We talk to Rish Oberoi – Owner of Paani Puri Clothing

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Let me start by sharing a story with you from the Paani Puri blog:

“Paani Puri!? Clothing? A Clothing Company!? Really?!? That’s crazy! silly! and even goofy! YUP! that is the same reaction we’ve received every single day since 5:30am on April 20,2009. 5:30am!?! WHAT?? Yes, at 5:30am Rish Oberoi was watching Batman-The Dark Knight, but could only think to himself, ‘how amazing would Paani Puri be right now?’ While sitting there in a daze, hoping to somehow find Paani Puri around his house, he began to think how funny, no, how CRAZY!! it would be if ‘The Joker’ was eating Paani Puri!!! This thought stuck in his mind, and that very same day he went through his phone book to call anyone who could create this image … And EUREKA He found her! Wait Wait, before we go on, our designer is actually called EUREKA! (this is the most serious part of the story and not a joke…).That’s how Paani Puri started; simply ‘a joke made into a reality’.”

That reality became the Paani Puri Clothing company. With t-shirts ranging from the Joker to bubble puri, pop art puri and even aliens, Rish and his artist Eureka have designed a line of wonderfully artistic t-shirts that are getting ready to take the world by storm. New Jersey-raised but now living and loving Mumbai, Rish is very passionate about not only the art of his designs, but also the quality, what they stand for and the thought that went into each and every piece of puri art that is on the t-shirts. With a launch date coming up soon I got the opportunity to talk to Rish about the company, the ideas, the passion and what goes into Paani Puri, the company and the food!

Tell us about your company Paani Puri.

Paani Puri is a company that quite honestly started off as a joke. It was nothing serious at first, in the sense that it was nothing that I thought of being formulated into a company, into something which I would start selling, a brand which I had fallen in love with myself. What ended up happening was that in my New Jersey mind it was like, oh, dude, that would be really funny if the Joker was eating paani puri, and that is how we ended up coming up with the first design. Then slowly and suddenly it just started happening, because I just wanted more and more t-shirts just for myself. Then people started appreciating them and I thought, why don’t I try and make a business out of it? So, that’s what we are about. It was just something that was spontaneously done in a great way.

Paani Puri is based on a very East/West blend. As a company, it is just about mixing East and West cultures and really trying to be as different as possible. We want to market to people that understand you don’t just have to wear t-shirts for the sake of wearing a t-shirt, it is also a design, an art form, and art work. A lot of stuff that we actually put on these t-shirts are very focus based and they have a lot of thought and process put behind them. There are few brands in the world that are actually doing something similar to what I doing here with Paani Puri. It is an exciting little space I am in, and I am really enjoying it. It is a lot of fun. I was blessed to have so many things happen for me. I am very excited.

You have an artist, Eureka, that you work with. How did you guys begin to work together?

When I moved out here Eureka was the first Indian local girl I ever met and we became friends. I knew she was an amazing artist. My issue was always that I thought about things and had the vision, and she has a very good vision when it comes to my thoughts and putting it down on paper for me – that is awesome!! She was actually the first person I thought of when I was thinking about the designs idea and I thought, I really think Eureka can do this. Since then, the company has basically structured itself into that form that we work as a team. We sit down and think about things and designs and concept ideas. Then she will start sketching, and then we will work on them together. It is a very collective effort and that is how I want the future of the company to be – to always have a team, which is a bunch of thinkers – to sit and brainstorm with a team of artists so that we have a lot of bouncing back and forth of ideas..

There are so many things that have happened to me since Paani Puri started. I have been blessed, and she was one of the biggest blessings from the whole thing. It is amazing. I am very grateful to her for everything she has done and that she has incorporated into the company. She is awesome. The best thing is when you start a company, obviously, you start from nothing: there is no investments, no capital, and she has been there since that point. She has known since day one what I am doing and how it is going. If I would leave tomorrow to anywhere in the world I would be like, here is Paani Puri, take care of whatever has to be taken care of.

