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This desi is making waves in the global eyewear business

Last updated on: November 16, 2013 15:01 IST

This desi is making waves in the global eyewear business

Chaya Babu

Meet Kajal Sanghrajka whose niche eyewear line born out of Columbia Business Lab is going places.

The art space in Soho, New York City, is industrial chic: Bare white walls opposite brick adorned with portraits, a concrete floor, exposed piping -- some painted caboose red -- and chrome track lighting.

In the back, rows of glasses hang pinned to a large white board.

It is a presentation of Kajal Sanghrajka’s niche eyewear line, Kajal London, combined with a photography exhibit of faces that have inspired the brand.

There’s Patrice Peck, a journalist, photographed with a nearly shaved head, bright red lipstick, and large black-rimmed sunglasses with gold lining the top. There’s Kris Bowers, a musician, pictured with his keyboard and wire-framed circular blue lenses. And the crowd stopping by the event mirrors many of the portrait personas.

One girl with a curly mane takes off her cobalt blue frames to check out yellow aviators. A Mohawked man in a black T-shirt, jeans, and studded Converse consults a woman with a handheld mirror regarding two pairs. It’s an eclectic set of people.

“Everything I currently distribute is one of a kind, but I don’t like anything too done up or gaudy,” Sanghrajka, who sports amber, hexagonal Gianfranco Ferre frames, tells India Abroad. “The look is understated and sophisticated and has that edge. It’s more about high-quality materials and having that one detail that really adds a magic touch.”

“People who understand what good fashion is notice it. Those are the people I target, who really understand style and who appreciate those small design details.”

The conversation has moved to the co-working space Sanghrajka shares with others who are part of the Columbia Business Lab, an incubator to help students turn their ideas into real businesses.

She finished her MBA at Columbia University last year and started Kajal London through the school’s entrepreneurship programme -- it was during her final semester that she teamed up with Selima Optique, a high-end eyewear retailer, to curate her first collection of handpicked pieces from all over the world. It did well and she saw an opportunity to take advantage of her education, New York’s resources and her knowledge from her family’s wholesale eyewear business in the United Kingdom.

Sanghrajka had spent her life visiting tradeshows with her parents. “Obviously my parents are a huge inspiration,” she says. “I remember being around the drawings and catalogues. I grew up watching the whole process, so it feels good to be able to just add a different perspective, especially being in New York and learning how to brand something from scratch and being able to use online as a key channel. That’s not something that was around even 10 years ago the way it is now… That’s the challenge of it: Just constantly being innovative in how you create and sell each piece. It’s a constant learning.”

Another “big challenge,” she says, comes from self-funding. She had worked in consulting for five years before her MBA and her savings from that part of her life plus one strategic investor in London is how she is funding her business.

“It’s harder in some ways, but you also don’t have to answer to 10 investors,” she says. “In the long run, it makes you a better entrepreneur because you use your tight resources efficiently and smartly.”

So far Sanghrajka has managed just that. Since graduating, shortly after having an April 2012 public showing of the collection as it was then, she has been building distribution channels globally, focusing heavily on online. Aside from Selima Optique, she has distribution in London, Berlin, and Tokyo, and has revenue coming in her first year.

She says having a presence in these types of cities is key based on her target clientele: “This is why New York fits so well: my customers are people who are just bolder in some way. This stuff is not for everyone. It takes a certain type of person to wear this everyday.”

And that customer is willing to pay for the unique -- rare, original, statement frames (from brands like Cazal, Christian Dior, Maga, and Gucci) curated from the US, Austria, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and England, with price tags ranging from $195 to $450.

Setting herself apart matters for Sanghrajka: “A big takeaway has been learning the importance of credibility and establishing myself. Seeing all these people who have been in fashion and accessories in New York and then trying to gain that kind of credibility -- that’s hard as an entrepreneur, especially when there are so many other brands out there.”

Working on her own with such a niche customer market has meant that she’s still thinking small. But she has plans; she’s in the middle of designing her own collection on top of what she curates.

“It’s going to have some hurdles and bumps along the way, but I think ultimately it will be good,” she says. “I want to make sure my vision comes through and that my personal influence is on the brand. I’ve been able to learn what works and what doesn’t from getting real-time feedback through online distribution channels. This is a whole different part of the business, but I’m ready to do it. It’s kind of taking what my parents did and passing it on to the next generation.”

Image: Kajal Sanghrajka presents her niche eyewear line, Kajal London, along with a photography exhibit in a Manhattan gallery.
Photographs: Chaya Babu