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Marrying tradition with innovation

Tania Kottoor is the Founder and CEO of West X East (pronounced “West by East”). Tania has effectively married tradition with innovation. She’s led her team in building the world’s first AI-powered design platform for custom-fit cultural clothing and re-envisioned the process of shopping for weddings and special events.

“Free money is the best money.” - Tania

Tania KattoorCo-Founder and CEO of Hedey


Welcome to Building While Flying, a Sasha Group podcast where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient, and navigate ever changing skies.

 my guest today is Tanya Couture. Founder of West by East Tanya has effectively married tradition with innovation. She’s led her team in building the world’s first AI powered design platform for custom fit cultural clothing, and re-envisioned the process of shopping for weddings and special events.

Welcome Tanya. Thanks for having me. Great to connect with you again. It’s been a while. And so we were mentioning before getting started that we have a lot to catch up on, but before we get to what’s new and what’s changed in the last year I’d love for you to give our listeners some of your background and what led to the birth of West based.

Yeah. I am originally from Chicago. I come from an Indian American. Family or household, I guess you could say. And the birth of West by East started with my wedding in 2020, right before the pandemic. I conceptualized, designed and produced 75 custom outfits. It was a huge, I. PR play for West by East.

And guess what? It worked. The wedding was featured in bride and bride today, India, in print and over the moon by vogue. Then we got a flood of inquiries even during the pandemic, and that’s when a light bulb went off and I realized that weddings and events are recession proof. So even though folks downsize on their guest lists, brides and grooms had a bigger budget for clothes, jewelry, and decorations, so people’s flights to the motherland were canceled. So they were desperate to shop virtually and find outfits for themselves, their bridal party guests, and we were still operating during the pandemic.

Amazing.  one of the things that really strikes me when I read the description of West by East right, is the idea that you’re positioning yourself as AI powered, right?

And like the technology behind it. So talk to us about the role of technology. Yes, I. Always speak to my customers and try to understand their pain point. And the number one complaint that I got was that they didn’t know a tailor, like a local tailor that they could get their measurements done or it was hard for them to envision.

A two D sketch on their actual body. And I believe constraints open up creativity and innovation. And in 2020, the pandemic hit and my back was against the wall. And I took time to research, learn, and figure out how I can improve our business model. And that’s how I discovered ai. And in 2022, we implemented an AI powered measuring tool.

Our customers get a unique link to their cell phone or email, and they can take their virtual measurements in 60 seconds. And this allows us to create a custom avatar off the customer so they can truly envision the final results on their actual body before we even go into production. So that’s how we inc it in ai.

So that’s the front end and then the back end. We’re in the process of converting our current production unit to more of an optimized manufacturing unit. I would call it like a partial smart factory which is part of the industry 4.0 where AI and robotics are integrated into the traditional manufacturing methods to ensure faster, cleaner, and more efficient production pipeline.

Okay, so I need to know, and I think our listeners need to know, like how do you stay on the pulse of all of these areas related to your business? Because as an entrepreneur you’ve gotta have an understanding of the manufacturing process, like fashion design. Trends, obviously there’s shipping.

You are, you’re digging really deep into technology and the use of it in the customer experience. How do you manage all of that? What does your process look like? I think for any founder and CEO it’s really important to constantly. Learn whether it’s joining an accelerator program, participating in a fellowship, attending conferences, listening to podcasts, reading articles and books.

There’s just so much information and so much new information, and I always. I just try to just immerse myself and I realize that I’m a maximizer, which can be overwhelming at times, but I have to just be on top of things so that I can constantly improve myself as a founder and leader and improve the business as well.

So on the same note of education, reading what you’ve accomplished thus far in your work there, a lot of accolades, like a lot of grants that you’ve been recipients of. One is what do you think sets you up for success with those grants, but also how do you even keep tabs on the opportunities that are available?

All right. My secret is yes, this is where it gets really good. The secret is, number one, you really have to immerse yourself into the startup ecosystem, whether. You’re from New York City or Austin, or Miami or la, whatever it is. And be part of these accelerator programs and fellowships like apply, apply, apply until you get into something.

