As Meenakshi Singh and Bhavisha Dave made their way through the world, streetwear went from a passing interest to a way of life. Up until just a few years ago, however, it was nearly impossible to find the brands they wanted in their home country. Until they took matters into their own hands with Capsul, India’s first multibrand streetwear store.
I first connected with Meenakshi Singh and Bhavisha Dave in 2018 at HG Street, a street culture/lifestyle festival in India’s capital, New Delhi. At the time, the two were in the middle of two massive branded projects, one with Budweiser and another with Air Canada. As a creative and business duo, Singh and Dave had years of collective experience taking ideas from seedlings to reality but the work they’d been doing since leaving PUMA India was mostly a means to an end.
What they really wanted to do was bring some of the biggest names in streetwear to the subcontinent, making brands like Stussy and The Hundreds accessible for the next generation. Growing up, it was nearly impossible to find products from iconic streetwear labels at retail. The infrastructure simply didn’t exist. Instead, streetwear heads had three options:
1. Order products from outside the country, usually the United States, Europe, or Japan, and face steep shipping costs, import duties, and wait times. 2. Ask a relative traveling outside the country to pick up goods for you—something customs enforcement soon caught on to, slapping import duties on bags and bags of clothing. 3. Source a reputable reseller and face high markups as a tradeoff.
In short, the streetwear community was left to its own devices, making the demand for product that much more intense.
The exact reasons streetwear brands themselves had never penetrated the Indian market are hard to pin down. The consumer demand is there—thousands of local streetwear fans attended the festival where Singh, Dave, and I first met—and India is currently the world’s fifth largest global destination in the retail space, on track to become the world’s fastest growing ecommerce market, driven by robust investment in the sector and rapid increase in the number of internet users. To savvy business-minded creatives, the entire situation reads like an opportunity.
It’s something Singh and Dave had felt all along. A combined 15 years at the intersection of streetwear, sportswear, and sneakers, there were few others better positioned to connect the dots once and for all. Creating a streetwear collection for Budweiser and a basketball court for Air Canada was just a pit stop.
Eager to know more about how and why they built and launched India’s first multibrand streetwear store, I spoke with them over Zoom. Read our interview below.
So let’s start at the beginning. How did you two first meet?
Meenakshi Singh: We met at PUMA India. We worked there together on the brand marketing team for around four years. Then I moved to work with the regional team in Salzburg, Austria and was there for around three years. At the same time, Bhavisha got a chance to lead the marketing team for Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and CIS countries so we kept meeting at tradeshows and 360-degree brand meetings.
That’s where we got an understanding of what this whole streetwear market and culture is all about. Both of us got exposed to the culture, brands, and people at the same time.
Tell me about some of the projects you worked on together at PUMA India.
Bhavisha Dave: A lot of the stuff that we did was in a very youth cultural space. As a brand, PUMA India was the first to put Indian musicians on vinyl as part of a project called PUMA Loves Vinyl. We operated like a cultural consultancy or an in-house culture agency for PUMA India.
“This entire thing is not just a marketing exercise. There’s both a business and culture around it.”
Is PUMA what sparked your interest in streetwear?
MS: Personally, PUMA is when my exposure to streetwear started. PUMA was the lifestyle brand of choice here. PUMA Select, the program that collaborates with streetwear labels, young designers and upcoming creatives, in particular was something that really interested me.
BD: I played lots of sports growing up. I played basketball for a club called Hoopers and I used to speed skate at a competition level so my personal sense of style was always very sporty; think breakaway track pants, raglan sleeves, an undershirt with a T-shirt on top.
But yes I would also credit my time at PUMA in helping me understand what streetwear actually is. And then when I went outside of India and was that much closer to drops and the fashion part of streetwear and lifestyle. That’s when I realized that this entire thing is not just a marketing exercise. There’s both a business and culture around it.
Tell me about when you decided to leave PUMA and start Capsul.
