As the head of a Dubai-based digital media company, Nisha Varman Shetty is well versed in the power of social media to boost brand awareness. But even she must have been surprised when, just two weeks after launching a Facebook page for her latest venture, The Urban Yogi, it had already attracted 500 followers.
Shetty started toying with the idea of launching her own homeware brand last year, when she was pregnant with her first child. "My husband and I run our own digital media company but I wanted to do something on my own. Last year, I was pregnant and at some point the nesting instinct really kicked in. We also moved house around that time and I couldn't find anything that I really liked. We all go to the malls and it's the same old fare. I had to go to 10 or 15 different places to find something I liked. So I found myself trying to research brands that I could bring back here."
Shetty officially debuted The Urban Yogi during the 12th Women's Exhibition at the Dubai Ladies Club earlier this month. "My baby is five months old now and I'm really happy that I committed to the idea and am doing it, because sometimes having a baby can derail you. The idea has been with me a while but I'm really glad it's happening now."
Shetty's aim is to create a collective of homeware brands that offers something unique, with a focus on products that are design-orientated but also sustainable. "The stuff has to look good but I want to do good as well - hence the sustainability part. I want to know what the brands I work with are doing to protect the heritage of the design and I want to know what they are doing for the craftsman - that's very important to me."
Scouring design blogs, Shetty came across Good Earth, an Indian brand dedicated to quality craftsmanship and sustainable design. The brand was founded in 1996 by Anita Lal, whose approach is based on the belief that "true luxury is in the detail of everyday living. It is in being surrounded by pure and natural materials that have been handcrafted and thoughtfully designed".
The brand celebrates the exuberance of India - red and green cherries, peacocks, elephants, mango and banana trees, holy cows, rajas and poppies all make appearances on Good Earth's quilts, cushions, mugs, cups and tableware. "This brand is really iconic in India," Shetty explains. "They come up with beautiful stuff but they have been very conservative about expansion. They only work with people that they think can be as passionate about the brand as they are. So I had to do a fair bit of convincing."
Although Good Earth is decidedly Indian, it will also appeal to consumers in this part of the world, she adds. "I found that the designs were very pro-Middle East." The tastefully decorated gold- and platinum-plated dinner sets, Moroccan-inspired waterglasses, bold, vibrant colours and swirling geometric patterns will all strike a chord in this market, she says. The brand's cutesy cake stands are already proving popular, as are its tiger-themed mugs. The fact that part of the proceeds from the sale of these mugs goes to the Save the Tiger Fund further highlights the brand's sustainable ethos.
Shetty is on the lookout for other like-minded brands to add to The Urban Yogi collection. "We are sourcing brands globally that believe in the same ideology. As we grow, I also want to feature furniture, fabric and art. I've already associated myself with Kobo Art, which is a local art gallery, and I want to grow that side of things. Art is still very inaccessible. It's very difficult for a person who is just starting out to create a good collection that doesn't cost a bomb. There will also be a Young Yogi collection - everything for little ones."
Shetty's target audience is "customers with a conscience", mainly women in their mid-20s to late 40s who want their homes to look unique but also want to make responsible purchasing decisions. And although Shetty accepts that buying sustainable products may not be a priority for many consumers in the UAE, she is determined to do her bit, either way.
"I think people are still focusing on what things look like. A fair deal of awareness has to be built. But, whether it is indirectly or directly, when people are buying something from me, they will be doing good, whether they are aware of it or not."
At present, The Urban Yogi is a web-based brand but Shetty plans to open a retail store. "Of course, I want to focus on the e-commerce side because nobody in this region is really doing e-commerce in home decor, so I definitely want to push that. But I also need a nice beautiful retail space where I can showcase The Urban Yogi. We definitely want a 'bricks and mortar'."
The challenge, however, is finding a mall that is willing to work with an unknown, home-grown company. "A lot of the malls don't seem to be interested in entertaining brands that have been developed in Dubai. They are more interested in international brands and are not really focusing on promoting locally grown brands, which is why I am finding it quite difficult to find a retail space. I want to invest in this and I want to do it right but I need support and I'm not getting it."
Nonetheless, Shetty has set herself a deadline. By January, The Urban Yogi will have its own dedicated retail space, either in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Qatar. "I've set a date. I think I'm a Nike kind of girl. Just do it. Don't think about the issues, just go for it and do what you want. And it will happen."
For more information visit www.theurbanyogi.me or Facebook: TheUrbanYogiDubai