Where can I buy a good swimsuit in Bombay? Leila Veerasamy was working in impact investing when she found herself, and her friends asking the same question. In 2016 she aligned her passion for fashion, ocean conservation and financial empowerment of artisans to launch a socially conscious venture of her own: PA.NI Swimwear, a sustainable swimwear line made out of recycled fishing nets.
A true global citizen, Leila Veerasamy grew up in France and Mauritius before moving to the US for university. She came to Bombay in 2015 to pursue a career in the social sector, with special interest in helping scale up businesses with a triple bottom line. She soon decided to bring together her passion for fashion, the environment and the financial empowerment of craftspeople and launched PA.NI Swimwear.
"Although sustainability is gaining awareness in the public, the ecosystem is still extremely nascent and offers few practical alternatives"
What inspired you to create PANI? What was the process of learning about swimwear like?
I was inspired to create PA.NI after realising that the demand for fashionable, high quality swimwear in India was unmet by the market. Not only were swimsuits not readily available, but whatever products that were in the market did not offer customers any variety in terms of flattering cuts for diverse body types nor where there any sustainable or eco-conscious alternatives.
Starting a business - especially in fashion - was never something I had imagined myself doing but as a was conceptualising PA.NI, I realised that this could be the best platform where I could join all of my interests in sustainability, women’s issues, fashion and the informal sector. I had always struggled in finding my “place” in the development sector but through PA.NI I was able to carve an area of my own where I could make an impact.
It took me a year to get a good enough understanding of fashion and clothes-making before feeling comfortable enough to create a collection. Once our design sketches were ready, I was able to perfect the product by working closely with the sampling team from our factory partner. Throughout this development process, I learnt a lot about the construction of the garment and eventually was able to realise my vision for the product.
However, I also took made sure to pay close attention to the technical knowledge and experience imparted from the fashion student interns I hired over that summer. The best advice I received that was given to me early on was “don’t be afraid to work with people who know what you don’t know,” which I followed religiously and gained the most from.
Coming from such a diverse background, which skills did you find most useful and which skills did you need to build on and expand?
Being an entrepreneur means that you’re constantly learning about new subjects like marketing, web development, product development, branding, production (of shoots) etc. I found that my most useful skills from my previous jobs were my ability to research and my analytical skills. I’ve always been very curious and eager to learn, but having a method to learning and asking questions really help grasp a topic faster. Being able to think quick on your feet and problem-solve – which is something I learned while being an intern – brings huge value to any professional field.
I most definitely had to work on my communication skills especially when doing creative and design work: being able to articulate one’s vision and aesthetic was a skill that I had to develop throughout my entrepreneurial journey.
What are the biggest challenges you faced while launching a brand?
Building a sustainable brand meant that our biggest challenges were going to be sourcing the right materials for our brand (fabric, packaging, mode of transportation) and finding reliable partners: although sustainability is gaining awareness in the public, the ecosystem is still extremely nascent and offers few practical alternatives.
In addition, curating a product specifically for the Indian audience meant that we would had to trust our gut and personal experiences to create a product would satisfy the local consumer with very little data on which to base our theories. We didn’t have many local brands to look up to, nor could we find many market reports on consumer behaviour or preferences and had to find that information first hand via our own research.
We ran a first survey that collected 100+ responses to understand consumers preferences in cuts and styles as well as their body parts they felt least comfortable with. We then created all of our patterns in house and tried all the samples on ourselves instead of using professional models for our sample sizes. Our objective was not to create one-size-fit-all brand or have the widest range of size (since that was not a realistic expectation for a first production), but to make sure that each of our cuts within our existing size range fit as many different women as possible.
We also ran a secondary survey with 300+ responses to understand how our communications could help release some of the stigma around swimwear prior to launch.
Looking back, how would you do things differently if you could?
I think I would take my time to have fun with more designs and even do fun capsule collections with smaller volumes. I would just enjoy the experimentation process more and let my creativity run wild!
What is the Indian swimwear market like and how have people responded to your products?
It is a nascent market that is the fastest growing swimwear market in the world! The potential for swimwear in India is huge especially thanks to recent cultural shifts, popularity of e-commerce, and the growth of domestic and inbound tourism. However, the COVID crisis will most likely impact that growth.
We have met people from all over India as well as Singapore and Mauritius and the reception of the brand has been amazing! We found that people could really connect to both our commitment to sustainability and our accessible product line. We’ve also gained a lot of constructive feedback - which we welcome and love – that’s inspiring us to make exciting changes to our future lines!
Before you go...
Your favourite beach in the world?
Bikini or one-piece?
Depends on the day! But my lockdown uniform has been bikini tops + leggings
If you could work in any setting at all, what would it be?
In a coworking space with lots of green open spaces (hello Ministry of New!).
Your favourite colour to wear?
I love olive green on my skin tone.
Favourite beach read?
Sapiens! Nothing better than a dip in the ocean to process all the thoughts and ideas you get from this book.