BD: While we were living abroad and only seeing each other on trips across Europe and occasionally back in India, we started putting together a rough plan. From there, we started visiting different markets in Europe, starting with Berlin. We visited all the cool streetwear, sneaker, and concept stores, then we did the same in Amsterdam and after that a few more cities.
That’s when we realized that we were in a very interesting space where if we did things right, we could be the platform of choice for young, cool streetwear and lifestyle brands to enter India with. Finally, over Moscow Mules and Long Island Iced Teas, we decided to move back to India and do something, and Capsul was the result of that.
“We were in a very interesting space where if we did things right, we could be the platform of choice for young, cool streetwear and lifestyle brands to enter India with.”
“Brands have started to understand that there is potential here and there’s a lot more visibility because of Instagram.”
What was the original vision for Capsul?
BD: At that time, colette was the benchmark. We always envisioned doing a really cool concept store with a beautifully curated range of products depicting an entire lifestyle. Both Meenakshi and I were on the same page when it came to curation. We knew we wanted streetwear and we knew we wanted a selection of Indian brands, although we haven’t been able to move on the latter point yet because the market here still needs to grow.
What was the streetwear/sneaker scene like in India at that time?
BD: One of the main reasons we decided to finally take the plunge was because we noticed people in India talking about the kinds of brands we saw in streetwear and sneaker stores and boutiques around Europe. It was just the beginning though, just bubbling. Sneaker culture only started here a few years ago. The first-ever hype drop in India was the YEEZY 750 in August 2015 at Khar Social, handled by Homegrown India for adidas.
Looking at retail overall, the first-ever sneaker store opened in India in 2016. The second sneaker store opened in 2018. Since then, brands have started to understand that there is potential here and there’s a lot more visibility because of Instagram. Culturally, hip-hop became the number one genre of music in India and a lot of Indian rappers started flexing streetwear brands.
There was nothing really before that. It was just people who traveled a lot and picked up stuff. Lots of people who went abroad to study. A lot of people well-respected in the scene now had a stint where they studied abroad. So you do have some collectors from the early part of the last decade, but it only recently exploded.
Overall, resell shot up way faster compared to retail. It’s really, really challenging importing products into the country, building relationships with brands and convincing brands to even consider India a potential market. There’s probably 300, 400, 500 resellers in India and only a few actual retailers.
Where did you start with Capsul? What was the first brand you brought on board?
MS: We’re actually amazed by the first brand we managed to get for our platform. During the time we were traveling around doing research around Europe, we also went to Agenda and ComplexCon, both in LA, just to meet more people and better understand how this industry works. After about a year and a half, we managed to get The Hundreds and that was kind of a door-opening moment for us because once you have The Hundreds, people start to recognize you as a legit platform.
But even before that, we knew it was essential for us to understand the current environment and to brush up on our network and relationship with the people and the creators in India. We started meeting with people at brands and record labels, and people soon realized that there were now two experts in the field who have come back to their home country. We were then offered a couple of projects, took them up, and that led to our first work as Capsul.
Tell me more about those projects.
MS: First we helped Budweiser India design and develop their first-ever streetwear label. That was about a 12-month project. We collaborated with five or six Indian creators and dropped a range of nine styles alongside curated experiential event programming.
After that, another really interesting project came through. Beautiful Destinations was working with Air Canada who had just started their first-ever route between Toronto and Mumbai. They wanted to do something related to basketball in Mumbai and they chose Hoopers, the court Bhavisha played at as a kid.
The proposal was to create India’s first-ever hype court so we went to see it and it was in a dilapidated state. Alongside Beautiful Destinations and India’s biggest graffiti/art collective St+art India, we came up with the entire concept and executed it.
We kept doing projects like this because it not only connected us with more and more brands, but it also helped us understand what the current culture and youth scene was like. We actually still have that part of the business, an agency called Past Forward, because Capsul is now only about the website and the store.
Going back to The Hundreds, how did you make that happen?
