Ever since Jaya Iyer’s daughter was a toddler, she had been fascinated by Saturn and its icy rings. When Swaha turned three, she had a space-themed birthday party. But when her mom went to find clothes with space images for Swaha, she couldn’t find any. They were all in the boys section. Jaya Iyer, an Indian American clothing designer is attempting to do away with gender-specific clothing for children. Iyer, 41, of Washington, D.C., launched her clothing line, Svaha, in response to not being able to find a girl’s shirt with an astronaut graphic on it.
Iyer, mother of two, who has a doctorate in fashion merchandising, started her own business called Svaha (which is how her daughter’s name is pronounced) to sell clothes that upend gender stereotypes. One shirt features a grinning green stegosaurus, the plates on its back adorned with polka dots. A second comes in a blazing pink hue, with an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon. That one should satisfy her daughter. “She was very upset with me for not ever buying her anything with astronauts on it,” Iyer says. “Then she started telling me: ‘I want a ninja on my shirt.'”
Svaha is one of several startups that have emerged in recent years with the goal of changing the standards that govern what kids wear. These upstarts aren’t looking to replace current kid’s apparel entirely. Instead, their founders say they want to provide children with more options. Handsome in Pink says it’s all right for boys to wear pink and purple. BuddingSTEM offers science-themed garb for girls. Perhaps the buzziest label is Princess Awesome, which raised more than $200,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign, showing demand for pirate-themed dresses and girl’s apparel covered in the symbol for pi. Most of the ventures remain in early stages as online-only entities using crowdfunded or bootstrapped cash to sell small numbers of shirts or dresses.
Originally from Dharwad, Karnataka, Iyer earned her undergraduate degree in India and moved to the United States in 2001 to pursue her master’s in fashion merchandising from the University of Georgia and her doctorate in the same field from Iowa State University. “Since I have experience in this industry, I decided to create a line of T-shirts,” the Indian American entrepreneur told India-West.
Iyer launched a Kickstarter campaign with her Svaha partners, Eva Everett and Mansi Patney, and raised more than $30,000 to fund the project. With the funding in the rearview mirror, Iyer noted the hardest part was finding graphic designers and production on a limited budget.
“I wanted to make the T-shirts in the U.S., but, since I was going to do small quantity, nobody was responding to me,” she explained. “I have been able to find a factory in India who is able to help me with production.”
Iyer said the next hurdle Svaha faces is reaching a wider audience, but she remains optimistic it will be accomplished. Svaha has zero gender discrimination, according to Iyer.
“We have astronaut, cars and diggers, along with T-shirts in pink, blue and purple for both girls and boys,” she said of the product. “We also have many STEM-based designs for both girls and boys. “We want to provide children with clothes through which they are able to show their love for anything that they want,” the designer added. “It does not have to be limited to princesses and pink for girls and cars and blue for boys.”
In addition to the design, Iyer said all the customers rave about the feel of the shirts, saying it is like silk, though the shirts are 100 percent cotton. Soon, Svaha hopes to shift to 100 percent organic cotton. “We want to be different and appealing to our customers in many different ways,” she said. Svaha has opened an Amazon store and Iyer said the business is continuing to grow steadily, though the company still has “a long way to go.”
Currently, Svaha offers T-shirts and dresses but plans to expand to more dresses, leggings and boys and girls underwear. In the future, she would like to add non-clothing items like towels and sheets, among other things. Iyer has taught fashion merchandising at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., for nearly five years. She has also authored “Retailing in Emerging Markets” and has been a buyer at ThinkGeek.