The Pop-up parade
These six brands are reinventing the concept of pop-ups to appeal to new-age patrons
Not so long ago, there was a time when a marriage in the family entailed travel for trousseau shopping. Must-have items on the list included silk saris from Kanchipuram, intricately embroidered textiles from Varanasi, delicately strewn chikankari from Lucknow, stunning traditional jewellery from Jaipur, hand-embroidered, soft juttis from Patiala, and many other region-specific crafts. Those who couldn’t travel relied on relatives in the defence services or other transferrable jobs and annual trade fairs, which became hallowed grounds for shopping. Similarly, foodies, music junkies and art lovers wouldn’t hesitate to fork out a pretty penny while scouring the country for unique experiences.
In time, the concept of pop-ups took over the retail space, giving access to these treasures from around the country to consumers in their hometowns. Their temporary nature appealed to brands and participants as they could test new markets or generate awareness of new products and services, without making a long-term commitment. In the past couple of years, the rise of pop-ups has been nothing short of meteoric. The recent digital shift allows consumers to discover a plethora of brands they may never have come across earlier, and temporary pop-ups allow them to touch and feel the items they see online before buying them. Data published by market research analyst, Indian Retailer, in 2021 supports these findings. It shows that while shopping in store, people make four-five purchases every month on average, but online they purchase goods 2.2 times per month. The average time spent browsing a physical store is 54 minutes, while people spend only 38 minutes online in comparison.
With everyone jumping on the pop-up bandwagon, however, what can someone do to stand out from the crowd? We speak to six young brands, making a name for themselves in the competitive pop-up market, to find out.
Having lived in different parts of the world, globetrotting corporate honcho Aisha Saraf Kothari knew how to spot a hidden gem wherever she went. This included local boutiques selling pretty clothes and bric-a-brac, cafes that made one-of-a-kind dishes, and designers who were all the rage in their own countries, but hadn’t yet entered the Indian market. “I believe people shouldn’t buy things to follow trends blindly. Instead, they should purchase things they can make their own. Buy it because you like it—this is what I want to encourage,” she says.
From her home in Belgium, Kothari started the e-commerce platform AiSpi in 2017, aiming to bring fashion and lifestyle brands from Europe to India. Originally envisioned as a digital platform, it diversified into physical exhibitions when Kothari realised that people prefer to touch and feel a product before buying it. Now, she organises and participates in multiple pop-ups around the country; the most recent being in DLF Emporio mall in Delhi this month. In 2023 alone, AiSpi has organised experiential pop-ups in prominent restaurants in metro cities because she “likes to offer a restaurant feel for ‘no-pressure’ shopping. While shopping, people can drink, eat snacks, and just chill.” She has also put together intimate pop-ups in tier II cities like Raipur, Indore and Ahmedabad in collaboration with on-ground partners. Some renowned brands she has brought to India include Rosantica, L’alingi, Vanina, Marzook and Celia B, which consumers have direct access to for the first time.
Kothari asserts that sales, though welcome, are not the end goal. “It’s a brand-building exercise. It allows us to have presence in a new market without making a massive commitment or spending too much money. It’s about having skin in the game. It requires a lot of effort and time to put it all together in a short period, but we feel that the experience is worth it.” Kothari believes that pop-ups can be used as an effective marketing tool. She explains, “Generally speaking, pop-ups are a good commercial model, but the timing is important. When it happens too close to other events, people tend to avoid them or only go for their preferred ones.”
Master Class in Experience
Call me a hole with a soul,” says chef Gaggan Anand, after serving 25 artfully created dishes
with a generous dollop of ‘rib-the-customer’ humour sprinkled on top, for the astronomical
price of Rs 50,000 per head. You might wonder how many people would pay this much for a single
meal. Apparently, nearly 700 of them did. After all, the exorbitant amount included Anand’s art-as-food dishes, a glimpse of his eccentric personality and the tag of exclusivity they may otherwise have had to fly to Thailand to achieve.
Arguably one of the most famous Indian chefs around the world, Anand bears the distinction of holding two Michelin stars, a dedicated episode on the Netflix series Chef’s Table, as well as the honour of helming the best restaurant in Asia and one of the world’s top 50 restaurants for four consecutive years. His eponymous restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok instantly became a globe-trotting foodie favourite when it opened in 2010. A public spat, however, with his financier-partners, a global pandemic and the ensuing slump in the fine-dining segment of the culinary industry, led him to embark on a new business model.
Through his limited-period ‘Gaggan Residency’ pop-ups around the world, he brings the experience of eating a meal at his original restaurant to a new place. This includes recreating the décor, live kitchen ambience, service by an internationally trained staff, 25 courses of uniquely conceptualised experimental dishes and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to interact with the chef.