BD: We met Carlos, their International Sales Rep at the time, at Agenda and we were able to work something out. We also met Mike Cherman from Chinatown Market. He’d done some work with PUMA in the past through ICNY and from there it all just started to click. After that we met the founder of Rastaclat, Daniel Kasidi. One by one we started adding a bunch of brands.
So by the time you were ready to launch, how many brands did you have on board?
BD: As a shopping website, we launched in March 2019 with seven or eight brands. There was The Hundreds, Chinatown Market, Staple, Rastaclat, Carrots, RIPNDIP…
What kind of feedback were you hearing when the site first launched? Were you surprised by the demand?
MS: We had actually done a kind of pilot pop-up at HG Street a year before launching the webstore. Actually it was the pop-up where we met you! We literally picked up a ton of stuff from one of our friend’s stores in Europe. We had somewhere between 400 and 500 SKUs that day and we almost sold out. We were like, “Okay, if this is how it went today, then we can do it on a much more elevated scale and on a very regular basis.”
That gave us the confidence to go forward with the concept but there were challenges for sure.
“In India, consumers are more used to resell pricing than they are to retail so when they see our products they ask, ‘Is this real? Shouldn’t a Stussy tee cost $110? Shouldn’t a Thrasher tee cost $60, $70?’”
What kind of challenges?
MS: Proving that we are authentic and legit. We get around 20 questions every day through Shopify Chat asking, “Are you legit? The products on your website, are they authentic?”
BD: In India, consumers are more used to resell pricing than they are to retail so when they see our products they ask, “Is this real? Shouldn’t a Stussy tee cost $110? Shouldn’t a Thrasher tee cost $60, $70?” We’re like, “No, this is retail pricing.”
We also figured lots of people don’t know these brands. Not everybody is in a city. That’s one reason we started Word on the Street, our platform for India’s street culture community, to start raising awareness about these brands and to start building a community.
The community helped a lot with that issue. We are proud that all the famous sneakerheads and the streetwear enthusiasts in India are part of our close community. These guys really supported us—big time—and helped establish that Capsul is legit.
Apart from that, PR and interviews helped a lot. We got featured by Vogue, GQ, Man’s World, some of the leading magazines in the country. We now have a section where we showcase where Capsul has been featured and people read up on that and understand we’re legit.
Your prices are well below resell but I imagine they must still be a bit elevated due to the nature of getting them to India in the first place. If that’s indeed the case, is streetwear considered a more luxury kind of product?
BD: Absolutely. Our prices include the Goods and Services Tax so they’re always going to be a little bit more visible than they would be on, say, a U.S. website. Even so, our prices are considered affordable luxury in India. But if you shop from an international website and compare that to the same product on Capsul, the international website will end up being at least 1.5x what you’d pay on Capsul. That’s where we spotted a gap and a business opportunity.
We also offer faster shipping and no need to deal with customs. This is guaranteed product that’s already in the country with no hassles and no better price point, and the same curation of the brands that are available internationally.
“India is a huge market. It’s 1.3 billion people so even just 1% of that is 13 million people. That’s the size of some countries.”
What have been some of the biggest learnings since Capsul launched?
MS: Trying to understand what brand works right now in India. There are certain brands which really do well and a few brands which will take time to develop. The brands themselves are helping in a way. They’re patient with us and they’re okay experimenting with us for a couple of seasons. They’re also invested in building the culture with us in the country and that’s one of the biggest things we can do right now: just build the culture, build the story around the brands, and the whole lifestyle.
BD: The story we tell is very interesting for people outside of India. When we do the tradeshow circuits, people are very curious about the Indian market. Last year during Paris Fashion Week, we connected with someone from New Guards Group. Their portfolio doesn’t allow for us to carry their range of products, nonetheless, they were very curious for us to come to their showroom, meet with them, and just get to know more about what’s happening in India.
What is happening in India at the moment? I remember when I came there two years ago, one question I got asked a lot was, “why don’t brands pay attention to India?” It sounds like that’s changing, fast, and brands are starting to pay attention. Why do you think that is?
