Maithili Ahluwalia: “Bungalow Eight has reached its limits in the existing form”

Maithili Ahluwalia: “Bungalow Eight has reached its limits in the existing form”

As Mumbai fashion store Bungalow Eight plans to shut shop, its founder Maithili Ahluwalia talks about the highs and lows of curated fashion retail and why she wants to move on

Sixteen-year-old Bungalow Eight, Mumbai’s uncommon fashion store curated with whimsy, wit and Art Deco influences that uniquely mixed Bombay insouciance with a conscious departure from localised style will close doors towards the end of summer. However, its founder Maithili Ahluwalia isn’t parachuting out of fashion to launch a minting school for fashionistas, nor will she leave to meditate in the hills.

The first time I saw Ahluwalia was in a photograph, sometime in the 2000s. A well-curated, attractively styled and presumably Photoshopped “fashion” image, it was a part of an annual best dressed list of a fashion glossy. She looked glamorous alright but like most people on such lists—a bit too fussed up. When a stylist, makeup person, photographer, lights assistant, fashion editor, fashion assistant prep you for a shoot where your own style is being hailed—the moment runs the risk of becoming too cacophonous. In most such photographs spontaneity suffers collateral damage.

Later, when I would meet and chat with Ahluwalia, I figured that her style had little to do with how she wore her heels, her kaftans, her maroon lipstick, her hair elevated to a top bun or her lean and tall presence. It lay instead in her palpable restlessness to be understood beyond her looks, lip colour and trinkets. She wanted to ask more, know more, say more, do more than whatever the world may recognise as her brief. She likes layers in her vanity fare.

Bungalow Eight was never just a vanity fair. Besides a home designed fashion line called The BUNGALOW, the store curated and sold clothes and accessories that couldn’t just be quickly sized up as trendy, cool, hot, local, global or regular, even when they were all these. They were fashionable, because they had a point of view: colours skidded towards a marked absence of fuchsia pink and parrot green, their shapes revealed themselves only after you got into them. Hand-held, tweaked, with an abiding loyalty for a contemporary interpretation of handlooms.

When the store moved from its spacious address in Mumbai’s Colaba shopping district to the Wankhede Stadium compound, iron gates, sports legends and all, smaller in size, Bungalow Eight’s quaintness only got enhanced.

Photo: Saumya Sinha

Bungalow Eight Store.

But fashion retail is no easy fish to fry as every stakeholder in the market would admit. As Ahluwalia plans to bring the shutters down on the “retail chapter” of the brand and turn a new page, she talks about why she could never discover talent at fashion weeks, the lack of processes in Indian fashion retail, the issue of buying garments from designers on consignment basis and what kept her flying high or feeling low. Edited excerpts…

Why did you decide to close down Bungalow Eight?
Closing Bungalow Eight might be a strong statement but while this is the end of the retail chapter, I plan to use the brand, and its goodwill, to turn a new page.

The first decade was about creative experimentation, with little financial consideration. I was fortunate to be in a position to be daring and take big risks. This was when the store started to get taken seriously and influential publications like Wallpaper*, The Financial Times and The New York Times spoke about it, often in the same breath as prominent global concept stores. It was when the likes of global celebrities like Madonna, Trudie Styler, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Spanish architect Patricia Urquiola, Italian architect-product designer Paola Navone and British interior designer Kelly Hoppen, designers Tom Dixon, Angela Missoni and Tricia Guild, designer of the brand Dosa, Christina Kim and Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist blog came to see us. It was also when we bet on a string of fresh new designers that have now become well-known.

(Left) American actor and producer Hilary Swank at the Bungalow Eight store.

About five years ago, I began to look more closely at the commercials and re-oriented the business to be financially prudent. This is when we restructured; moved to a smaller retail space, exited unprofitable categories, refined our fashion offering and tightened the brand’s vision. The business then had a healthy bottom line.

But in a growing business, in a changing retail landscape, healthy is necessary but not adequate. I knew I was walking a fine line and felt that the next step, scaling up, would require dilution of the store’s very essence.

And this is when the problems in my head started. I have been a product purist and believed in an uncompromised, intimate, personalised and exacting shop for sixteen years. Perhaps this store, and its vision, had reached its limits, in its existing form. The time has come for Bungalow Eight, the brand, and me, as a person, to explore new creative territory.

When you launched the store 16 years back, what was your business strategy and statement of style in fashion retail?
At 23, I had no strategy, just a dream to have a store that put sophisticated Indian design back in people’s consciousness. I had spent time studying and living in the West and was disappointed to come back to find that while the rest of world valued what we did, we seemed to be taking it for granted. Also, in 2002, traditional techniques felt fossilised and overtly ethnic. There seemed to be space for a modern Indian voice, more in tune with a changing world.