Does this mean that the parties involved rake in the money? Not necessarily. “We’re not expecting to earn money off this venture. It’s an experiment—and an adventurous one,” asserted the chef at the press conference to announce it. In the same breath, however, he shared that the experiment has benefits. For Anand, it meant increased brand recognition and a chance to assess the market to see if India was ready for his food. For the host hotel Hyatt Regency Delhi, it offered prestige value in the 40th year of opening its flagship property in India.
Up, Close, Personal
Calling potential customers to smaller gatherings has been the age-old way of retailing for many, even if they were not expressly called pop-ups. Though some have been following this model for decades, others have adapted the concept to fit today’s needs. Delhi-based brand strategist and experience curator Akshat Kapoor and Nandini Singh of the royal family of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh got together in 2020 to curate their first pop-up experience, branded as Home Soiree. Kapoor says, “My mother has a brand of chikankari, and Nandini is a patron of traditional art, including Gond and Pichwai. We also brought in a few craftsmen from around the country offering different products. When people started avoiding big exhibitions, we knew an intimate experience would attract them. Home Soiree offers a taste of culture from the four walls of our own homes.”
Here, guests and customers are treated the way they would be in their family homes. They are served chaat, galouti kebabs, aam panna and gulaab ka sharbat with gin, as they browse through the exhibition. Baithaks along the lines of qawwali performances by the Nizami Bandhus set the mood. “We don’t treat it as a sales event. Sales are great, but the idea is brand awareness, which goes a long way for people that participate and us,” he says.
Buoyed by the success of Home Soiree, Kapoor also started advising clients to curate intimate pop-ups outside their home city. He brought the House of Angadi, with its 600-year-old legacy of Kanjeevaram saris from Bengaluru to Delhi in January 2023 to test waters. The pop-up took place at Bikaner House over five days and offered the same homely feel as the ones curated by Home Soiree. It opened with a grand launch event, the highlight of which was a performance by Shubha Mudgal, and was attended by the who’s who of the capital city. He summarises the concept’s appeal: “Pop-ups will stay for a while, unless we discover another way of showcasing the goods and bringing in money. The Indian market is a mixed bag, so there is enough and more for everyone to thrive.”
Art for All, All for Art
Troubled by the lack of visibility of art in public spaces in India, Arjun Bahl, Hanif Kureshi, Giulia Ambrogi, Akshat Nauriyal and Thanish Thomas started the St+Art Foundation in 2014. They began by commissioning the murals covering large walls in Delhi’s Lodhi Colony area, and since then, have organised several temporary art pop-ups in Mumbai and Delhi. Their two latest projects— Mumbai Urban Art Festival and The Lodhi Festival—saw tremendous success.
“When we started our foundation, the idea was to make people more curious about art. For example, we have no gates in the Lodhi Art District and hundreds of people visit it daily,” says Kureshi. Intending to broaden the current definition of what constitutes art and its boundaries, the team curates short- and long-term projects because “the art isn’t just about what is shown in galleries and the museums. It’s so much more than that. We want to show that art is relatable, entertaining, soothing, and isn’t simply a commercial activity. As a country, we need to go beyond cricket and Bollywood”.
Their first project of a temporary nature was the Sassoon Dock Art Festival in Mumbai, which was organised in collaboration with Asian Paints. It paved the way for the Mumbai Urban Art Festival that was larger in scale and longer in duration. It included travelling installations by Filthy Luker from the UK and another by Spanish artist Luzinterruptus, who works on public installations with plastic. For this, they collected plastic bags from the community to create an art installation in Evelyn House,
a guest house owned by the Mumbai Port Trust at Colaba, where the whole building was filled with plastic.
In late March in Delhi, the St+Art Foundation collaborated with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art for The Lodhi Festival. The two-day event consisted of creating live murals, musical performances, curated walks, and activities aimed at community participation in the Lodhi Art District. Planned as part of the celebration of India’s G20 presidency, the idea was to showcase the significance of art in shaping and reflecting cultural identity. Noteworthy works included murals by international artists Paolo Delfin of Mexico and Andha Ras from Malaysia, and a shadow installation by urban artist Daku.
The fact that the Mumbai Urban Art Festival was attended by over 7,000-8,000 people a day on average for the three-month period it was on at Sassoon Dock, is proof, if any were needed, of the popularity of the concept. “We believe this is because the foundation has enabled and cultivated a vision for democratised public spaces through interdisciplinary art interventions rooted in the social context. Similarly, at the Lodhi Art Festival, through murals, workshops, and performances, we hope to continue to engage the public imagination by connecting communities and providing a platform for diverse artists and cultural exchange,” say the founders.
