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A Penchant for Fashion

Jul/16/2023 / by Melanie Fourie

Sumeer Kaur, the founder of Lashkaraa, has had a challenging entrepreneurial journey  

South Asian woman in blazer
Photo courtesy; Sumeer Kaur

Sumeer Kaur is the creative force behind Lashkaraa, an Indian apparel label. Started in 2014, last year Lashkaraa’s earnings from the U.S. and India amounted to $9.8 million. Lashkaraa has expanded quickly, with a dedicated 48,000-square-foot facility in India, and more than 250 employees.

Aware of the importance of paying it forward, Kaur launched an initiative to hire more women artisans, and offers complimentary tailoring lessons.

Lashkaraa has also found favor among Bollywood celebrities. Actor Karisma Kapoor walked the runway in Lashkaraa’s first fashion presentation at the recent Bombay Times Fashion Week.

In this interview with SEEMA, Kaur shares the ups and downs of being a fashion entrepreneur.

How was it like growing up in the U.S. as a South Asian?

I was born in India, but my family and I moved to the U.S. when I was 11 months old. I grew up in Los Angeles, which is still my home base. I was the only Indian child in all my classes, so I was often confused why I was the only kid with oil in their hair or bringing a paratha to lunch. I was often bullied for that, but my mother told me that one should be proud of their roots and culture. She explained that some kids were being bullies because they didn’t understand my culture.

What ignited your interest in fashion?

My family and I visited India for family weddings or events. When I was eight years old, my mother took me to a clothing boutique for the first time, and I absolutely fell in love.

Seeing so many vibrant colors, beautiful embroideries, and the gracefully draped outfits, I was in awe. That experience stayed with me, and my mother would often find me playing dress-up with her dupattas and sarees. The love for Indian fashion started very young, and I was always happy going to India for this reason (and of course the food!).

I would often visit Little India in Artesia, California whenever a relative wanted an Indian food fix or wanted to buy gold. Being the curious kid I was, I always wanted to go to the clothing stores. Each time, I would notice that the designs were outdated compared to what I saw in India, and they were priced about 10 times more.

I knew there were more buyers like me struggling to find good options locally, and I wanted to start an Indian fashion brand with exclusive designs at prices suitable for every budget.

Tell us about your background in fashion.

Everything I learned has come from multiple trips to India and lots of trial and error. Back then, I didn’t know the difference between georgette and chiffon. But now I can see an outfit and immediately point out the fabric, embroidery specifications, and approximate manufacturing cost. All this knowledge came from diving straight into the source and learning directly from those involved in the construction of a garment—the tailors and embroiderers.

You were 19 years old when you decided to venture to India to start your business. What influenced you to make that move?

I was a few months short of finishing my first semester in college when I decided to drop out to pursue my business full-time. My parents had a nasty divorce in which my mother was rendered penniless and unable to work due to health issues. I knew I had to step up to take care of her and my sisters.

I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet working minimum wage jobs, but I also knew Lashkaraa had a lot of potential if I could give it more time. So I decided to drop out of college. A year after starting Lashkaraa, our home was filled with boxes of Indian clothes, and I saved up enough money to go to India. I made the trip alone and I set up a small base there. The trip partly happened because of an online search. I googled ‘textile capital of India’, and Surat, Gujarat, popped up, so that’s where I went.

Why the name Lashkaraa, and how was it derived?

‘Lashkaraa’ in Punjabi means ‘to sparkle’, and it made sense considering the fashion I’d be selling.

How did you raise capital for Lashkaraa?

I worked at a restaurant as a server and saved up money to bootstrap my business. I started with an initial investment of $1,200. I literally saved every dime from the business and reinvested it back. I did everything I could possibly do myself to save money. For instance, I didn’t hire a web developer to code our site until we were in the second year of operations.

How did you curate your initial lines, and what were some of the challenges you faced?

When I began Lashkaraa in October 2014, I was working with a manufacturer in India, though I was in the U.S. I started the website with about four designs, for which I had stock of only five pieces each.

It was a constant battle because when working with a manufacturer who’s in another time zone, there are so many limitations about what they can do, at what cost, and how much minimum order quantity they want you to take. I couldn’t do any experimentation because for every design I created, I had to take inventory. Hence, I decided I needed to have my own base for this.

Tell us a bit about the design process, and what did it feel like when you first held your own designs? 

It’s a long process from the initial sketch to the finished product. We work a lot based on designs that have worked well with our clients, so we can continue to give them styles they like. I have a team of 12 designers in India who work with me and help bring my vision to reality. Fabric processing, fabric dyeing, embroidery creation, embroidery digital sketching, hand embroidery finishing, tailoring… There are so many people that work behind one garment, and it truly is a labor of love.s

When I first held my own design, I cried. It felt surreal that I was holding the finished product of something I worked so hard to create. At that moment, I knew that this was what I wanted to continue doing.

All your lines are manufactured in your factory in India. How has your company grown since its inception?

I set up a base in India in 2015, and back then, I only had one tailor, two hand embroidery karigaars (artisans), and one person to help me process orders. Since then, we’ve grown into a team of over 250 in India (and growing).

I still have my first tailor with me, and it’s been a journey filled with many “nos” to get here. When I wanted to set up our first office in India, I was denied as a tenant by over 30 people because I was young and I was a woman. People thought that I had a hobby that didn’t seem sustainable, and I had no business setting up an office in the male-dominated textile market. Finally, my first landlord agreed to give me an office space if I coughed up a year’s rent in advance, which I did.

Tell us about the program to boost the number of women artisans in your workplace.

In 2019, I noticed the only female employees we had were in the design team and in finishing team, who applied stones to fabric and cut thread by hand. I asked one of the ladies doing stone work why none of them tried their hand at tailoring. She replied they didn’t have the funds to buy a sewing machine or learn tailoring skills.

I began an initiative with two master tailors and two tailors to teach women who wanted to learn (not just our staff) how to tailor garments for free. They could use this new skill to work for themselves, get a job elsewhere, or work for us. My goal in the next two years is to expand this initiative, where women can come to learn tailoring, along with fashion design and hand embroidery free of charge.

You recently held a fashion show at the Bombay Times Fashion Week with some famous people in attendance. What was it like having Karisma Kapoor model your designs?

It was a dream come true to have Karisma Kapoor be my muse for my first fashion show. I’ve admired her growing up, and she was just so wonderful to work with. Since this was my first show, I was very nervous, but Karisma calmed me down backstage and was just amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better showstopper.

Who do you lean on for support?

I lean on my family for support the most. They’ve been here for me since the first day and have seen my struggles since the inception of the business. They keep me sane.

How do you create free time for relaxation, and do you have any other passions?

I schedule my day so I am able to give time to my family, because they are everything to me. The most important part of my dog’s day are his walks. I make sure I give him at least 30 minutes in the morning and an hour in the evening. That alone time with him is therapeutic for me. I also enjoy cooking. It’s a stress reliever for me, so that is also something I am very passionate about.

You currently run an online sales portal. Where do you see Lashkaraa in the future?

I have denied offers for outside investment because I want to maintain control of my business and I know I can scale without the assistance of an outside firm. Although the process does take more time, it is worth the wait. In the next 10 years, my goal is to expand Lashkaraa’s lines, launch two sister brands to focus on casual and bridal wear, and finally start our offline expansion into retail stores.