Aisha Rawji’s fashion company KYNAH (pronounced “KYE-NAH”) traces its roots to an unconventional business she observed during her childhood. The model was simple, if a little onerous. Rawji’s mother, Anise Rawji, would fly to her native land of India several times per year, meet designers, and pick up clothes. Returning back home to the United States, she would sell the trendy, contemporary Indian outfits from their living room to fellow members of the South Asian diaspora.
The success of the business pointed to a very real gap for South Asian consumers. Ethnic clothing stores in Little India’s across the United States – Artesia, Edison/Iselin, and Jackson Heights – didn’t offer much choice. Selections were démodé (you pick what you see). Shoppers were forced to be itinerant. If they had the means and the time, they would perhaps even go to India for a personalized experience and more options. The difficulty of finding a good outfit was apparent to Rawji at weddings in the expatriate community, where many of the clothes worn by wedding guests seemed out of fashion or ill-fitted.
But Rawji wasn’t thinking of such a macroscopic issue as a child; she was capitalizing on the steady foot traffic to her family home. She started up a small operation out of her tree house selling painted rocks for 25 cents to some of her mother’s more indulgent customers. At the time, it felt like a booming business for the six-year-old Rawji. It was much later when she founded her own clothing line that Rawji realized her mother had unwittingly inspired an entrepreneurial spark and an interest in fashion.
At age 13, Rawji had clearly made up her mind about pursuing fashion. Her father, Karim Rawji, was a businessman himself and was aware of the difficult nature of the fashion industry. He advised her to first pursue a four-year university degree and fashion school – if she was still interested – later.
Rawji followed his advice. After graduating in 2014 from Boston University with a degree in business administration, marketing, and international management, she moved to New York City for work. She enrolled in 2017 in a fashion entrepreneurship class at the Parsons School of Design where she fatefully wrote the business plan for KYNAH.
An opportunity to implement the plan presented itself when Rawji had a month-long break before starting a new job; she flew to India, where she met with her mother’s friends and designer acquaintances. Two agreed to manufacture her first clothing line. Seema Gujral – who at the time was only producing and manufacturing for other brands – helped produce. (Gujral has since launched her own bridal company and is now one of the biggest bridal designers in India). When Rawji returned to the United States in July, she began producing photoshoots, preparing a website, and planning the marketing. She was ready to launch in September. Two weeks before launch, Rawji’s father sat her down and urged her to give it her all. He took her to the Apple Store and bought her a laptop to get her started.
Initially structured as an e-commerce site, KYNAH is now a multi-designer retailer and perhaps the only Indian store in the United States that combines scale and experience. Rawji, 31, curates and designs collections of traditional Indian garments from the perspective of a woman here.
Rawji wanted KYNAH to fill all those gaps in the South Asian diaspora’s shopping experience in the United States. The goal was to simplify what was usually a stressful ordeal and to eliminate the general distrust and the questions that consumers have while buying Indian wear: Am I getting quality? Is it reliable? Is this a trustworthy retailer? Am I going to get what I was shown? Will I be able to get quality alterations?
To that end, KYNAH created a novel experience for the South Asian diaspora: a one-on-one experience with a stylist who expertly curates an intimate and personalized experience for each client.
KYNAH expanded the business relationships and logistics her mother had developed with designers in India over the past decades. But the company also embodied a generational shift: it was from the cultural perspective of a second-generation immigrant like Rawji, a daughter born and raised on American soil to immigrant parents who was deeply connected with her ancestral roots. KYNAH wanted to provide that intimacy that comes from a shared understanding of norms, culture/heritage, religions and traditions of South Asia. Working with a KYNAH stylist involves the whole family and is meant to empower brides.
Rawji didn’t want to leave the many younger women like her in a lurch.
Rawji aimed for a quality that would span generations. “I don’t want it to be a one-wear item, you wear it once and that’s it. I see Indian clothes as generational and as heirloom so if you’re purchasing an item that is beautiful and well-made and sometimes fashion forward for the time that you live in it’s going to last you generations. I am keeping all my clothes for my future children and my sister’s future children.”
Rawji had started out creating clothes for herself and her age group. But she started noticing that their demographic wasn’t attending weddings or couldn’t afford pricy selections. She shifted accordingly in 2018, expanding and diversifying to more demographics and items: saris, outfits, pant suits, and dresses.
As KYNAH entered 2020, the adage “If you don’t make it past your third year it’s over” was very much on Rawji’s mind. But, however tight the margins were, her output was prodigious. She had produced four collections and spent every dollar she had on production and photoshoots in January. Rawji did production for House of Masaba, Papa Don’t Preach, and worked on her first bridal line. Later in the year, she even produced Seema Gujral. But the orders on those pieces never arrived.
The pandemic upended everything. News of delayed and canceled weddings – and lost business opportunities – worried Rawji. To keep her business above water, she pivoted to masks.