For those who don’t know what is Paani Puri-the food not the company ?

Paani puri is a food, which originally was called gol gappa in New Delhi, the capital of India. It was a food that was just catered to young kids and over time even adults stared to appreciate it and it spread like wildfire. Paani puri is made of two basic products: one is the puri which is dough fried into small puffy ovals. Then you have the paani, which means water in Hindi, and the paani is a mixture of spices and herbs mixed into the water. So basically you take the puri, crack it because it is hollow inside, and you put potato and chick peas in, and then you put the paani. Then you put something called imli ki chutney, which is a sweet chutney that is basically used to sweeten because the water is really spicy, more than you would expect. So the imli ki chutney is a way of sweetening it and then you taste deliciousness in your mouth!

How did you go from the first t-shirt of the Joker, to the bubbles and the space ships and all the artistic designs? It is fascinating – how did you get there?

I take a lot from my surroundings and a lot from how I was brought up. So, for example the bubbles t-shirt. My dad had seen a girl at the beach, a very young Indian girl blowing bubbles. And remember, they are not your typical dollar store bubbles and bubble blowers, it is made out of straws and string. Here people have taken their surroundings and built their life out of it. When my Dad saw that he was touched. So, we replicated that feeling into that shirt. That shirt has a lot of meaning for me and my family. When it comes to something like the alien shirt, there is one where the alien space ship is flooding the whole city. Coming from the United States, I am used to sewer systems and drainage systems, and out here if it rains, it rains hard and the whole city just floods. Based on that I would think only an alien could do this. See, a lot of silly thoughts are behind these, but that shirt is actually dedicated to Mumbai’s flooding. What we have done is come out with a series of five t-shirts that make a whole story based on that alien line. We have one were the human fighter planes are going after the alien puri, then on another shirt they chase him out and alien puri leaves to outer space and then you see his home, and then eventually we will be introduced to the Martians that live on puri planet. That is something I am enjoying because it is something fun, it is very creative. There is a story line behind it and it is a vision of my own and I can represent it the way I want to.

Our tagline is “Think outside the Puri” and Eureka uses that very well. If Eureka thinks of something, she has a story, we both will work on it together and that is how we come up with it. That is how all these designs come out. Everything is about surroundings, thoughts, feelings – sadness, happiness in any form. Nothing is done without a passion behind it and that is how every design is cultivated for Paani Puri.

You also have very unique packaging tell us the concept behind that.

I started researching t-shirt and haute couture markets, and I was reading through many online t-shirt magazines. There are some people in the world that buy t-shirts not just to wear, but like to hang up and I am one of those guys. I like hanging up my t-shirts. If I think it is a cool design then I won’t want to wash it because I don’t want to ruin it. So, I was reading about t-shirts and I was thinking about packaging and how I would personally want to see packing through Paani Puri. So the base product was that when I was a kid, Kellogg’s was one of the biggest things to come out. I guess that would be in the 1980s. Kellogg had this really cool box and in the box they would have amazing cool gifts and this is what we grew up with over there. I would ask kids out here, hey, did you guys get a chance when you were little, like 7 years old, to cry to your mom, ‘I want this because Johnny Quest is on the box of Lucky Charms’, and they were like, no; we never have that experience. I always felt that people should all experience that because it is fun, it is cute to have something in a box full of goodies you can eat. So, in the initial stages we were going to make it a cereal box. I am big fan of the pop art culture – I think it is fantastic! I think it is the best form of art in the world. Based on that, we put a lot of pop culture ideas into the design. If you notice the girl with the half glasses on is very pop-artish, and it is very comic bookish on the back where we are telling the story. We put a lot of feeling and thought into it and the front has a very big significance. Obviously we wanted the name to stick out as much as it can, and right below that you see the mouth eating the paani puri and near the mouth there are butterflies coming out of the paani puri, and that represents simply freedom. It is our way of representing what we feel this company should represent in the future, which is absolute freedom. You are in a very democratic country and there TV and pieces of paper are all forms of freedom, but nobody looks at t-shirts as a form of freedom. Actually, it is a great way to look at art because a lot of people don’t get a chance to do this. In India, one thing I realized is that there are a lot of artists out here who really understand that feeling – they want their designs on a t-shirt. So based on that, that is why the butterflies are coming out of the puri. The guy eating it is just to play off of, so people know we know it is a food that is now changing into something different. That is one of the biggest hurdles I have had to cross since we started.

