The Exhale Label exists to breathe fresh life into comfortable apparel with expressive messages that empower, uplift and inspire. So where does this powerful, positive energy stem from? I was excited to find out in my conversation with Palak.
It turns out that growing up feeling unconventional is at the heart of her story. At school in India, she found herself wishing to be able to freely express her emotions, without worrying about what her peers would think.
“Nobody really talks about how you're supposed to feel or...feeling a certain way. There's no way to process your emotion. It's just taboo in India.”
Because of this, she felt dead sure that psychology was her calling. Criminal psychology in fact. But the process of studying became frustrating. Unable to study abroad due to the fears of her parents, and finding the education system in India too slow to keep up with her restless momentum, she found fashion as a way to channel her emotions.
“I decided to start doing psychology and design side-by-side. After a year of completing that, I was like, okay, clearly I'm also good at this.”
“I travelled around the world with her, did exhibitions, got fully sucked into this design space and then psychology started to get hard, because obviously I had work and then I had exams.”
Offered a place at the prestigious design school Parsons in New York, she decided to leave her psychology degree behind. While part of her might regret her decision, by travelling to America she learnt new skills that jump started her future.
“The Indian fashion space and the way education even in design works is very different compared to America. In America, they teach you to make a business. But in India I knew I wasn’t cut out for the wedding scene and I wasn’t cut out for the Bollywood scene either.”
With her studies, and her American visa coming to an end, it was crunch time for Palak. And on one morning subway ride, she decided something major.
“I was like, ‘Okay, what do I want to do with my life?’ I mean, psychology, what I wanted to do. And then there's design that I've studied and I'm good at. Okay so let's figure this out. And then it was it. I was like, ‘Why not do something related to psychology and design and combine the two?’”
She wanted to create a brand that tells a story of expression, of feeling, of emotion. One that tells children like she was, and the adults they are now the importance of speaking up and speaking out. That it’s ok not to be ok.
“I wanted to tell a story related to human beings like real humans, because why is it that we can't wear our feelings on our sleeve and talk about them? Why do we have to keep it a secret?”
And so, Exhale was born
“I made a list of 10 names that would kind of explore this. Exhale was right at the bottom. And every day I would strike one name off, 'cause I would keep saying to myself, like, is this it? And I was like, ‘No, this is not it.’ And then somehow I'd just come back to Exhale because it was just so simple. It was just like taking a breath, like breathing it out, something as simple as that. So that was it. That was the idea to Exhale. I took a flight back home. And I decided to start this.”
More than just a clothing line, Exhale is somewhere that just says, let go, let that feeling out. Express, exhale, breathe. Through sharing big, powerful messages, Exhale helps us to let go of the burdens of misconception and judgement, not just within Indian culture, but on a broader level too.
But each larger message begins with a single, honest experience. In fact, every Exhale Label product is based on a real person, a real story and real emotion - named after that person in honour of their journey. Exhale Label calls these individuals "Exhale Warriors" and their goal is to use that person's experience to inspire the world to change how they judge others, and themselves.
And the first story was Palak’s
“One was my skin colour. So growing up, all of my friends were Punjabi or Sindhi and all like fair. These girls are fair and stunning. And then there was this lean little girl that was me, who was this brown girl, because she'd loved the ocean and she'd go to go out Goa basically four times a year because of my dad's business...this little insecurity inside me just grew into bigger ball...I was just insecure about how I looked...But that kind of changed around in America when they saw my skin and they thought it was so exotic and they're like, ‘Wow, you look so beautiful…’...and I was just wondering how much you can do to everyone else with this. Trying to get into a community with every collection and name our products after that person. And they just get their story out for the world to see.”
The “Brown & Beautiful” T-shirt was the result of that journey. A proud declaration of self acceptance that touches the hearts of anyone who has ever felt insecure about the colour of their skin. For me, I think of our twin girls, Ivy is much darker, her skin colour is browner. And to be able to show her that acceptance, share with her this important message, is so meaningful.
As a result of her journey, does Palak understand mental health more now? And what does positive mental health look like to her? Palak’s answer to those questions: in learning to not be afraid of expression anymore, she believes she does. Being able to admit when you're not ok, and when you need help:
“So it's hard to define it because...Like at the end of the day, even if you're okay, you're okay, because there are things happening around you….You're one human, one brain, one heart. ...So how many things can you juggle with?”
If the pandemic had any positives, we both hope that it has brought people closer to this. To understand their own needs.
“People kind of really understood what it's like to actually be with your mental health and just sit with it because there was nothing else, the whole world was at a standstill...I'm from Mumbai and I've also lived in New York. Now these two cities are like, it's a race. All you have to do is make money and it's a race and it doesn't matter if your mental health kind of goes out of the window...So it's nice to see that people are actually taking that more seriously now. That they are taking a breather.”
Therapy has helped Palak deal with the childhood issues she carries - issues that so many of us carry. But we both agree that therapy can come in different forms. It could be speaking to a professional, it could be the support of your partner who can act as that mirror figure, or it could be just speaking to someone you feel close to.
My grandfather is 99, but we both see eye to eye. My cousin is also a fantastic support for me. Whenever I talk to them, it gives me clarity, like being pulled out of that mud that we can all get stuck in. And here, as I say this, Palak underpins what her business and her passion is all about:
“What’s important is having an outlet right? To just let it out. Exhale.”
And if talking doesn’t feel nice, she has had friends write their worries out and send them too.
If, and when, her friends are comfortable, she uses their experiences to create new designs. She shares their stories for Exhale, adding them to the brave warriors who talk openly about the struggles and prejudices they have faced. The obstacles and childhood stigmas they have overcome.
“That's when I like it kind of struck me like, this needs to like carry forward. And I need to see whether I can get my stories to a faraway audience that they can kind of grasp from this because it's not easy to actually talk about how you truly feel.”
And it boils down to one of her important messages, and her recent creative project, the “Be Kind” T-shirt.
“I think one thing that I would want our kids to be is kind, kind to others and everyone around them. And I think that's such a broad statement to each and everyone. They could be one year old, they could be a hundred years old.”
Designed and created to raise awareness about Down Syndrome, but also a message for all of us, regardless of who we are, what age we are or the abilities we hold.
We love the work that Palak creates, and the messages she sends with her art. She encourages us to challenge the ideas that hold us down, to stand up for kindness and to look fabulous doing it! We can’t wait to see what else she comes up with.
It’s a shame I couldn’t proudly wear my t-shirt for the interview, as my girls were sleeping in the room where I’d left it. But, kindly, Palak understood my dilemma.
You can watch the full video interview with Palak here, to learn more about her journey and the challenges she has overcome and her approach to design. You can also shop the Exhale range on our site. We hope they bring you as much joy as they bring us!