And then I truly believe every opportunity unlocks another opportunity and then you start getting, these like newsletters and you’re part of all these like slack groups and. It takes time, but you really have to dedicate a few hours a week and go through all the newsletters, all the slack groups, and then pick out all the grants and like pitch competitions and then I just create a list with their deadlines and I just, I apply every week. Consistently, and that’s really how I got over like 100K in grants last year while I was pregnant and won so many pitch competitions. But it’s, all of it is amazing resources like, At the end. it’s it’s really, it’s good for myself as a founder and free money is the best money.

Yeah. I think that’s a great approach in terms of you need to anticipate that it takes work to get money, right? Nobody’s just gonna hand over money. There is work that needs to be done to prove your business model right to. Show like what the runway looks like to show what you’re capable of.

Some of the hesitations that I hear have been one, people holding their idea close to the vest, and being fearful of sharing that idea broadly, perhaps because they fear that somebody might copy the idea, create their own version of it. I also, I have heard resistance to participate in things and have more broad conversations.

’cause people think that they don’t need the assistance. What might you say to people who fall into those camps to try to convince them to, to open themselves up to those opportunities?

I think, I know folks who are like this. if you wanna move the needle, a lot of it is building out your network, right? When you participate in all these programs and you do all these like pitch competitions, like people see you, people recognize you, and people come to you instead of you trying to reach out to them.

And then it is, at the end of the day, it’s all about building relationships, but you really, you have to put yourself out there. It’s always gonna be difficult in the beginning ’cause it’s just the unknown and it’s uncomfortable. But the more you do it, you just whatever. It’s just easy.

You just keep doing it a. In a lot of ways it’s what marketing looks like, right? For a startup is that is a vehicle for building awareness is while you may not be the grant recipient, there are now however many more people were involved in that process are now aware of your brand, that weren’t aware of your brand exactly prior to you participating in that process.

that’s what I hear between the lines of what you’re saying is it’s part of the awareness, the building, the brand awareness. So it’s early stage marketing Yeah. And to your point you just never know. Yeah. And no one’s gonna steal your idea. Maybe they’ll steal like the concept of it, but you’re you, right?

Like I’m Tanya Couture. No one’s gonna be. Me. they haven’t had the same experiences that, that I’ve had. They don’t, they can’t replicate what I’m gonna be doing. They’ll try to copy maybe, but they’re not gonna do it the way I’m gonna do it. So there will be a great difference or differentiation.

And I think people should chill out on that. It’s okay. Yes. The differentiation is absolutely like the founders, the teams, right? Who’s executing it? Like we have copies of products in every category. Exactly. It’s all about what that brand says to people, right? Yeah. Like how it shows up every day.

That’s a big part of the differentiation. Exactly. Like I’ve seen so many competitors come and go in the past several years, and I’ve seen. A lot of competitors come up in the past year or so. But at the end of the day, you just gotta stay in the game. You can’t give up. Just stay in the game again.

Keep improving your pro your process, keep improving yourself, and then something will hit and then you’ll just take off. I’m very confident about that. Amazing. So you talked about how the pandemic really brought on learnings, right? About the opportunities in your market. we’re now in a new phase, right?

I wouldn’t say it we’re back to pre pandemic, like we are a new. Society how our businesses are operating are distinct. There are things that we learned that we’re keeping, there are things that we learned what have been the biggest changes for you in the last year even? Probably that I started off. Virtual I built the backend, the production unit was built all. Well, I guess I can take you back to how that all started. Yeah. little bit about my background. I worked for an emerging designer in Chicago and I learned how to run a small business and then I went off to London where I attended Deconte Nas College of Fashion Design, and that’s where I started to cultivate relationships with industry veterans in the fashion industry.

I met the late Anna Harvey, who was Princess Diana’s stylist. Then she made an intro to Bandana Ari, who was formerly the editor at large, as well as the fashion features director for Vogue India. And then from there I attended Fashion Weeks in Delhi, Mumbai, and started to cement my network in India.

And that helped me to set up a studio or an atelier in Delhi. While I was sitting in New York, like the whole, like business was done virtually. And I was operating virtually when it wasn’t a thing before right before the pandemic. And so like that transition was really easy when the pandemic happened.

