In Conversation With Juhi Melwani, Founder Of Indian Streetwear Label Doh Tak Keh
The brand liberates luxury fashion from vanity
When one hears the term ‘Doh Tak Keh’, it can often serve as a reminder of the slangs prevalent in the remote parts of India. In Hindi, the phrase refers to ‘2-paise’—a term that was often used by Juhi Melwani’s mother to describe her dressing sense. As the founder and designer of this synonymous Indian streetwear label, Juhi is now changing the street style scene in India.
Doh Tak Keh is entirely made in India, high-concept, runs low on pollution and is experimental with patterns. The brand strikes a balance between imaginative street style and exclusivity quite perfectly. Think avant-garde, quirky millennial prints designed to make silhouettes that are high-end. Ahead, we spoke to Juhi about the inception of her label, creative processes, first collection, memories, highlights and more.
ELLE: Tell us a little more about the inception of Doh Tak Keh. How did it begin?
Juhi Melwani (JM): In February 2017, when I was visiting my home city (Mumbai) for a holiday, I received an opportunity to design a collection for a runway show that involved textile artisans and weavers of Kutch (Gujarat). The agenda of the show was to highlight handmade Indian textiles fused into contemporary fashion. This made me realise the immense skill that India has to offer and lead me to leave the commercialism of New York Fashion and engage directly in Indian artistry and talent. After returning to Mumbai in 2017, I started a photoblog called ‘Know Your Darjee‘, a platform that brings recognition to every individual who contributes to the creation of a garment by narrating their journey, emotions, and workings of the fashion industry.
Keeping a similar concept in mind, I established my personal clothing brand, ‘Doh Tak Keh’, which intended to ignite conversations about sustainability via my work of art. I started on an artistic note and wanted to reinvent the idea of avant-garde fashion in India. Eventually, I developed a ready-to-wear line and started to sell through social media, a website, retail pop-ups and exhibitions.
ELLE: What was your first collection like? What was the inspiration behind it?
JM: ‘Sola Maala’ showcased at India Fashion Week A/W 2019 is Doh Tak Keh’s premier collection featuring various fabricated stories, conveyed through hand-embroidered textures and illustrations inspired majorly from the lives of labour class communities in India. The focal design notion was to pick ordinary components from a worker’s lifestyles, uniforms, street style, homes and convert them into wearable art by using traditional artisanal expertise and applying them with an unconventional approach. Waste mediums such as plastic packaging, bottles, wrappers and production textile leftovers have been manipulated into applique techniques on different hand woven 100% cotton fabrics (sourced directly from Indian artisans). While the theme is quirky and unconfined, the colours have been visually picked from the streets of Mumbai—industrial and earthy with pops of faded cool shades.
ELLE: What pushed you into designing streetwear in a base like India?
JM: Indian craftsmanship is mostly highlighted in ethnic or bridal wear. It is unfavourable to associate this with high street fashion. At Doh Tak Keh, we aim to fill this gap in the market where we create products with high-quality skills, add a touch of Indian artistry and achieve an outcome that’s ‘cool’ and versatile. There are fun facts and stories behind every garment. What’s really unique about us is how we apply traditional Indian skills into our designs with a major twist or edge. Our textures and silhouettes are majorly inspired by the ‘BTS’ of fashion—the skilled artisans, their homes, factories, villages and clothing. So, we try to convey our journey in fashion through our garments which is something we maintain in every collection. Upcycling and deconstructing silhouettes are also our forte. I think a saturated market like India deserves young brands who experiment with contemporary streetwear fashion yet represent the country with its core values and craftsmanship. This process of thought is primarily our biggest driving force.
ELLE: While designing a collection, what is your creative process usually like?
JM: As a designer, I have prominently always indulged in diverse traditional Indian textile and love to explore artisan clusters across state borders. Right from the start of my textile pilgrimage, I’d collect inspiration memoirs and simultaneously create an in-transit mood board. From a Karnataka-based lady weaver dressed in gorgeous Banarasi silk, goofy interiors of a 60-year-old weaver’s home in Kanchipuram to even the font or text on a railway ticket in West Bengal—I’d find beauty in every tiny detail and translate these mind images into garments.
I would then spend hours with my in-house hand embroiderer (Zuberji), who brainstorms over every design with me from scratch. I walk him through my inspirational travel pictures, do quick graphic sketches and scribble notes while he brings his embroidery ideas to the table. Together, we gather all sorts of materials—glass beads, raffia threads, textile waste and even single-use plastic products—things that are categorised as kachara (waste). We collect everything that draws our attention and then dump it into a basket next to him, after which he begins to create magic. The ‘magic consists of hours of carefully curating techniques such as patchwork, hand appliqué, block print, deconstruction and illustrations on fabric.
After experimenting with embroidery designs, I start illustrating silhouettes and other graphic details of the collection. My team and I collaboratively design the collection and apply ‘trial and error’ at every step without any creative hesitation. At Doh Tak Keh, we give our karigars the liberty to co-design and explore their expertise, which ultimately results in creations that have never been done or seen before.
ELLE: What were some of the struggles and challenges that you faced while starting your own label?
JM: As a fashion entrepreneur, I tend to see myself juggling textile sourcing, initiating payments, creating sketches, pattern making, driving sales, meeting clients, networking with potential retailers, accounting, billing, handling Instagram stories, preparing look-books and more. Sometimes it is a tedious process of multitasking. I think it’s important to realise that you can’t be good at everything and that it is okay to delegate. Trying to focus on my strengths and excel in those areas has been extremely challenging.
Another issue of running an experimental brand in India is serving the Indian audience with relatable products. I face so many obstacles to seep my aesthetic into consumer minds here. I get a lot of appreciation for providing out of the box designs but at the same time, receive comments like, “Oh, but can I pull this off?”, ‘I love it, but it’s too out there for my taste”.
ELLE: Who is the ideal Doh Tak Keh customer?
JM: Most of my garments are gender-fluid and super versatile. My designs mostly attract personalities who love to experiment with their style and believe in creating ethical causes via consumption. Our ideal customer is somebody who buys less, but good quality, owns items that have longevity, indulges in different cultures and is a collector of handmade items. They keep away from vanity and do not overindulge in high-end luxury, strive to have an eco-friendly lifestyle by minimising waste and avoiding single-use plastic items. They follow sustainable pages and are probably regular Instagram story updaters of cool things they find.
ELLE: What has been the highlight of your journey with the label so far? What are some of the best memories that you recollect from your journey?
JM: In late 2018, after completing my first collection, I was very confused about the brand’s launch. Of course, like any other designer, I wanted it to be larger than life. But as a starting label, it is difficult to finance the same. So, I applied to various platforms, programmes, fashion weeks seeking a decent lead. To my surprise, I was picked by FDCI to showcase at India Fashion Week A/W19, completely sponsored by them. It was a great milestone for a brand that wasn’t even on Instagram at that time. This definitely boosted my spirit and confidence in the brand.
Another great episode in my journey was the lockdown period. I experienced a turmoil of emotions when I had to shut my operations down for a brief period of time. When things resumed in September 2020, I had only 28 days to come up with a collection as I had to meet an international trade show deadline. Thanks to the lockdown, I was ready with a master plan and sketchbook for the collection. But the execution phase was pending. My team and I worked overnight; we binged on junk food, wore our creative robes and went all out on this collection. We felt like we were on the sets of a fashion reality show and gave our 100%. It was by far my happiest challenge in the journey.
Photographs: Courtesy of Juhi Melwani, Instagram (Doh Tak Keh)