In what way was that a hurdle?

See, in India everything is categorized between high and low class. Paani puri is a street food. Everyone eats it but its considered a lower class food … I always thought I would have a hard time making a brand that is called a type of street food. I did a survey of 600 people to see if they prefer ice cream or paani puri and 60% said paani puri!

But yeah, that is how the packaging was designed. You see on the top panel it says ‘poke here for your t-shirt’. See, to put anything in the puri you have to poke the puri, it is called that poking the puri. So, it is using that concept and the feel of the pop art and the expression of freedom – that is how the box actually came alive. Plus, as a side note, we do do customized packaging. We did one for Miss Malini and we just did one for MTV last week. We are working on a tie-in with MTV that I am really excited about.

So how would that work, the tie in with MTV?

In India the marketing is very different than the marketing there. Out here you don’t have to put it in stores, people start buying and you see how it goes. Here, it is basically if you have good connections you should use them. I have to stress once again, and I can’t stress it enough, is that I got blessed, there is nothing else beyond that. What happened was that I ended up meeting some stylists from MTV that wanted to push the line towards their VJs and so, for example, you would have a show called Style Check and the main lead girl would be wearing a Paani Puri t-shirt. There are four shows they want us to style for, which is great, they are all very popular shows. Then on top of that, what we are going to work on is Paani Puri MTV merchandise. This is just in talks right now, but this is kind of the degree of what we would be working with MTV. It is just awesome! I mean MTV is something I grew up on; to me it is an amazing culture. MTV alone is just the best thing that would have ever happened to me

It would be cool if the line could be used in films. Do you see that as a possibility? I know you had a meeting with Manish Malhotra so do you see going that way too?

Yes, definitely, hardcore. Again I got blessed to meet Manish Malhotra, who is by far one of the nicest human beings I have ever met in my entire life. He is awesome, but he is just not awesome in the sense of personality awesome but his passion, his motivation and his detailing towards the fashion industry – it is remarkable. I was shocked at how much he knows. I mean, I literally had a 15 minute meeting with him and I was mesmerized by the way he was as a person. He chose 10 shirts, he told us what he wants, and he really likes our colors. For him to just like the colors was one of the biggest things for me. You respect people that are higher than you in this industry always, this is who you look up to, these are the people you want to be eventually in your life somewhere. So, yeah I am working with Manish Malhotra on Imran Khan’s new movie. They are going to be used for the shooting post January 18th-ish. Really exciting, and actually there is another deal which I can’t speak about in detail because of privacy stuff, but there is a very big actor that will be wearing Paani Puri t-shirts in his movies as well. Then there is a new launch actor who is coming out that is going to be working for a very big production house who will be wearing the shirts.

