A passion for psychology, a desire to fulfil her mother’s dream of being a fashion designer and a rare talent of making people open up to her to reveal their life stories. So, what did Palak Shah do with all these talents and dreams? She turned them into a stellar business model and launches Exhale, one of the country’s first mental health leisure clothing brand!
Back in time
Of course, life wasn’t that straight forward. In her own words she didn’t have the most normal childhood, never fit in with her gang of pretty, fair-skinned friends. “I was always a dark girl, a tomboy, played football, very sporty, preferred hanging around with boys over girls so I was always running around like a lunatic in the sun. My mother would lose her mind and would be like ‘why don’t you apply sunblock?’ She would keep eating my head about this and I mistook the comment to mean ‘I’m not pretty enough or I’m too dark.” Constantly judging herself on this preconceived belief clouded much of her childhood and made her feel different. The upside of the situation was it made her take up psychology in school and push herself to excel.
Graduation, a course at SNDT and then an amazing job at Masaba, things seemed to be working for Palak “but even then, my heart wasn’t really into it…” Her decision to leave her job and move to New York to study design at Parsons allowed her to experience a sense of normalcy about her skin tone. “Every day I would walk out of the door feeling amazing and suddenly some random person would scream ‘Hey beautiful!’ I was going to bars and boys were hitting on me, my white friends thought my skin was exotic, there would be classes where they would use my culture as project basis…it was a very strange experience. And that’s when I realized, ‘why am I shying away from this?’”
Armed with her newfound confidence and the desire to combine her love for psychology and design, It was while commuting to work in LA that Palak had an idea that would change a life! A marriage of her two passions, a mental health clothing line. The more research she did, the stronger her conviction grew. “I decided to use my strengths, put my feeling onto clothes and actually have some meaning to the clothes. Everything you wear without realizing it has an emotion to it,” she says. The label name, unfortunately, didn’t come as easily. “I slept over it for a week. Exhale was a backup option for me but I couldn’t think beyond it. Exhale was simple, easy, one word and it’s as simple as it means—taking a breath and that’s what my brand wants to do.” Even with the help of her supportive parents who welcomed her decision to quit her job and move back to India to follow through with her goal, it still took Palak a year of research to finally launch the brand. The year was spent learning about the Indian knit markets, the production and most importantly gathering stories from friends and family that would form the basis of the clothes. The first story she went live with was her own, and the tee-shirt she created was reflective of her personality—a sporty cross-back tank that said ‘Falling in Love with Me’.
The High Points
More than the clothes it was the stories that got traction initially and the impact was far-reaching. “I’ve had three boys call up my best friend (after her story and tee launched with the tag ‘mind your own measurements’), and apologize for saying nasty things to her in school and drawing elephants on her desk because that's impacted her till today and made her insecure about her weight. The fact that you could change their mentality and actually make them apologise, that’s not small. That’s when I knew this was worth it, even if my clothes didn’t sell it was worth it only for someone else’s well-being or to make someone else happy even for a day.” We also love that a part of the sale proceeds is diverted to causes close to Palak’s heart like art therapy for children with cancer.
Passion into Business
Palak and her brand have a lot going for them and at the age of 28, she has a long path ahead of her. It’s a one-person show for a moment with Palak handling the design, production and website sales. But she plans to get more people on board to scale up the business. The next step is to introduce more colours to the line, a gentle move away from the minimalistic black, white and greys. This move will make the brand more inclusive, in Palak’s word “a very very safe space for men and women” and the focus will remain on mental health and bringing more stories into the spotlight. “I’m hoping to give people more strength to come out and speak. There is no good or bad story because everyone's feelings are valid…. but it’s not easy, it requires so much strength and I’m so grateful to them.”
She has been on the management team of Vinati Organics Limited since 2006 and balances the technical/manufacturing execution with her marketing abilities combined with new age aggression.