What is the core Bungalow Eight aesthetic?
An India that can be at home anywhere in the world. An India that is Global. The portability of the product was critical to the brand’s identity.

How do you define Bombay style?
Perhaps I should speak only of my Bombay style—which I admit was very privileged. This elite world was open, modern, cosmopolitan, eclectic, Anglicised and yet traditional. I was a Global Indian, exposed but deeply rooted.

Do you continue to spot talent at fashion weeks?
My high comes from finding a designer by myself and before others. By the time you show at a fashion week, you have in some sense been discovered. For years, I didn’t go for that reason, even though I am told that others saw it as arrogance.

For the last few years, the number of designers we have relationships with has grown and so has it for the ones that I have been going to, usually just to visit their stalls and see the collections up close. When I place an order, I like to try things and I remember being quite surprised that there were no changing rooms at fashion weeks. For me, it is more gratifying to visit the designer’s studio and go through the collections quietly.

So how would you find the next designer to work with for Bungalow Eight?
There isn’t a formula but my eyes and ears are always peeled for the next thing. One of the obvious things I do is to follow closely those that share our ideology. I ask people wearing interesting things who made them. I sniff things through social media. I look at the design sections closely in the domestic and international press, flip through magazines, travel. People come to us. But really, more than anything, I try and remain open and curious and serendipity often takes over.

A model in an asymmetrical dress retailed at Bungalow Eight.

Ethical gaps in fashion businesses are murmured about but seldom openly debated. Including in sustainable businesses. What were the peculiar challenges you faced while running Bungalow Eight?
Ha ha, when I was younger, I would call out copycats to their faces. I wouldn’t allow people to take images of our store or products. I would throw competitors out. I was paranoid. I’ve mellowed a bit with age, understanding that this is the way of the world and I have to keep evolving. We have been copied, directly and indirectly, for so long that now I see it as confirmation that we are doing something right.

I often wish that we could have remained more anonymous and not succumbed to the pressure to embrace social media. By putting out our work in real time, I believe we exposed ourselves to a homogenisation of our aesthetic.

These complicated issues speak to the same tug of war between commercial and creative considerations responsible for Bungalow Eight to decide to close the store in its existing form.

Recently around the Kochi Biennale, the Bungalow Eight logo was allegedly infringed by 108 One Zero Eight, an exhibition of Kerala handlooms. It featured many Indian designers who have worked with you. You discussed a legal and ethical issue but then didn’t pursue it. Why?
There was deep personal disappointment around it.

Just a few days before this incident, the name of our private label The BUNGALOW had been used by another design platform to promote several designers associated with us. They changed the name however, when I wrote to them.

Then was the logo infringement the following week. In this case, despite laying out the facts in a legal notice to both the organiser, and the designers, many again who are associated with us, no one chose to respond. Not one of them put pressure on the organisers to withdraw the uncannily similar logo of our two half eights, formed from the B of Bungalow and the E of Eight, a clear case of “passing off.”

If we as a fraternity are unconcerned, what was the point of pursuing legal action.
Also, what sometimes goes on under the garb of craft preservation is troublesome.

Would you say you are disappointed with the fashion community at large?
Not at all, I am actually creatively invigorated by what I see and the potential that lies ahead. What concerns me is the business of fashion. My big challenge today as a retailer is what is my value add, and how do I protect that. Retail, for me, has never merely been distribution. It has been about offering something unique, that no one else has, and showing and selling it the right way.

For a brand like Bungalow Eight that is working on discovering, editing, capsules and exclusives, this raises many questions in today’s market when designers are acting as retailers and perhaps undermining the value of retail intervention.

Why do fashion stores get garments from designers on consignments? That really means no designer is assured of regular payments.
Because we need a healthy retail margin to buy. Also for a long time, and still to some extent, the order placement cycle is erratic and designers are not ready six months in advance with their collections.
Consignment is a reflection that both parties are hedging their bets. That’s unsustainable in the long run.

So you would agree that pricing is illogical in Indian designer wear?
Illogical, I’m not sure, high yes. It’s back to the same issues, pricing requires scale. Scaling up handcrafted businesses is difficult. And maybe for small-scale operations, direct sales is the answer to keep prices more competitive.

What do you think of best dressed lists by fashion magazines since you have yourself been on many of them?
It was flattering and probably helped the store’s profile quite a bit in the early years. I remember being miffed in my thirties when someone excluded me. However, as both the business and I have grown, this kind of validation has become slightly less important.

What are your plans after this? Having navigated these waters, what are some things you will never do?

I am looking at various possibilities which would engage my creative energy and experience. For example, I would want some of our designers, emerging and established, to become global fashion names. But it is too early for me to talk of these possibilities in any more detail.

What I do know is that I will never run a store again. That period is over.