“I was seeing so many companies who were either in the Indian rental space or similar to mine that were building brands, completely shut down at the beginning of the pandemic which was just so scary. I was luckily able to stay afloat with the masks we were selling, but everyday I had to wake up and decide if I was going to shut it down, or keep going which was incredibly tough. [The masks] not only kept me busy, but it also kept the business and brand name afloat – we were reaching new customers through the masks – and soon I was seeing customers I didn’t know wearing our masks at restaurants or grocery stores. It was a great motivating feeling.” said Rawji.
As the pandemic reshaped life, Rawji got creative about expanding the reach of KYNAH’s brand. With the emergence of microweddings, she hosted Instagram live broadcasts. She did virtual consultations from an apartment with one rack of clothing. She created stylebooks.
The pandemic’s challenges forced ingenuity and experimentation. “If you hit rock bottom the only way is up truly, and so if you have hit that low point you learn to build a backbone where the little things don’t bother you as much and you concentrate more on the bigger picture. It really taught me how to be savvy and work with minimal resources – you can actually do so much with very little in business – you just have to deeply understand your abilities, your weaknesses, and what little steps will lead to the bigger goal. Most of all, you have to understand your customer,” said Rawji.
A lifeline came in the form of grants awarded to KYNAH at the end of 2020. She received two: one from California State and the other from the City of Los Angeles. The funding allowed her to open pop ups – temporary shopping experiences – in Santa Monica and New York.
Originally, Rawji never anticipated getting into bridal wear. But after being approached repeatedly by brides, she dabbled in a bridal pop up that changed the trajectory of KYNAH.
“When I first opened the Santa Monica pop-up in March 2021 I was doing around 13 to 14 one-hour appointments by myself every day. The pop-up was supposed to be one week and it just kept going so well we kept extending, and extending, and extending to what eventually became my permanent LA Flagship store in April 2022,” said Rawji. “Towards the end of 2021 we hosted a pop up in New York, which was so much fun and pivotal for the business, but again we were completely sold out for the two weeks we were there and I definitely didn’t sleep much. We left with a waitlist of still over 1,000 brides wanting to visit.”
The popups gave the company an opportunity to better understand the demographic, to gauge interest beyond LA, and to judge the viability of a permanent store.
Rawji established that permanent location in what was once the waiting room of her fathers car maintenance and repair shop.
In order to ensure quality control, Rawji visits every single studio and factory that comprises her supply chain. She uses no shortcuts or intermediaries as she familiarizes herself with all the facets of their operations. “I want visibility into the backend and being able to see it for myself versus hearing it from someone else but also meeting with the designers,” said Rawji. “We have a really solid operation where instead of relying on other companies or partnerships to be able to control quality, we have our own office in India [that] checks every single piece that gets sent to our customers. We control the experience that each customer has with us from start to finish which has been really, really pivotal for us.”
In March 2022 the back office opened in India. In May 2022 the retail store was permanently constructed. From 2021 to 2022, 70% sales were coming from pop up and 30% from online. Rawji has curated and designed outfits for a movie that came out in March 2023. Malala, Poorna Jagannathan, Meena Harris have donned the outfits. KYNAH has been featured at Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys, in Jalebi Baby Music Video and Murder Mystery 2.
KYNAH is bootstrapped and Rawji has plenty of challenges as a young founder who works in multiple time zones. “I’ve been able to grow the team in a sustainable way because we don’t have any funding and so the choices that I’ve had to make in terms of hiring have been really tough. I’ve had to make mistakes along the way to get to the place where I am as a leader, as an entrepreneur, as a business owner.”
Rawji has faced difficult business decisions. She’s learning to manage the team and to balance the competing needs to scale up while also being economical. The store requires retail staff, backend staff, commerce team and a marketing team. But she’s also watched her own leadership style evolve.
“Over the past few years, I’ve really learned what my leadership style is, and how to trust the process and your team in order to let go from being involved in every little aspect of the business. As an entrepreneur when you’ve done everything by yourself for so long and all of a sudden you hire other people, it’s really, really hard to adjust to.”
Eventually, she’d like to expand into Canada and the United Kingdom and to develop a global reach with ecommerce stores. She is also hoping to cater to a clientship outside of India.
“Growing our ecommerce store globally is going to be my biggest priority for the coming year – it is easily scalable and we are already set up for it since we ship all of our made-to-order products from our office in India. I have a vision of us really catering more to the global audience for all occasions,” said Rawji.
KYNAH is continuing to modernize the experience and transform the landscape of Indian clothing sales.
“To better our online experience, we’re going to be focusing more on utilizing tools like AI and virtual-try-ons to make the experience of purchasing and customizing a lot more seamless – and continue to bring the South Asian fashion industry forward, not just keep the status quo,” Rawji says on redefining Indian fashion retail.