If you grew up in the West, the idea of buying fabric to have sewn into a custom garment by the tailor who made every other item in your wardrobe seems like a dream from another century. But in India, it represents a way of life that's only a generation or two removed from the current reality of mass-market brands.
The shift from custom-made garments to carbon copy ones has happened so quickly that Indian women like Shivangini Parihar live with a unique form of cognitive dissonance. Having grown up around beautifully handmade goods, they're now being targeted by international companies that want to hook them on mass-produced clothing.
It's this dissonance that spurred Parihar to start The Summer House, an intentionally small-batch label that marries ethical production, quality and affordability to a degree rarely seen in the fashion industry.
"The Summer House was really born out of nostalgia," Parihar says. "Growing up on a farm like I did, you want to escape to the city and build a life for yourself. But it's that typical story: once you go away, you start really missing all the good things. You experience soul drain. Everything's commercial and there for a reason, and nothing's just there for the sake of being, which is what a summer house is for."
Parihar started working with craftsmen to recapture that pace of life after moving to a big city to take a job in advertising. She began by getting to know artisans in her area, something that she says comes easily in small-town India. Her first offerings were actually housewares like cutting boards and wooden bowls, which Parihar began selling to multimillion dollar retailer Fabindia. Soon, she added hand-woven and -printed textiles, found another distributor through UK-based retailer Toast and spent a year and a half traveling India with her then nine-month-old child to continue connecting with and identifying the best local artisans.
"We learned a lot about quality control and what really goes into making sure that it's the perfect product," Parihar says of the two-and-a-half years that The Summer House existed primarily as a supplier to bigger brands. But after meeting her now-business partner Rekha Datla and collecting a little capital, Parihar decided to start a brand of her own.
That was the genesis of The Summer House as it exists today: an independent label that sells home goods and clothing, both of which are marked by a romantically simple aesthetic, careful craftsmanship and conscious production.
"There was this gap for us to fill in, because I think that young Indians and professional Indians in cities don't really dress in the traditional manner anymore," says Parihar. "But there aren't many options catering to the new aesthetic that have been made responsibly. And we personally didn't want to wear something that everyone else was wearing."
To protect a sense of uniqueness, The Summer House produces its pieces in extremely limited quantities that are released as part of new collections every other month or so. Though it's a small label, it has international fans so dedicated they'll buy every piece in a new collection immediately after it comes out to ensure they don't miss anything.
"Once people buy from us, they come back," she says. "We have a very high customer retention rate."
Part of what inspires that kind of fandom is the brand's ability to marry price and quality. With tops starting at $23 and dresses at $38 and construction that feels far sturdier than what you'd find at H&M or Zara, The Summer House is a no-brainer for fans. Its pricing structure was inspired by brands like Everlane, which Parihar credits with giving her the confidence that it's possible to run a profitable business model even while avoiding the industry's standard markups.
"It is expensive, but it's not that expensive to get things made if you're going straight to the craftsmen like we are," she says. Cutting out a middleman also means that more of the money goes into the pockets of artisans, too.
The Summer House's environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing is another draw for customers. Since most conscious fashion offerings in India tend to have a boho or "Indofusion" aesthetic, and The Summer House's Kinfolk-magazine-appropriate, vintage-sewing-pattern-inspired look is a welcome alternative for those with a more globally influenced aesthetic. Besides working with fairly paid artisans, The Summer House also relies on organic raw materials, low-impact dyes (or none at all) and either handwoven or fair-trade factory fabrics. The clothing is cut and sewn by an in-house team that works in the same airy space that the founders use as an office and studio.
"The more we learn and understand, the more we try to better our processes," Parihar says. "We've become better educated over the last five years."
So what's next for The Summer House? The brand is continuing to expand its international sales and hopes to put out tightly edited collections as often as once a month in the future. But whatever else happens, Parihar is committed to promoting the slower, simpler way of life that sparked it all.
"I think there is a part of us that misses that from the past, and a part of us that wants to someday be simpler and purer. So it's born from nostalgia, but also from a plan for the future. All of us want to live in a summer house in the hills or by the beach, to live organically and beautifully. It's about a state of mind."