Behind The Scenes: Creating Napeansea, an Indian-Inspired Brand

by Rohini Wahi

It is serendipitous and wholly enriching that late last year, as I began writing about contemporary Indian design for Design*Sponge, I was on the cusp of launching Napeansea — my own Indian-inspired home and lifestyle brand with my talented textile designer mother.

Napeansea is a small but growing collection of homeware and lifestyle accessories that pays homage to the multi-faceted city of Bombay, the gateway that fuses India and the West. Our brand aims to be a fresh and elegant interpretation of India’s rich craftwork, combining traditional techniques like bandhani, hand block-printing, and embroidery for a new audience.

The collection comprises of patterned homeware, poetic garments finished with creative details, and an ever-evolving curation of one-off curios sourced from around India.

This business venture of ours has been over a decade in the works. With a long career in the design industry, I have worked as a stylist on shoots surrounded by sublime products, a journalist reporting on every collection that appeared on the market, and consulted as a trend forecaster advising brands on their next move. My mother Reena, a talented textile designer trained in India, had spent many years at the helm of our family business as a supplier of leather and sheepskin to many UK fashion and home brands with a wealth of artisan connections in India.

So a year ago, we decided it was time to combine our skills.

People ask us what it’s like to work so closely with family, and we’ll admit that some days it’s tough! But the benefits outweigh any conflicts. My mother has the strength of being a business woman with creative sensibilities, and I have knowledge of the online arena and a foothold in the design industry. We debate a lot, but 9 out of 10 times we ultimately arrive at the same conclusion.

My side of the partnership encompasses branding, running our online store, social media and design input. Mumbai — our inspiration — is my mother’s city, and the designs come from her nostalgia of the vibrant past combined with our experiences together. Our story spans decades and lifetimes, because a family business isn’t just a sudden pop-up vision —  for us, it’s layers of rich history and a long held dream coming to fruition. So I’ll begin with my mother Reena in Bombay in the 70s… —Rohini

Behind The Scenes of Napeansea on Design Sponge
Born in England and raised in Calcutta, my mother Reena's upbringing was influenced by her parents' love for home decor. In 1976, after completing her schooling in Loretto House Calcutta, she pursued further studies in History of Art and Textile Design at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai. The city greatly inspired her way of thinking and work ethics which remain with her today - that without struggle and hard work, there is no success. Up until the 80s, Mumbai was home to almost 130 textile mills. These mills provided an invaluable backdrop of knowledge during her college years. (My mother is in the center of this picture taken at Sophia's in Mumbai)
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The city was my mother's first taste of growing up away from the cocoon of her parents' home. This is where actual friendships were formed, promises of sisterhood made to remain as bonds of a lifetime. Her closest friends lived and still mostly live in Nepean Sea Road, an upmarket neighborhood near Malabar Hill in South Mumbai. (Image of Sophia College Mumbai)
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Her association, however, was deeper than just an elite locale. It was a safe haven, tons of fun, and provided diversity of friendship. It taught her to respect and take from each other's cultures, not just as Indians, but as global citizens who traveled the world but stood rooted and true to themselves. Hence the brand Napeansea was born from this space of love, uniqueness and the magnificent glint of the Arabian Sea (which surrounds the city).
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Our family - my mother Reena, father Rahul, and six-year-old me - moved to England in 1991. I kept my mother on her toes pretty much until 1999 when she joined forces with my dad to run his leather outerwear manufacturing business. The company was a supplier to most of the UK's stores. Sadly, my father passed away in 2006. But my mum continued running their business until 2012, when she hit a saturation and turning point and she decided to return to her first and only love - textiles. While the business had brought her monetary success, it was not enough to feed her soul. (Image taken at London Zoo 1991)
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My father passed in the city of Delhi in 2006, during a factory sourcing trip with our family. While my mother's closest girlfriends from Mumbai and family rushed to be by our sides, there was a significant other friend who reappeared in her life, quietly bringing in another embrace of unconditional support. The friend was Gigi. My mother and Gigi went to college together, both away from home. They kept in touch, and Gigi returned to her hometown of Delhi after college to help run her mother's clothing factory. (Here is hardworking Gigi with her luminous smile working on our Indigo Bandhani Cushion.)
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By 2006, Gigi had added many layers of expertise and techniques to the factory Indus Exports, which carved a very unique niche for themselves almost like "curated" manufacturing. The seed of our brand Napeansea was planted, and my mother turned to Gigi to help manifest her dream into reality. Gigi opened her doors to the factory, along with her heart and home. This time around my mother found another safe haven, which would take her back to where she started.
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The two of us continued to work on our own career paths and travel home to India together each year. While working as a trend forecaster, I would hit the ground running as the plane touched the tarmac - seeking out Mumbai’s newest openings and hotspots for inspiration - whilst both of us continued to discuss an imaginary business which incorporated exciting techniques we had seen, clever interpretations that fused cultures and retail discoveries we longed to bring back to London. Here is a rare peek inside the Bombay Gymkhana, one of Mumbai’s oldest clubs that often served as a venue for informal meetings over plates of chilli cheese toast whilst discussing our next port of call.
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Back in London, everything changed when my daughter Aarya was born in 2014. My mother took some time to help with Aarya, and our lives changed pace - it felt like the time to take our idea forward was now or never. This opportunity had been staring me in the face for years because of our family connections to production in India, and I wanted something meaningful of my own, away from the computer - something more tangible that Aarya could fit into and be a part of.
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We returned to India the year Aarya was born with new purpose and motivation to create. Here we are visiting Adobe, Mumbai's first boutique hotel, situated in the bustling heart of historic Colaba. Exciting spaces like this, which revel in the city’s colonial past and equally hurtle towards a fashionable new future, underpin the inspiration for our brand.
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This picture was taken in one of Mumbai's most exciting lifestyle stores, Bungalow 8, which brings us inspiration. The three-floored concept store specializes in the most unusual and unconventional Indian-inspired interiors and fashion finds.
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Having built its brand on craft and narratives rooted in Indian history, Mumbai-based lifestyle store Good Earth is a beautiful example of brand experience. This was our first trip to its biggest outpost in one of Mumbai's many Mill districts now housing trendy design houses, eateries and a bookstore. We always leave India feeling in awe of the drive businesses have to push their brands further in the best way possible - why stop at being a great home furnishings store when you can be a great bookstore and go into the restaurant industry, too?
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One of the growing arms of Napeansea is our Curios section where we sell one-off objects sourced from our favorite haunts. This is Mumbai's famous Chor Bazaar - one of the largest flea markets in India. Oh, how I wish I had picked up that circlet of brass bells...
Behind The Scenes of Napeansea on Design Sponge
This antique decorative and working brass padlock in our store was picked up in one of Mumbai's markets.
Behind The Scenes of Napeansea on Design Sponge
We returned to London, armed with curios for our store and a wealth of inspiration and swatches. Communicating our ideas is the best part of the whole process! Sketches, images of swatch patterns, colors and spec sheets for initial thoughts were emailed to the factory. Once they have an idea of the brief, a Skype date is arranged to take the design to the floor. Gigi and her team are ready and armed with their knowledge and piles of fabric/alternative print suggestions and techniques, and the initial stage is completed for sampling. Once the samples are ready, another Skype meeting to approve or amend each product takes it to the final stages for production.
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Here we are sampling prints for our block-print pyjamas at the studio in Delhi. We went with a different block in the end, but kept the pretty coral hue for our "Djellaba" and Pyjamas.
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Gigi's studio works fast, and in a matter of months, our development sketches (based on three color palettes - indigo, monochrome and coral) were brought to life. Here was our amateur attempt at a first photo shoot of our samples at the end of summer last year.