But now that I’m growing my team and I realize I need a team that uplifts me. I need the hybrid model. I need to see people in person at least three times a week. there’s only like a few of us, part of the leadership team, but they come to luminary as you know, where that is.

 The inclusive coworking space in Nomad. And we have strategy sessions like I realize even our production unit in India, like I have to go to India a few times a year to show face and for the team to know that, hey, I’m the founder. I’m the C E o I am here. Like this is not like some, I don’t know, like this imaginary business where you just produce clothes and it’s just sent off to wherever it is. I think that face-to-face, Quality time is really important to build company culture. Amazing. You talked about like the trend during the pandemic was smaller parties, right? Like smaller guest lists, shorter guest lists spending more on special items. Has that transitions, has that changed your business?

Yeah. I mean it’s changed our business and people. Now I realize that we don’t just do one-off outfits or we just do bridesmaids outfits. We can dress anyone and everyone without. And again, an expensive trip back to the motherland. For the next generation is beyond millennials, gen Zers, who, to be honest, there’s a lot of connection to their heritage.

they take a flight by themselves to wherever their family is, from, whether it’s like India or Pakistan or Nepal, like they don’t know how to navigate the country. They don’t know how to speak the language. They don’t know where to go shopping. Like it’s just a chaotic experience.

I truly believe what we built. It’s not I want to say it’s revolutionary, but it’s definitely, there is a great need and there is customers who’s coming to us pre pandemic and post pandemic. We’re doing something right. Yeah. Amazing. Anything else you wanna make sure that our listeners know about you, about the brand?

There’s a new website that we’re launching. We did like this whole rebrand where we’ll be featuring two tiers. And to break that down, there’s tier one, which is a semi bespoke where customers can select their desire, silhouette, color, fabric, trim from the options that we provide, were.

They can select between a classic silhouette or a fusion silhouette. And then the customers can select their own avatar that fits their body shape as well. And that’s an accessible price point of two 50, which is like very, it’s a great price for a custom made to measure garment. And then um, then we’ll be launching a tier two, which is the fully bespoke, that’s Whatever you think of we can create.

And that’s very much the atelier from scratch. Super customized. It is a premium price tag of starting at a thousand dollars, but again, like we can do anything that you want. So that’s what, that’s probably like the biggest thing that’s coming up for us. And hopefully We’ll be relaunching in the fall. I know, I remember when we first met, I wish that West by East had existed when I had A wedding in India, yeah. To attend, but it didn’t. And so I think there a lot of people who will realized like, oh, I’ve got a wedding coming up. That I’m gonna be invited to and I want something special to wear for that.

And they should totally check out West by East. Yeah, for sure. It doesn’t matter that you’re of South Asian descent or like 20% of our customers are non-South Asian. They’re just attending their friends wedding or. Do Wally party or eat party, whatever it is. And they’re like usually freaking out. But we’re here to help.

Yes. I wish you were there to help back then, but I understand what the need was for sure. And next time I get an invitation, like I know who to call. Yes, we’re here to help. Amazing Tanya. So good to see you again. I wish you all the best. And we’ll definitely check in down the line to see how things are progressing for you.

For sure. Thank you.Thanks for joining us for Building While Flying today. I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson, Mickey Cloud, Maribel Lara, and Joe Quattrone will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

Marrying tradition with innovation

Tania Kottoor is the Founder and CEO of West X East (pronounced “West by East”). Tania has effectively married tradition with innovation. She’s led her team in building the world’s first AI-powered design platform for custom-fit cultural clothing and re-envisioned the process of shopping for weddings and special events.

In this episode of the Building While Flying podcast, Tania joins Maribel Lara to talk about how she uses AI to help you make the right choice for your big events and where her inspiration came from. She gives insight into her background, how she’s received so many grants, and what’s next.

In-flight topics:

  • Her background and what led to West X East
  • Using AI to help you make the right choice
  • How she keeps track of everything
  • The secrets to receiving so many grants
  • Their soon-to-launch two-tiered rebrand
  • …and more!
Connect with Tania:

Tania’s Website:

Tania’s LinkedIn:

West X East Website:

West X East Instagram:

New York, NY
Chattanooga, TN
Los Angeles, CA