When a stall of handmade jewellery made by a group of 10-year-olds sold out within hours at the lifestyle exhibition Sorbet Soiree, founder Geet Nagi realised the potential of dedicating an entire pop-up to child-led businesses. Hence, she joined hands with Pia Desai and Shivalli Jaggi Bhatia, co-founders of the parenting peer support group Mommy A-Z, to launch Delhi-based Kidpreneurs Inc. This platform aims to teach bright young minds entrepreneurial skills.
At the biannual pop-ups hosted by Kidpreneurs Inc., the kids run their own stalls and the customers consist largely of family members and friends of the children who participate. Sales are a given and competition is healthy. After conducting several successful pop-ups—for which they charge only a minimal participation fee to cover organisational costs—the team behind Kidpreneurs Inc. is now diversifying to increase their impact.
They do so by conducting free-of-charge workshops and activities for children to teach them life skills. “We invite experts from varying fields to introduce the children to different kinds of professions, offer tips to counter stress by tapping into their emotions, and encourage awareness of diverse fields through specially curated walk-throughs and activities, like a recent one at the India Art Fair,” explains Nagi.
Desai adds, “I realised the value of what we were doing when I saw a change in my daughter’s personality. She is shy; you could barely hear her talk at her first exhibition. Now she’s innovating new ways to push her business. You can’t learn these skills at school; they come through life lessons.” Next, they hope to curate special sessions for children from underprivileged backgrounds.
The founders also highlight that this experimental concept comes with a unique set of challenges, such as dealing with difficult parents who try to use the platform to promote their businesses. As the fee for the stall is far less than most other largescale pop-up exhibitions, they try to muscle their way into getting a booth in the guise of selling their children’s work. “Parents try to save on stall costs by paying for a child’s stall instead of an adult’s. This is the kind of unhealthy competitive ethos we want to discourage, but it can be difficult to deal with insistent parents,” says Bhatia.
Photographer Anshika Varma always knew that text accompanied by visual imagery had the power to bring people together and make art accessible to everyone. She also felt that collective participation, deliberation and discussion enhanced the experience of art. Hence, she started Offset Projects in 2018. Under its banner, she organises artist talks, workshops, residencies, curated reading rooms and collaborative exercises in publishing, along with selling rare and beautiful photobooks. The most popular activity under her banner, however, is Offset Pitara, a travelling library of photo-books.
“We believe that storytelling lies at the heart of human creative energy and would like to make a space for collective engagement, meaningful critique and reflective inquiry,” says Varma, who chose to focus on the language of photography emerging from South Asia. This library stored in a trunk or pitara, has travelled across India and abroad, introducing people to this lesser-known medium of art.
“I wanted everyone to feel a part of this collective exercise, without feeling bound to it. I also wanted to create a space where I could share books, but the book would be the starting point to tackle concerns and subjects that the artists wanted to confront. It was important that people should develop a relationship with the book and remember the moments they spend with it. I love that readers have ownership over that relationship,” she shares.
With a collection of over 500 independently produced photobooks and books on photography, the Offset Pitara is the most unique enterprise of its kind. The library is set up in popular public spots that are easily accessible, such as the Sunder Nursery arboretum in Delhi, or educational institutions around the country. She also recently produced a book called Guftgu, which focuses on the work of 10 practitioners from South Asia.
She shares, “Along with the library, it became easy to simultaneously organise workshops on subjects like bookmaking and understanding paper as a medium. I want people to feel this is an approachable medium, because sometimes a new format can cause anxiety. And photographic books are difficult to find and very expensive, so this helps with access.”
‘We’re not expecting to earn money off this venture. It’s an experiment—and an adventurous one.’
‘Pop-ups allow us to have presence in a new market without making a massive commitment. It’s about having skin in the game.’ Aisha Saraf
“We don’t treat it as a sales event. Sales are great, but the idea is brand awareness, which goes a longer way for all the people that participate and us.”Akshat Kapoor
‘We want to show that art is relatable, entertaining, soothing, and isn’t simply a commercial activity. As a country, we need to go beyond cricket and Bollywood.’Hanif Kureshi
‘Storytelling lies at the heart of human creative energy and we would like to make a space for collective engagement, meaningful critique and reflective inquiry.’ Anshika Varma
‘I realised the value of what we were doing when I saw a change in my daughter’s personality. A shy child, today she’s innovating new ways of push her business.’Pia Desai