Finding the common thread

Indus Threads brings South Asian fashion to Silicon Valley's sharing economy

When Los Altos resident Sumaira Nabeel moved her family to Zurich, Switzerland, during the summer of 2015 for work, the last thing on her mind was quitting her job as a CPA to dive headfirst into the world of South Asian fashion. Yet less than a year since that pivotal trip, Nabeel stood in her home studio in Los Altos -- surrounded by dressers packed to the brim with lehengas, saris and dupattas ornately decorated with heavily beaded necklines and embroideries of golden flowers -- grinning with excitement as she wrapped a sari around her waist.

"The concept of what's considered traditional is changing. These pieces don't have to be worn in the most traditional ways, and there's so much you can do with them -- it's not just saris and lehengas, but crop tops and skirts that people can actually wear," she said.

The crossover of traditional South Asian garb to the more modern styles of western runways is what inspired Nabeel to found Indus Threads, an online clothing rental platform that brings the world of intricately-designed, high-end South Asian fashion to the sharing economy of the west. Patrons can shop online for items retailing $250 to $1,500 but instead pay anywhere from $55 to $250 to rent them for a four-day period.

Indus Threads' collaborative-consumption business model, similar to ones employed by Uber and Airbnb, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential possibilities for high-end fashion rental services, Nabeel said.

"Disruptive technologies are about a change of mindset driven by a change in fundamental value systems," Nabeel said. "Our world is so interconnected. My dream is to bring things all together through a platform that is economical: It's conscious, it's green, and it's where markets are heading."

A lack of connection, namely between the South Asian fashion world and consumers living in the United States, was a frustrating reality Nabeel experienced when trying to find one-of-a-kind South Asian fashion for parties and events. Stuck between the option of paying hundreds of dollars for clothing she would only wear once or having to travel halfway across the globe to find pieces that were exactly what she wanted, Nabeel saw a unique opportunity to address the needs of a niche market of consumers who were limited by access, affordability and time to find the perfect outfit.

"Wearing these items is an experience, one that people could enjoy for a night and then not be driven by the guilt of spending a large amount of money on something beautiful," Nabeel said. "Each of these pieces have a story to tell ... I want people to be able to connect to the region and the designers behind these clothes."

For Nabeel, making the connection to the fashion world meant letting go of her full-time job in the corporate tax field, an area in which she worked for more than 13 years. She began seriously considering a switch in careers after a "life-altering three months" of living abroad in Europe last summer. Along with the rest of her family, she was able to experience the rich culture of Europe while traveling between countries like Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy, which revitalized her appreciation for the arts and a slower pace of life. It also made her realize that her passion and interest was in fashion, something that always played a central role in the way she presented herself to the outside world, she explained.

"I was able to step back and evaluate what meant the most to me in life. Not to say I didn't enjoy my job, but I (realized) life is too short and you've got to go out and follow your heart."

Since quitting her job in January and committing to Indus Threads full time, Nabeel has launched her website and rental platform, which currently features more than 60 different pieces from 29 designers. As the network of fashion designers continues to grow online, Nabeel is also connecting to customers in person by inviting them to her home studio for personal consultations and fittings. While she doesn't have plans to run Indus Threads "out of a living room" for long, in the short term, getting customer feedback in person is valuable to better understanding the styles and types of garments that are most desirable.

"I want to build a strong platform where I'm collecting all this data and I'll know what this market likes renting," Nabeel said. "That's a very powerful platform, even from a designer perspective."

Though making the switch from directing an accounting firm to directing her own fashion company was sudden, taking the plunge has been a refreshing and rewarding experience for Nabeel, who hopes to seek funding for her platform and run her business as a fashion startup. While her drive and big-picture outlook for Indus Threads was driven by her business savvy, the inspiration behind making it a reality was to set a positive example for her children, showing them that following one's heart and dreams can indeed be an option and way of life, she said.

"I started this company from a very deep place," Nabeel said, a smile forming on her face. "For me, it's going to be about the journey. I want to take in every single day and enjoy it. Who knows what doors this journey will open?"

For more information or to access the Indus Threads collection, visit Indus Threads.

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