Designer Shubhika Sharma on creating a fashion label that defies conventional norms

The Chief Fashion Officer at Papa Don’t Preach reimagines what you think you know about fashion

By Vama Kothari

Published: Thu 6 Jan 2022, 6:50 PM

Marrying a sneaker with a stiletto? Unconventional, we know. Shubhika Sharma, the founder of the esteemed label Papa Don’t Preach, is carving her own sense of conventional one half-lehenga a day. If you haven’t spotted celebrities wearing her designs, or haven’t heard your next-door zillennial rave about it out, here is Shubhika herself talking about how, as the self-proclaimed Chief Fashion Officer of her brand, she ensures that Papa Don’t Preach oozes fun through fusion. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What inspired the name ‘Papa Don’t Preach’?

My inspiration comes from songs. Papa Don’t Preach is originally a song by Madonna. One day, I came across the song and it instantly found a space in my head. I called up my best friend to hear her opinion about having this name for my label, and she instantly approved! I feel it resonates with the tone of voice of my brand — it’s rebellious. The name gives you a visual mood-board of what this brand is.

Can you tell us a bit about your formative years?

My parents allowed me the gift of boredom. Let me explain what that means — they allowed me to just be after school as opposed to having an extremely preoccupied schedule. This is where all the magic happened. I would cut pockets from old pants, mash paper and make earrings, and try to sell it to my close circle. That’s when I realised my creativity had an entrepreneurial spirit to it. I pursued my graduation in mass media from Bombay and worked as a ‘stringer’ at the then newly launched DNA newspaper. They wanted me to write about the pulse of the youth while I wanted to write about the bigger things, you know, the things that mattered. Soon after, with my family’s support I bought a local boutique space. I called my brand ‘Fire Fly’ at that time. I then went to London College of Fashion for a year while my best friend looked after my boutique. Ironically, the streets of London taught me more than my education did. They taught me that anything you can make to sit on your body can be called fashion. After my internship with Gomez Gracia, a label displaying in New York Fashion Week, I gathered a lot about how this industry functions. This inspired me to make an iconic move. I hosted India’s first fashion flash-mob in famous nightclubs like Olive and Tryst. We were always looking to make noise, even when we were younger as a brand. I’ve been working on my brand ever since and each day is different. One day, I could be arguing with the Masterji (tailor) on measurements and the other day Chrissy Teigen could be wearing the same design.

What would you say is Papa Don’t Preach’s USP?

You cannot help but stand out — you can never blend in rocking a Papa Don’t Preach. We express ourselves through embroidery, challenging the classic silhouette and using bold colours. Half-lehengas, the sneaker stiletto, the Spidey bag, dhoti-jumpsuits are all authentic to Papa Don’t Preach. We also marry Indian aesthetics and craftsmanship with western stilettos.

If Papa Don’t Preach started ten years ago, how have people begun to notice it only now?

I don’t feel people have begun to notice us just now, the press just began to. The first five years of my brand were dedicated to building the right team, doing the R&D to enhance product quality and refining our unique identity in a very cluttered marketplace. I’m glad I put my blinders on and invested in doing this in the first five years. If this is done right, then success and fame are guaranteed.

Has there been a moment when you’ve felt you’ve achieved it all?

It’s not a moment — I think it’s a year! Ironically, 2021 is when I registered a shift in me, within my company and hence the brand. It is when the iconic writer, performer Alok Vaid Menon, famous for de-gendering fashion, wore us. The strong divided reaction to this look on Instagram started a butterfly effect and we stand altered forever. It empowered me, I no longer felt like I was just someone who was making bags, shoes and pretty clothes; I felt I had in me the power to make a difference in our severely polarised world. This combined with us raising Rs26 lakh within a month for karigars (craftsmen) in India while sitting locked up at home in the first wave and being spotlighted for not charging the demeaning “fat tax” has left me feeling empowered and hence more accountable towards what we as a brand can and will do next. And that’s truly exciting.

How has the pandemic altered our sense of personal style?

It’s obviously made us more comfortable. I think ‘athleisure’ has become a huge thing. For example, a lot of people are opting for flats and sneakers under their lehengas and dresses. But in terms of the bride’s big day, I feel they still want to go all out. So I’d say occasion-wear hasn’t changed much but everyday wear has become more relaxed.

This blend of sneakers and lehenga... does it find resonance in older customers?

This combination does not really appeal much to the older generation. I definitely think it’s a zillennial thing.

How did your designs reach Hollywood?

It’s a host of little things done over multiple years. In all honesty, I credit a lot of the brand’s success to Instagram and the power of its reach. I managed Instagram personally and have carefully used it like our gallery to showcase our growth, innovation and diverse offerings right from accessories to resort wear to festive wear. The business has also grown exponentially in the past two years in the US with the support of our stockists based there, so word-of-mouth has also done its trick on American soil. Chrissy Teigen’s stylist reached out to us via Instagram, a PR agency kindly offered to represent us pro-bono and got us on the Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam cover. Mindy Kaling came to us through our stockists. This combined with the boost we received from Alok V. Menon really helped. The first international celebrity who wore us was American pop star Katy Perry in the pages of Vogue.

You mentioned Instagram has been helpful. To what extent is it defining style for the young?

In my opinion, the sad thing that Instagram is doing is that it’s making people more okay with fast fashion. A lot of use and throw is seen on my feed while couture and craftsmanship have taken a backseat. On the positive side, shoppers are a lot more informed about what they want for themselves. They create these little look-books and Pinterest boards when they come to our boutique, so I know they are a lot more informed than before the rise of Instagram. It’s more exciting to work with a ‘woke’ audience, it feels like a collaboration, because these are people who clearly know what they want.

Is there a clientele for Papa Don’t Preach in Dubai?

One hundred per cent. We have a good database of Arabs who show interest in the ‘babydoll embellished dress’ and the pre-stitched saris. A lot of Middle Eastern influencers are drawn towards Papa Don’t Preach. As anticipated, the bags, head accessories and shoes do really well.

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