You know I want to have the t-shirts worn in the films and by the stars, but do you know why? It is a personal thing. In America and Hollywood Brad Pitt is a guy, he is a really hot guy, he is a really famous hot guy. That is what he is to you, that is what he is marketed to you. In Bollywood, Bollywood stars are not just superstars or stars or good looking actors or famous six pack machines walking around they are super heroes to this country. They are the nation’s pride. Like Aamir Khan for example: I saw this old guy who came up to Imran Khan once and he said, ‘Make us proud like your uncle did’. When he said that it was like, WOW! Everyone looks up to him in a national pride sense, he knows this guy is Indian, he represents my country, and this is why I love it. That is another thing: Bombay people are patriotic beyond belief. I mean most people still stand up for the national anthem right before a movie starts. It makes you so proud to know that people are so passionate about a single country. That is why Bollywood is such a big thing and that is why I started to love and respect Bollywood more and more, because these guys aren’t just guys any more, they are super heroes. This is why I want to push into the Bollywood market. Not because of the whole fact that it is a good marketing idea, that is not the real reason. The real true reason is that these guys are the super heroes of India, these guys are what people today look up to and I like that. I like the fact that they have such a hold and a control and they are actually doing something for the betterment of tomorrow. So that is why I really respect actors and actresses out here in India. That is another reason if Imran or anybody else that I come along with are wearing these shirts, that would be an honor for me rather than an endorsement. It would be amazing

What about later lines – would you do a Bollywood themed t-shirt.

150%! We already started one! See, I wanted to set up seven seasons with a code name right now before even the first launch. I wanted seven ready business wise, but then there were so many ideas, there is so much I want to do and say that they keep falling into place with it. We do have a series – it is going to be called Bollywood. Basically it will be a spoof. We will have film lines, we will use filmi characters, we will use film-based ideas and then represent it through Paani Puri. I think we have seven t-shirts done for the first collection. It is really exciting. The cool thing is we are working to get the rights from all over the industry. I am going through archives – a lot of old directors who either have passed away or are still alive have archive libraries of their art work they used, so I am using a lot of the old school feel to the Bollywood lines. I really love the old school style of how things were done out here. It is really, really cool; it is very cool. So we have that Bollywood line. Then we have our own personal characters coming out – that is another season- we have a ‘thank you, Mumbai’ season coming out, which is basically a representation of how I look at India and Bombay and how any of our artists will look at that.

Right now the focus for the first launch is t-shirts, do you plan to expand in other areas?

Yes! I want to start to do shoes right away. I mean, I want to be very humble about it because honestly I don’t know how my t-shirts are going to do. I don’t know – tomorrow they could be the biggest hit or they could be the biggest flop or they could be just stuck in the middle. So, for the first six – seven months I am just going to focus on getting this together, getting the business together, getting everything ready. But at the same time one thing I am really passionate about is shoes. I LOVE shoes. If I could buy anything in my life, I think I would buy more shoes than anything else. I am working on finding the perfect idea behind shoes and how I want Paani Puri shoes to be represented. So, yeah I am going to move into shoes next and after that jeans, hats, bags, accessories and sweatshirts, things of that sort, depending on where else we branch out. Like I want to branch out to the United States. I am going to come I think, in like six months, and start talking to boutiques in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco, trying to get more into the artistic side of clothing, the artsy group. I want to get people of that sort to start wearing it, so I am going to try and stock in the US. For the jeans, I do have a pretty cool tie up with a guy who manufactures Diesel Jeans. So, yeah eventually a whole line of clothing

So the line will be in stores but also on the Internet as well?

Right now we are going to retail in two stores in Mumbai, they are very haute couture stores. Then on top of that, we are going to have worldwide sales on the Internet on our website. So anywhere in the world you are, you can buy one! Anywhere – like Zimbabwe is going to be on the website – so if you are from Zimbabwe you can come buy a shirt. I am really excited about that.

What do you think is really going to get people to sit up and take notice, and say, “I MUST have a Paani Puri t-shirt!”?

That is a great question! See, I want people of today to understand that it is a start up company – it is something new. Like my office is my bedroom. I roll out of bed and I sit on my couch all day long, that is my office. My mobile office is inside of a canvas bag and I run around the city with it and I still take rickshaws and taxis to meetings. I want people to understand that it is a growth of a business, it is not a business that is coming out there flamboyantly huge. I just want to be humbly entering the world of fashion. What will hopefully keep people up are two things: one, for Indians at least, it would be the name, it would be something attractive for them, something different and a concept which has not really been used out here yet. So, it is a concept I hope people appreciate. I hope the people realize the pride and joy that we take in being patriotic toward the country that we’re very passionate about. Like I love the United States, it has been my home. I have been fed and bred there, and then I come to India and I have been welcomed into a country that I didn’t expect to be welcomed into. When people start realizing how passionate Paani Puri is towards the culture we grew up in is another attraction I hope people see. And lastly, what I feel is the most important thing at the end of the day is that people get attracted because they trust us. They trust us in the sense of quality. The only thing that is going to keep you is the fit and the cloth and the cotton behind the design. I am hoping that people do realise that we put a lot of thought and effort into the cotton, the fit, the feel of the shirt.