BD: India is a huge market. It’s 1.3 billion people so even just 1% of that is 13 million people. That’s the size of some countries. I’ve heard though that doing business in India is difficult to navigate unless you have a partner in India. I don’t know Meenakshi if you agree with me.
MS: Population definitely plays a huge role. For instance, when we calculate our target demographic, that’s a huge number we look at. That gives us hope and energy to keep working at it every day.
Also just the complexity and mystery of the culture is attractive to a lot of people. Look at Supreme, a couple seasons back, they did this whole range of products that featured Indian gods and goddesses, and more and more elements like this are being used in videos, and in overall lifestyle representations by brands.
Creators of Indian origin are also becoming very popular outside of their own country. Lilly Singh is a great example. She’s really, really popular in LA and Toronto, and has her own streetwear label. Through creators like that, people become interested in what’s happening in India.
How did you approach the challenges that came with the lockdown?
BD: To answer that, I’ll step back a bit and tell you about a very peculiar way of shopping in India: Cash on Delivery. People in India love to shop with Cash on Delivery, which is a challenge because it’s showing you a sale but only when the product is delivered will you get the money. So we switched that off because we had to continue to have confirmed sales. Then for the first couple months, we only dropped the most hyped pieces in our product catalog.
While we did that, Meenakshi and I started doing live conversations and chat rooms with iconic people in the scene like Bobby Hundreds and Hussein Suleiman from Daily Paper, allowing our community to directly interact with them.
We were doing these two or three times per week and we didn’t want to just speak with the sneakerheads in the community, we wanted to reach people from different communities, anyone doing interesting stuff. We had people who do custom bikes, tattoo artists, musicians. We did a lot of these throughout April, May, and June, and we saw a 25%, 30% jump in our community.
The minute the lockdown opened up, we started sending out products to customers and we regularly started launching products in a drop format, too, so we had something new to show customers every week.
The final thing we did was a few collaborations—content and product collaborations—with people from the Indian streetwear and sneaker community.
Overall, we actually saw our business scale up through the lockdown. We in fact did more business than we did pre-pandemic.
I also saw that you guys started selling products through Instagram DM and WhatsApp. Can you tell me about that?
MS: Right. One thing that really worked in our favor, which almost doubled our sales during the pandemic, was opening all our channels to the consumer. We understood that our consumer is not bound to exploring products through one channel only. We have Shopify Chat, we have Instagram, and we have WhatsApp open for conversation and, therefore, transactions as well.
BD: We realized during the pandemic that we’re lucky enough to enjoy a high customer repeat rate. Once people shop with us, they keep coming back, so we created something called Team Early. It’s a WhatsApp broadcast list and you have to have done a certain amount of shopping with us to get on it. During the pandemic, we started dropping product directly to this group 24 hours before a wider launch.
Additionally with this channel, we started offering advice to help people style their fit. Even though people in this space know the brands, they still appreciate someone being there to offer that kind of service. We get random messages like, “Hey, send me some cool outfit curations.” It’s literally how it would be in a store. That’s the kind of experience we managed to create just through WhatsApp.
That kind of conversational commerce, hats off to it. Our consumer is Gen Z so they’re used to doing everything on their mobile phones. An app might be more intuitive but from a resource perspective we’re not going to build one right now, so we just try to curate the kind of products, the kind of fits, and the kind of content they would like, and convert that into an order.
“Even though people in this space know the brands, they still appreciate someone being there to offer that kind of service. We get random messages like, ‘Hey, send me some cool outfit curations.’ It’s literally how it would be in a store.”
Amazing. Where does Capsul go from here?
MS: So we’re currently having conversations with brands like PUMA, adidas, and Reebok. They’re very curious about how they can support us and help us become a full 360 lifestyle store, because they hear our name popping up in conversations.
All images courtesy of Capsul unless otherwise noted.