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How Soumita Basu overcame 80% immobility to build an inclusive clothing business

Her venture Zyenika started by making adaptive clothing like slip-on sarees and button-less kurtas for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. The sustainable fashion startup has expanded to offer clothes for people of all body shapes and sizes

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Aruna Raghuram
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Soumita Basu (left) and with her mother Amita Basu (right)

Soumita Basu (left) and with her mother Amita Basu (right). Pic: Zyenika

Soumita Basu was just 30 years old when she lost 80 percent of her mobility due to an autoimmune disorder called psoriatic arthritis. The resilient youngster decided not to lose heart but to take positive action instead. She decided to set up a venture that addressed one of the major challenges Soumita faced – she found it difficult and painful to get into clothes. 

Kolkata-based Zyenika Adaptive Clothing Private Limited was launched in 2020. Adaptive clothing is required by people who have a chronic illness (arthritis), temporary disability (frozen shoulder, slipped disc, or a fracture), permanent disability, cancer survivors, and senior citizens. 

Interestingly, the roots of the name Zyenika are in the Sanskrit word ‘syeni’ which means a female hawk, known for elegance and perseverance.

The company started by making adaptive clothing and now caters to a wide range of customers. “I want Zyenika to be known as a brand offering something for everyone. We look to offer garments to segments previously not considered by the market,” says the 41-year-old entrepreneur. 

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“My copywriter friend came up with the slogan that expresses the brand essence: ‘Every Body Matters’. Zyenika has clothes for all body sizes and shapes apart from its range of adaptive clothing,” she adds.

It is estimated that more than 43.5 crore people in India need adaptive clothes temporarily or permanently. Inclusive fashion gives them dignity, and confidence and allows them to engage in professional and public spaces. 

Viable business

Soumita has no background in fashion design. She has a master’s degree in journalism and another in development studies, with governance and public policy. But that did not deter her from plunging into the inclusive fashion business.  

“I want to run a viable and sustainable business, which does not depend on grants. If I offered only adaptive clothing many people would be left out. I started with adaptive clothing because I wanted to give people a practical and affordable solution. But the venture now caters to a wider segment.”   

motor zip
(Left) Adaptive clothing with zip loops for people with low fine motor skills; a shirt with velcro (right). Pic: Zyenika

Soumita does not want people to think of inclusion only in terms of disability.

“Inclusion should be for everyone on the margins. Not being able to find clothes for your size or body shape can have a significant negative impact on mental health,” she says.

Also Read: Kerala’s Sargasheshi breaks stereotypes by employing women with Down syndrome

Support from GIAN

Zyenika would not have been possible without support from GIAN (Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network), Ahmedabad, says Soumita. “I don’t come from a business background. In the days of ideation, I did not know much about startups or incubators. I did not know Prof Anil Gupta (founder of GIAN, the Honey Bee Network and National Innovation Foundation) personally and ‘cold-mailed’ him. He responded positively and validated my idea.”

Prof Gupta also introduced her to various platforms as an incubatee. Once she was part of the system, she started exploring on her own. But the first step, which is the most difficult, was taken with the support of GIAN. Soumita got the Startup Gujarat grant of Rs 5 lakh with the help of GIAN. Zyenika features in the book ‘People’s Festival of Innovations - 2023’. The festival was jointly organised by GIAN and C-CAMP (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms).

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“We have been trying to give Soumita as much exposure as we can. We have showcased her products to entrepreneurs and connected her to mentors. I appreciate her spirit greatly. Despite serious health challenges, she has become an entrepreneur. Her objective is to make people with special needs self-reliant when it comes to wearing clothes. With this in mind, she has made small innovations and modifications with meticulous thinking that make a big difference. To give an example, attaching a cloth cord to a zip fastener to help pull it up or down,” says Prof Gupta. 

prof gupta
Prof Anil Gupta, founder of GIAN, the Honey Bee Network and National Innovation Foundation

Soumita spoke to several other people with physical challenges to understand their specific needs. Since the company was launched in 2020, during the Covid period, it was tough going. “It was difficult to source fabric during lockdown. Initially, I experimented with my old clothes. Then I offered to upcycle garments for other people. I talked to customers and customised garments as per their requirements,” the woman entrepreneur says. 

