Simran Lal: The creative entrepreneur
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Some workspaces serve as real-life advertisements for the Head Office column, and this is one of them, or, in fact, two of them. The first is a stand-alone cabin with a tree running through it, looking out on to a courtyard, at a farmhouse in the heart of south Delhi. The second is a contemporary, open-plan, cabin-free office building, stacked with neat rows of desks, and surrounded by trees, a few minutes’ walk away from the cabin.
Both spaces are occupied by Simran Lal, in her dual role as the chief executive officer of flagship luxury retail chain Good Earth, and as the creative director of Nicobar, a start-up lifestyle retailer. Each reflects its own brand philosophy. Together, they represent the ideal Head Office prescription, of seamlessly blending business and workplace design.
The 46-year-old divides her time between the two spaces, rotating between her two roles. “My Good Earth related meetings are in my Good Earth office or studio and the Nicobar ones are in the Nicobar space. Since the Nicobar office is part of an open plan, it works for my design meetings around my large table, but it is not conducive to a one-on-one meeting—I end up doing those on the Good Earth side,” she says.
The creativity of nature
Lal’s private office is an ode to romance, beauty and nature. With aromatherapy candles, flowers, fairy lights and soft furnishings in Good Earth’s signature motifs, the glass-walled cabin expresses the heritage brand’s classic, dreamy atmosphere. A “mood board” on the wall highlights snippets and images from assorted Good Earth collections. The collage is supplemented by the brand’s mission statement, “to bring joy in everyday living”, and a quote, “Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself”, by iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel. “I thought she was just ahead of her time, really brilliant, breaking all the rules. She really made an impact, that aspect of her excites me,” says Lal.
This entirely domestic look and feel is reinforced by the choice of furniture. Next to the tree are a dining table and chairs, each upholstered in a different fabric. Two sofas, with a coffee table between them, are placed next to a chest of drawers. The organic nature of the space—respecting the trees and being close to nature—was intentional, says Lal. The premises initially housed a pottery workshop of Lal’s mother Anita, Good Earth’s creative director. As the business expanded, cabins, or sheds and studios really, sprouted, morphing around the trees.
“The Good Earth office started off as a small space, and then we added on a few more, so it ended up becoming a series of little spaces that are united by a common courtyard, which is also beautiful, because we all step out and see each other. That’s why we’ve done it all in glass, so that there is an easy visual connection, because otherwise you do get very stuck in isolation. We all step out to have tea or lunch together. I use this place in a very cohesive and team-like way,” Lal says.
The location is completely synchronous with the brand, she emphasizes. “We are such a sensuous brand, into the senses, and this is such a beautiful natural setting. Here we have highly fragrant desi gulab. Then chameli and mogra, the best langda mango tree right here, you’ve got water lilies…we’ve become part of this space, this space has become a part of us,” she says, as we tour the premises.
Being close to nature also fosters peace of mind and nurtures creativity. “This space allows us that kind of mindset to be able to do what we are most passionate about, in a most happy, relaxed way. For a creative business, there is nothing better than this; we are blessed,” Lal says.
Lal’s desk in the Nicobar office suggests a different set of origins. A large, open-plan office, with a few formal conference rooms and lots of young people on laptops, it looks like a start-up in any part of the world (except for some upholstered seating, which bears the Good Earth furnishing stamp, in place of conventional ergonomic office chairs).
Nicobar was born in 2016; Lal says she and her husband, Raul Rai, wanted to create a contemporary Indian lifestyle brand reflecting the “tropical island mindset in a city”. The high-end “boho chic” brand includes fashion, homeware and travel accessories, and sells through the Web, in five stand-alone stores and ongoing pop-ups across the country. Its outlook is simultaneously local and global, similar to Japan’s much loved Muji, which manifests a national, yet universally saleable, ethos.
If Nicobar celebrates island life, then its workplace is an island of sorts, with its own building, immersed in nature, but quite distinct from its surroundings. “Nicobar did not start organically, it started as a full-on venture. We were very clear what we wanted. Raul and I had gone and visited the Net-A-Porter office space in London. We were blown away. It was huge, like a football field, and very open. We’re still very small as an organization, but we’re structured. Raul has brought in that,” Lal points out.
Her two jobs also enable her to embrace a simple luxury of modern work-life: walking. “I love that walk between the two spaces. It is between trees, with birds chirping—it’s a little break for me.”
The business of cultural brands
Apart from the contemporary/heritage dichotomy, the two workspaces reveal another duality in Lal’s personality: “of being extremely laid-back, and also being extremely ambitious”. Her work environment is clearly relaxed and free-flowing, but equally, the workspaces underline her determination to take on two full-time roles, when most working mothers with young children, like Lal is, struggle to contend with one. “We are not hard-nosed, but we want to build the best-quality brands out of India. You always have to work at it, constantly. And we always have ideas for new businesses,” she says, explaining why she wants to remain hands-on with both businesses.
Lal’s workspaces would be distinctive in any part of the world, for two reasons: First, they remind us that work environments should be as personalized and seamless as our apparel (especially if you happen to be based in a cookie-cutter, glass-and-metal box). Offices don’t necessarily have to be expensively dressed, but workplace designers and clients need to ensure a good fit between a company and its home.
Second, they shine a light on the importance of the creative economy. It is easy to dismiss Lal’s workspace as “boutique”, inappropriate for corporate life. With revenue in the region of Rs150 crore, Good Earth is a relatively small, but fast-growing and hugely influential brand in terms of its cultural values. So it is wiser to acknowledge that family-owned, creative businesses, such as Lal’s, collectively represent an important slice of the economy in many countries. .
Think of all those European fashion, interiors and lifestyle brands, all of which permeate our wardrobes, homes and offices. This is the breathing room that these businesses need in order to flourish.
Small wonder then that Good Earth serves as one of India’s most popular luxury brand ambassadors. Here’s hoping for an ecosystem of nature-infused farmhouses and creative entrepreneurs, translating cultural heritage into branded design.
Vision: Vision and passion are two critical ingredients to build a brand. Long-term vision is critical—that often means saying no.
Quality: There is the real desire to create a true luxury brand out of India, that we are all very proud of, and that requires amazing consistency of quality.
Competition: I feel that unless someone is blatantly copying you, competition is good. They are part of the same ecosystem and it is great to be able to embrace that and grow rather than worry about it.
Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.