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Startup Life: Abhishek Poddar on slow fashion and his new fashion e-commerce site Mr. Square

Startup Life: Abhishek Poddar on slow fashion and his new fashion e-commerce site Mr. Square

Growing up in a family of fabric merchants, Abhishek ‘Abhi’ Poddar was surrounded by various textiles and weaving machines as a kid, learning about the technical aspects of fibres, yarns and fabrics, as well as the manufacturing processes involved.

While he has always held an interest in the world of textiles, it was only after completing his degree (in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan) that he joined the family business, Siyaram Silk Mills. When he returned to his motherland in Mumbai, he launched a new vertical for decorative home textiles from the ground up, expanding the company’s portfolio that mainly revolved around men’s formalwear fabrics.

Since getting married to Vihari Sheth (now Poddar) and moving to Singapore in 2017 to expand the home furnishing business in this part of the world, he has some time to also think of new projects, and one of which is the new Mr. Square, a fashion e-commerce site that caters largely to men.

Name: Abhishek Poddar
Profession: Managing Director of Mr. Square
Industry: Fashion, fabrics and home textiles
Company size: 2, plus designing and  sourcing operations in Paris, Milan and Hong Kong
Start up since: 2020

Why did you decide on this platform?
I believe in slow fashion. I have seen first-hand how the economics of fast fashion creates disparities across the supply chain, and the textile industry has one of the largest carbon footprints on the planet. My family has been involved in the menswear business for over 40 years, so the menswear space is a natural fit for me. The idea behind Mr. Square is to create a men-focused, slow-fashion shopping experience, offering a variety of dressing styles and occasions for varying age groups. The aim is to provide clothing that are trendy, built to last, relevant for a more than a season, and fairly priced for their quality.

Is there anything new in the pipeline that you can share?
We are living in unprecedented times, and everyone is getting used to multi-tasking and working from home. Casual clothing is now the norm. I am working on a line of live-in tees, which will be launched in a few months. This line is called Mr. Square Essentials, and will consist of basic t-shirts and shorts, made with specialty fabrics that get softer and more comfortable with every wash. I truly believe every man needs a few of these in his closet. My wife wears them and swears by them, too!

What is a normal work day like for you?

At the moment, no day is typical! Being a startup, there are different challenges that come up every day. Work usually involves Zoom calls with designers, factories, tech guys, followed by a whole bunch of ‘self-study’ to prepare for the next round of teleconferences. Our business is very tactile — it is very difficult to perceive the true weight, feel, texture, colour, brightness, and sheen of a fabric over the screen. We’ve been spending a lot on couriers these days! Apart from that, I do like to walk around and discover various stores, checking out the new collections on offer.

As a child, what did you aspire to be?
I wanted to be a fighter pilot! But I didn’t have 20/20 vision, and we don’t have conscription in India, so that notion was discarded once I hit my teens. I’ve always loved machines, and knew that I would be involved with technical processes as an adult. Even now, reading and learning about technical innovations excites me, and gives me a glimpse into our future way of life.

How hands-on are you?
I am extremely hands=on. Having said that, I love to delegate. It’s quite a paradox actually. You could say that I’m hands-on at efficient delegation!

What do you do when you’re not at work?

I am a very engaged parent of two very naughty and energetic kids. I usually workout in the morning, and spend most evenings with my kids, swimming, or cycling, and sometimes getting them to do homework. Music plays a very important role in my life, and helps me set my mood. I love discovering new music, new artists, and mixing music on my home DJ setup. Being a committed father, it’s not very practical to go around chasing club gigs like the younger days. In fact, with the clubs closed due to Covid-19, I have a podcast which you’re welcome to listen to!

What has been your biggest hurdle and how did you overcome it?
Needless to say, Covid-19 has been the single biggest challenge for us all. The fact that we cannot travel to meet designers and physically look at and experience product is a particularly difficult. The restrictions on social gatherings and events have also forced me to rethink all the grand plans I had in place to launch the store. Nevertheless, Covid-19 has been a great equaliser for us all, allowing smaller, innovative companies to be heard and seen on social media. I’m doing my best to adapt to these challenges. Only time will tell which strategies work, and which don’t. All of us have to be responsive and innovative in these unprecedented times.

Looking back now, what would you have done differently?
I believe there is no point looking back and wondering what things would be like if done differently. Time stops for nobody, and we all have to do the best we can, based on the judgements we can make. The main thing is to own your decisions, whether right or wrong, and act accordingly on the outcomes.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start up?
If you believe in your product, don’t be afraid to give it a try and don’t be afraid to fail. Calculate your risk and take a moderate risk. I’m sure you will learn many things along the way. Don’t be greedy for instant success — Rome wasn’t built in a day. Be lean, be nimble, and be adaptable.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you do now?
I’d be living in Mumbai, with my kids spoilt rotten with excess house help, while being stuck in home quarantine! I am very glad I decided to move to Singapore, and very thankful for the quality of life my family has in this city.

Which markets will be important for you? Why?
Southeast Asia is one of the most populated corners of the world, if you don’t consider India and China. It is, therefore, a vast consumer base for all types of goods and services. It is also, demographically speaking, a very young population, which looks to the West, but is very confident in their rooted Asian values and culture. I believe the Southeast Asian market has tremendous consumer potential. Of course there are challenges, and a lot of fragmentation due to different cultures, but the underlying values across various geographies are quite consistent and can be appealed to.

How do you define success? Do you consider yourself successful?

Success, to me, has several factors. Financial success is very important, but along with that, is emotional, mental and physical health. Family and values play an important part here, and these aspects can further enhance financial success. Mr. Square is a passion project for me. I did not start this with the aim of making this a multi-million dollar business. The fact that I am able to afford time for this business, without stress, while having secured an overseas income with a successful business which can provide my family a decent lifestyle, already measures success for me.

What’s next for Mr Square?
I want to expand our product offering slowly, to encompass men’s various lifestyle needs. I will bring to market a few new products steadily, and test the market’s response before diving deeper. I plan to have a few pop-ups at different locations, in order to give Mr. Square some visibility, and enable buyers to touch, feel, and experience the products before they buy.

(All images: Abhishek Poddar)


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