Her mother Amita Basu, her primary caregiver, is co-founder of Zyenika and handles operations, mainly dispatch. She also liaises with people when required. Soumita handles most of the procurement of materials, designing and marketing. 

Innovative products 

Zyenika uses available materials to deliver different openings and shapes which are more adaptive. The aim is to make dressing easy, comfortable, quick and painless. Also, the clothes enable independent dressing upholding privacy and dignity.  

The innovative products include trousers that can be put on without bending, a slip-on saree, a top that can be opened from the armhole, adaptive innerwear for both men and women and kurtas with velcro instead of buttons. 

“We use comfortable material. The cuts of the clothes, the way the elastics are used and the places they are used are different. We also use a different type of fasteners. We are constantly innovating. A major challenge has been to train tailors,” explains Soumita.

Zyenika has clothes for both men and women. For men, there are shirts and trousers, some kurtas and joggers. For women, the company has on offer mostly Indo-western casual and semi-casual clothes including skirts, tops, palazzos and one-piece dresses. The price range is Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,500.    

zips done
Adaptive clothing by Zyenika. Pic: Zyenika

Soumita has taken help from designers to upgrade her designs aesthetically. “Aesthetics is very important for us. For the practical aspects, I take sessions for designers who want to make inclusive clothing,” she says.  

Sustainable fashion 

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. Zyenika follows much-needed eco-friendly practices. “We work with natural fibres. I like working with all kinds of cotton, natural rayon and knit as well. Knits keep you cool in summer and warm in winter. I can’t say I use only natural dyes. We try to minimise fabric waste. In packaging, we use upcycled or biodegradable plastic,” says Soumita. 

The way forward is to make Zyenika an even more sustainable brand. “I am trying to source more indigenous cotton which is expensive. Most of the cotton in the market is GM (Genetically Modified) cotton which consumes a lot of water," she says.

I use khadi made in units that use solar power. Also, we outsource our work to organizations that use solar power,” she adds.

The core team is small and women-led. Apart from Soumita and her mother, they have two women employees on their rolls. Most of the work is outsourced to women and institutions that work with marginalised women, such as survivors of domestic violence and trafficking. Work is also outsourced to organisations that support PwDs (Persons with Disabilities), specifically people with autism and Down syndrome. These organisations are not just in Kolkata but are based across the country. Soumita feels that making inclusive clothing and being inclusive about who you work with, go together.  

soumit and her mom
Soumita's mother Amita Basu is the co-founder and handles operations at Zyenika. Pic: Zyenika

Forging collaborations 

“We work closely with hospitals. For one, we collaborate with Cytecare in Bengaluru to design and make clothes for cancer survivors. We also work with rehabilitation centres. Many senior citizens are our regular customers. We have relied heavily on word-of-mouth publicity. The feedback we get from customers, that the fabric is comfortable and the garments are easy to wear, is very valuable for us. We are venturing into social media marketing as well. We also showcase our products at events,” says Soumita.  

Also Read: How Chennai’s Tüla has made organic farm-to-fashion viable by reviving desi cotton cultivation & weaving

Zyenika is looking to work more and more with other fashion brands to help them with their collections/range of adaptive clothing. The company helps them identify garments in their range that are inclusive. One of the brands, Zyenika is collaborating with is Wear Equal – an upcycled innerwear and loungewear brand. 

“I also help other brands with their communication. They don’t understand the market as well as I do. Many people tell me to get patents so that people do not steal my ideas. I am not worried about that aspect. This is a new, niche category of apparel. It is important to create awareness. I look at the collective success we get. It makes more sense in this field,” she explains.   

Zyenika bagged the 1st runners-up award at the Tata Social Entrepreneurship challenge in 2022. It has won a clutch of other awards as well. 

The company is looking ahead to forging partnerships abroad as manufacturers and design consultants. Shark tank is not on the agenda at the moment, says Soumita.

(Aruna Raghuram is a freelance journalist based in Ahmedabad. She writes on women’s issues, environment, DEI issues, and social/development enterprises.)

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