By Anna Johnston
Have I done the right thing?” questioned Prabha Rathinasabapathy in 2017, perched in a windowless room, alone.
The sole founder of System of Motion, a Bauhaus-inspired women’s performance fashion brand, hit rock bottom after mounting debt, loneliness and a creeping fear of failure stifled her.
“The light had kind of gone out,” admits the London Business School alumna, with a Law degree from Oxford. “If the light isn’t shining, nobody can see it.” In order for her stylish-yet-functional classics to make a difference to modern women on the move, she needed to get her shine back.
After being scooped up at her lowest point by a fabric of support, she was ranked in the top 10 at Fast Company’s 2017 Innovation by Design Awards, alongside the likes of Dyson.
The founder’s open honesty has prompted people to give generously – their ideas, their time, their cheers. Rathinasabapathy’s overriding lesson is best articulated by author Seth Godin: “A gift gladly accepted changes everything. The imbalance creates motion, motion that pushes us to a new equilibrium, motion that creates connection.”
Yes, champion my idea
When “diehard Londoner” Rathinasabapathy entered business school in 2013 she was an already successful project director re-imagining the future of city living, including the regeneration of the capital’s now vibrant King’s Cross area.
“As a Londoner, you want to be the best in everything you do. It’s a bustling city. When you’re cycling, you’re in charge of your own destiny.” A dedicated cyclist, Rathinasabapathy started making trade-offs as she scaled the rockface of her career.
Being dressed for her day increasingly meant being dressed for the boardroom.
One morning, Rathinasabapathy opted for a pencil skirt and heels. She felt “crisp” for the day ahead until a finance director said, “Ah, we’re travelling by bike to the meeting. Take a cab, and take these files with you?” She concluded, “Women’s fashion is failing us” – and a whisper of an idea formed.
Early into her MBA, she met with LBS entrepreneur-in-residence Neeta Patel to mull over business concepts including a bike-to-boardroom, lean-wardrobe idea. Patel said, “You have something. Go for it!” Spurred on, the former lawyer garnered more support in the form of her MBA classmate André Dyngeland, who took on her business idea as his class assignment.
Yes, help me craft the why
In 2016, Rathinasabapathy received an email from Saatchi & Saatchi’s branding team. It read: “We’ve heard about your company. We’d like to see how we can help.” Stunned, she wondered how they could have known about the start-up she had registered just 10 days prior.
Dyngeland, of course. He was taught by Richard Hytner, Adjunct Professor of Marketing at LBS and formerly Saatchi & Saatchi’s deputy chairman.
For six months, Rathinasabapathy worked with the Saatchi & Saatchi team, responsible for some of the industry’s best-known slogans, to nail her venture’s purpose. They workshopped the brand and laid the foundations for her firm’s identity. They even helped dream up System of Motion as the name.
The fashion industry is the fifth most polluting on earth. So a driving force behind the brand is to promote a lean wardrobe. Rathinasabapathy’s vision echoes leading designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, who said at one of her own shows: “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill.”
Globally, fashion waste is estimated to become an environmental crisis on a par with plastic pollution in oceans. “We have the huge ambition to change the way women buy clothing,” notes Rathinasabapathy. Forever fashion, not fast fashion.
Yes, design my thinking
System of Motion women are globally-minded, on the move and trying to squeeze everything into their lives. “We give equal attention to form and function in the design process. We’re more like a product design firm than a fashion brand,” says Rathinasabapathy.
In 2016, she left London and spent a year and a half in Berlin where she worked with Alison Chernesky, a former designer at Lululemon, to refine thoughtful designs inspired by Bauhaus and minimalism.
“The idea that user experience should drive design owes its origins to the Bauhaus school of design,” she notes. Thus, each item has meaning. For instance, LUDWIG, the traditional classic shirt, is named after renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, famous for his “less is more” approach to architecture.
Rathinasabapathy credits Berlin as a place buzzing with ideas. She thrived, working with designers in a creative co-working space. “I’m very aware that I’m not a fashion designer, but they didn’t judge me. Their philosophy is that good ideas come from everywhere.”
