Mar 10, 2014
01:22 PMStyle & Design
Westport Designer's Tunics Embody Style and a Story; From India to Harvard MBA, Career and Beyond
It’s easy to be mesmerized by Sulu Grant. Her dark-haired Indian beauty is exotic and breathtaking. In combination with her upper crust British accent, gentle grace and dry, occasionally self-deprecating humor, it’s hard not to fall completely under her spell.
A clothing designer, she is wearing one of her signature Indian tunics, a black cotton affair with elaborate turquoise embroidery. Accessorized with simple turquoise drop earrings and a chunky turquoise bracelet, the look is nothing short of irresistible. The good news, no the great news, is that the stunning Sulu Collection tunics are for sale, and lesser mortals can look, if not quite as beautiful as she, very pretty indeed.
With her very quick mind and sharp business sense, Sulu Grant, 54, has reinvented herself several times over. Currently she is the founder and owner of Sulu Collection, a cottage business she started in 2006 selling high end Indian tunics, dresses and kaftans to select boutiques and retail shops throughout the country, as well as in resort areas like St. Bart’s in the Caribbean.
Her back story is as riveting as she is. As an 18 year old girl in Bombay, she secretly applied to Cornell University, telling her doting parents only after she was accepted.
“I came from a very Type A family filled with overachievers. My mother was a journalist, and my father is a doctor. They supported the idea of a graduate degree from the United States but wanted me to get an undergraduate degree in Bombay. But I was stubborn, and they finally relented.” Sulu came to Ithaca, New York all alone, bravely finding her way, and seeking her destiny. She majored in engineering, and upon graduation worked for Hewlett Packard in California for four years until she entered Harvard Business School. She had a successful career as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co., living in London and travelling throughout Europe for business. She married, had two children, and eventually divorced. Then, as Sulu put it, “after a long-time friendship with a business associate became romantic, I decided to marry again.” She married an American, Gary Grant, with whom she came to Westport, to begin life anew in the United States.
She still wanted to work.
“Women recreate themselves many times throughout their lives,” says Sulu. “I reincarnated myself after coming to Westport. Anyone who knew me thought of me as analytical, a techie, really. I was a lifelong ‘propeller head.’
“I no longer wanted planes, trains and automobiles, or commuting to New York. I wanted to be a good mom, go to my children’s soccer games and swimming practices. I started thinking about what to do next.”
Sulu envisioned a business selling beautiful high quality Indian tunics unlike the inexpensive hippie styles with which Americans were already familiar. She knew her mother stood ready in Mumbai to help.
With just a nascent idea of what she hoped to sell, Sulu created a sample line in Mumbai, which she test- marketed in the United States. She got what she called an early lucky break, getting multiple orders from a Palm Beach boutique before she even had the pricing established. The fledging business was on its way. She was the designer and the salesperson in the United States, and her mother was in charge of production in Mumbai, finding the right tailors, materials and establishing the quality control essential to a reliable business.
Sulu laughs. “As a mother-daughter story, how cool is it that the 18 year old girl who left home in 1978 is now involved in business with her mother? My mother is my right arm. I talk to her every day about the business. How exciting is it that instead being preoccupied with ailments, a 78 year-old woman is focusing on colors and threads or whatever the issue may be. The business keeps us both occupied and engaged.”
Sulu brushes aside compliments about her own beauty preferring instead to remark upon her mother’s extraordinary beauty, and similar Type A personality. “When Self Magazine called and said actress Jodie Foster would be featured in the magazine and might wear a Sulu Collection tunic my mother would not let me breathe. She called me every day. It had to happen, even though it was not in my control.” Indeed, Jodie Foster did wear the tunic, as did other celebrities like Katie Couric, Halle Berry, and Maria Menounos. President’s wives have taken a liking to Sulu’s tunics as well, and both Barbara and Laura Bush have been seen in her designs, Sulu says with pride and satisfaction.
“I truly believe that our tunics make women feel beautiful without trying very hard. You wear them again and again because you feel good in them. The tunics are easy to wear. They are made from hand loomed cotton which breathes, and tailored rather than boxy. They are very pretty and not just for a woman who is a size 0. Even a woman who wears a size 20 feels lovely when she wears them. We’ve had many stores that order multiple styles in the same size for their clients who like to stock up on the tunics because they feel so pretty in them and love them so much.
“When I first started the business, I wondered who my target market would be. I found out I am most successful with well-travelled women who have explored many places. They recognize and value beautiful things.
“Once, while travelling from India I was in Newark Airport, wearing this very black and turquoise tunic. A woman was staring at me and finally said, ‘I’ve been in India for three weeks, but I never found what you are wearing.’ That is because we cater to a Western palette. No one in India wears black and turquoise or navy and white. These are western colors that work with what you wear here. In the world I sell in, everyone has a pair of white pants, or denim jeans. You just throw on the tunic, and everyone tells you that you look so lovely. At Sulu Collection we call it effortless chic: you look pretty without trying very hard.”
In reflecting upon her growing business, Sulu says, “I am proud that Sulu Collection is a woman-owned business selling to other women-owned businesses. Many of our buyers have reinvented themselves as I have. I love that ‘the buck stops here.’ I run the show. I call the shots. There is a beauty in having your own business.”
The Sulu Collection can be found at www.sulucollection.com.
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in Fairfield County Life magazine.