite challenging and then leaving that well-paid job wasn’t easy as you are surrounded by so many self-doubts... but sometimes you have to risk it all for a dream only you can see.
Q: What's the USP of Haelli? How challenging was it to position the brand correctly?
NS: Haelli is the first and only brand across India to make hand-painted juttis and also gives the freedom to customers to customize their own footwear.
Q: What role has social media played in your journey? Which social media site helps you the most in getting business?
NS: We started from social media and built a brand through social media, it has helped us reach masses around the world. It is a good idea to make some presence in the market without investing too much in a physical store in the initial phase but of course, you eventually have to provide some space to the customers where they can come and try on the products.
Facebook and Instagram both give you good exposure, if targeted correctly. You have to do deep research on your target audience and their interest in your products.
Q: Your juttis are very famous among celebrities, what does celebrity endorsement mean for your brand? Also, did you send them your juttis or were they picked by their stylists?
NS: When a celebrity wears products, it builds trust in the customers and validates the product. People get inspiration from celebrities on how to style their outfit along with the juttis. So yes, it helps us massively. It gives us exposure as well.
We send them juttis and we also get sourcing requests from various stylists for events and shoots. Besides, we even have celebrity clients who regularly purchase from us.
Q: A lot of people refrain from wearing genuine leather, have you seen any apprehension so far? Do you plan to use any other material for your juttis?
NS: I wouldn't say apprehension but yes, some people who are not comfortable in wearing genuine leather have requested us to bring a similar concept in some other material. We are planning to launch a collection which suits everybody keeping intact the charm of uniqueness that we offer.
Q: Lastly, what's your vision for Haelli?
NS: I am looking forward to seeing Haelli among the top known brands in the country, promoting handicraft and breaking stereotypes. I am also hoping to see Haelli with a good physical presence among the top locations throughout the world with an excellent customer base.