On your presentation you say that Paani Puri’s vision is to release art through T-shirts, shoes, bags, hats, jeans, shorts and other platforms our artists can use as their personal “canvas”. Can you expand on that a bit please?

I have started realizing something about artwork. You know when Van Gogh was alive that was people’s form of entertainment when he was painting beautiful art on canvasses and pieces of paper. Since modernization and since time has changed there are a lot of different forms on how people do art. People draw art on walls; they draw art on floors, on bed sheets you know? So what I want to do is introduce Paani Puri to the art world as a canvas. Every concept is an idea it is not just, ‘I found this I am going to put it on a t-shirt, I found this I am going to put this on a t-shirt’. It something that is conceptualized and well thought out and planned before I put it on the t-shirt. So, what we mean is, we want to open up a new door for artists. That a t-shirt is a white piece of paper basically, and on the white piece of paper you can print anything you want. Within the certain amount of dimensions on that shirt you can just envision what you want to put on there and that is something that I wanted to cultivate as a brand image as well. Within 2 years I want to start a subsidiary line, which will be called Expressions, which is just artists who want to put their artwork on a t-shirt. That is something I really want to do because artists out here really don’t have that outlet. Out here I see so much potential but the opportunities are just not there. So I want Paani Puri to be that. People out here are fantastic artistically, the way they think is very different, which I love. I just want, through Paani Puri, to open up a new dimension.

So did you ever imagine that after that paani puri craving at 5:30am, that 8 months later your life would be this company and that you would be close to launching a line of clothing

No, not at all. It is very scary, I am very scared. The response has been really cool and that is what scares me the most. It was really cool. Xbox from India emailed me and said congratulation, within two months you have a fan following – 1,060 people -and I was like, wow that is pretty cool! I mean, that is almost more than a club on Facebook can handle. Things like that, and like random interviews, like obviously with you, is a shock to me, that I am actually having interviews. I mean for Channel 4 news to come into my house and take a video of my room – it has been weird, it has been crazy, in its own way it is a high, it’s fun, it’s interesting, but you know what, at the end of the day, as much as I thought it was a joke, today I am like, wait, this is real, this is awesome! I mean MTV wants to put my shirts on TV, Manish Malhotra is asking for them and honestly, I just thank God. I didn’t think any of this would happen and it has been an amazing roller coaster. I am excited to see how it goes and where it ends up going. The minute I see them in the store, the minute I see them in the movie, I think that’s when it is going to hit me, okay, this is real now. Right now it is still just a fantasy, we are living in a world that is creative and we are having fun. It is just a blessing and I love it!

When will the line be in stores and when is the launch of the website?

We will have them in stores January 18th. The online ordering . . . we are going to put up 10 designs first and that will be around Jan 18th also, and then the full line will be launched on February 1st.

When I first saw the pictures of the designs for Paani Puri Clothing, I was so impressed and, to be honest, surprised, because what I imagined a Paani Puri t-shirt could be was far, far less than the gorgeous art designs that they have come up with. They are amazing, and this is just the first season. I cannot wait to see what they come up with next. It is always wonderful to talk to someone who is passionate about their work and I really enjoyed talking with Rish. I wish him and the entire team at Paani Puri the best of luck! Be sure and check out Paani Puri Clothing. I am sure you are going to say “I need Paani Puri” – a t-shirt that is!

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