But after saying a tough farewell-for-now to collaborator Chernesky (“It takes time for the switch to flick in terms of sales”), Rathinasabapathy gradually began to burn out.
In a bid to find high-quality craftspeople, she moved to Lisbon in the summer of 2017. There, she located a factory that had been in the shirt-tailoring craft for more than 100 years. (They reinforce every button so you won’t need a spare.)
At this point, sales were patchy.
Yes, fill me up
Rathinasabapathy’s sister Chitra Stern, 15 years her senior and another LBS entrepreneur, and her brother-in-law also called the Portuguese capital home. She needed their help, they thought.
“It was classic burnout. I was lonely and tired. I’d always been quite active and sporty but I started injuring myself. My sister noticed and said, ‘Why don’t you come and stay with us?’ They wrapped me up when I didn’t know I needed it.”
Rathinasabapathy spent seven months of recuperation cloaked in her family’s safe space. Two things coincided after that: as her injuries healed, she started to gain press coverage. Good Housekeeping celebrated her “no-iron white shirts” made of odour-resistant, quick-dry fabric and she was honoured in Fast Company’s annual innovation awards.
“These little nudges every few months just when I needed them kept me going,” she smiles.
Yes, I’ll relocate
Following the advice of peers and investors, and true to a design process approach, Rathinasabapathy flew 5,419 km from Lisbon to New York to research her target audience. The US performance-wear market was ripe to be plucked, she was told, so the global nomad picked herself up and toured New York, LA, San Francisco, Austin and Portland.
In Portland, she found a progressive city, with a creative heart. “The business community is ambitious, yet humble. Maybe it’s the dramatic meeting of ocean and mountains that defines the landscape there. It’s a constant reminder that there’s something bigger than you.” Portland is also – coincidentally – one of the biggest biking cities in the US.
Just as the pocket of air behind a cyclist breaks the wind resistance, she was swept up in the slipstream of business mentors. Enter Ziba, an innovation and design firm specialising in consumer experience design. Founded by Iranian-born Sohrab Vossoughi Ziba means “beautiful” in Farsi, echoing Rathinasabapathy’s desire to create artful beauty, not just function.
After hearing Rathinasabapathy’s passionate pitch, Vossoughi offered to incubate her business at Ziba. In May 2018, she was welcomed as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. “To have such immersion with highly experienced, talented creatives is – truly – a gift,” she says. “Every individual here is humble and generous with their knowledge. I could never have planned for this first-hand education on design and innovation. It’s genuinely a privilege.”
Besides wanting to learn from the sportswear giants based in Portland – such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour – Portland is a community of craftspeople, she says. “Since we are a product-design company, this feels like a natural habitat for us to nurture our next stage of growth.”
Being on the Pacific Rim means that the city has “an affinity for Japanese culture and a high sensibility for minimalist design”.
Decisively, Rathinasabapathy ordered a traditional futon and tatami.
Growth from yes
Of all the things the fiercely independent sole operator has come to understand, it’s that gifts are powerful.
Entrepreneurial resilience runs through her family’s veins, from which she draws inspiration. Her brother, a current LBS Masters in Management student, and her father are bringing the world Pringle-style poppadoms, with Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms. Her sister, Chitra Stern, owner and founding board member at Martinhal Family Hotels & Resorts, won LBS’s 2014 Accomplished Entrepreneur Award.
Champions spring from all corners of the world – from London with Entrepreneur-in-Residence Patel and Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of LBS’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to designer friends in Berlin. From craftmakers in Lisbon to pioneering thinkers in the US.
“The thing that keeps me going every day is a sense of responsibility to all the trust I’ve gathered, and how it manifests in people’s time, support and love. I take that very seriously.
“As I continue to grow, bit by bit, I’m getting better at saying yes to the people cheering me on.” Gifts, after all, work like nothing else.
Anna Johnston is a contributor to the LBS Review.
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