Initially the idea was only to design cushions and table textiles, but the urge to add in a few lifestyle products creeped in.
Behind The Scenes of Napeansea on Design Sponge
Life moved on, we both worked on different projects, we traveled, family life took over, winter came and went. All the while, I painstakingly worked away on our store, our social media accounts, our logo and prepped for our first orders - if they came!

I worried about our imagery - we only had cut-out images of the products for now, not having the budget to do any more, and I knew from experience as a journalist that lifestyle imagery is so important to a brand getting noticed...
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Finally, after months of prepping and not feeling like we were moving forward until we were happy with our images, we found an amazing photographer, Jon Aaron Green, who was able to take our vision forward. Here you can see my house on shoot day, Jon shooting the set and darling Aarya never far from us!
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A peek through Jon's monitor at our images - what an incredible feeling to see our products looking their absolute best!
Behind The Scenes of Napeansea on Design Sponge
Finally our store was resembling something we were proud to shout about, although we are aware that we have a long way to go and it will always be a work-in-progress. But you have to start somewhere, right?

Shown here is our hand-stitched and woven Ikat Dhaga runner, designed for long and languorous candlelit gatherings with the doors and windows thrown wide open, welcoming in the summer scent. The runner is imagined to be used horizontally across the table, joining the place settings of diners sitting opposite each other in lieu of placemats.
Behind The Scenes of Napeansea on Design Sponge
My mother and I get to do what we love, create and travel together. This is a proper family business now, hopefully one day mirroring the one of my parents before me. We all get to enjoy Aarya and be around the people we love - and we're juggling our other work around this for now. We make it work because we want to, and it’s the best thing for our little family.

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  • I LOVE this story! I grew up in Bombay (Mumbai) and have my own online store Bombay Taxi. I go back to visit every year, and like you, absolutely adore Bungalow 8 and Good Earth! My mother also attended Sophia College, and my grandparents and aunt and uncle still live on NapeanSea Road! I wish you both the very best of luck in this venture!

    • Shibani, so glad we found each other and share the same love for Bombay’s aesthetics. Thank you so much for your kind wishes – same to you! x