Tailor and Circus is a young Indian underwear brand that is redefining the experience for those who fall in between sizes. Making undergarments for every body type, the brand is turning underwear into a tool for people to fit in and feel free. And the brand’s communication conveys that very message with regular people modelling their products and not creating false portrayals of the perfect body. Abishek Elango, co-founder of Tailor and Circus, speaks to WARC about the idea of not just inclusive advertising but being an inclusive brand.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on diversity and inclusion in Indian advertising. Read more

Key insights

  • It is not easy to love your body because of the years of conditioning, stereotyping, self-loathing, unhealthy eating habits and disorders.
  • In India, the sari is inherently an inclusive and body positive outfit but when it comes to progressive advertising, there is a gap between modern representation and fashion.
  • A brand has to first take an honest and critical look at itself and know that it is inclusive as a company before it can begin advertising in an inclusive way.
You have this philosophy of body positivity and are looking to cater to an audience that has difficulty finding products more suited for them. Could you comment on your communication?

When we started, we were bootstrapped. It was just us three founders and our savings. One of the obstacles we were facing was hiring expensive underwear models. And honestly, we didn’t think there would be any agency that would have alternate size models.

I knew we were regressive in some forms of advertising, representation and presentation. We hadn’t really caught up with ideas that were already prevalent in some parts of the world. It’s not even new. The Fat Acceptance Movement came in the ’70s in the US. Sometimes, I feel maybe we are relearning that.

In India, if you look at the traditional outfits, the saris for women, it is inherently an inclusive and body positive outfit. It doesn’t judge or leave room for hiding or masking and it truly embraces all shapes. In an intrinsic way, we already are inclusive as people. But when it comes to progressive advertising, modern representation and fashion itself, the gap is really there.

An underwear model was the most unrealistic form of model or representation in modelling. Even the underwear models don’t look like the underwear models that we see. It takes an enormous amount of perfection, lighting and editing to achieve something like that. There is no way that can be held as a standard for what people should look like in underwear.

Even if we were willing to pay, we weren’t able to find models that we wanted of a specific size, skin tone and so on.

We are not saying one size is better than the other. Because the gap between what inclusivity is or should be and what is happening in advertising today is so wide, we knew we had to do something. We had to deliberately design an effort that was conscious and make certain decisions that seemed non-inclusive. It was necessary at that point to make that distinction because we had to correct a very large gap.

Basically, we reached out to friends and friends of friends that we thought were interesting people and confident. Surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the people who expressed interest were women. This gave us another perspective, which is how male body positivity is so much more under-represented while it is just as prevalent a problem and is as damaging as the lack of body positivity for women.

I have male friends who do not like to take off their t-shirts when they go to the beach. Somehow there’s this idea that men are more comfortable with their bodies, which is absolutely not true at all.

We had to do a lot more handholding when it came to men and getting them to see the idea. A lot of men were also resistant to see women of all sizes in underwear.

There is a lot of interplay between misogyny and unrealistic standards, sexism and binary gender representations. All of that overlapped to create a very toxic space in terms of what underwear was being showcased.

So we have had a lot of learning. Largely, we have been able to achieve what we set out to do. And that’s only because we have been able to have a lot of women who supported us, and some men who came forward and agreed to model for us.

In India, we ran late. There was already a brand called Nykaa that started something called Nykd. Before they launched Nykd, they contacted us and said that they wanted to take our brand as the first underwear brand that they have on their market space. They wanted some specific terms and some sort of a waiver of licensing to work with our brand, which we didn’t want to do. Six months later, they launched Nykd by Nykaa, an underwear series, and it was extremely body positive; not so much in terms of skin tones but definitely in terms of body type.

There were a lot of brands that took the cue from us and not just in the underwear space. Initially, I was a little insecure wondering if our USP is something that can be so easily duplicated. However, we realised the main idea behind what we set out to do was this. We wanted to create change across all brands, not just ours. It’s so much more impactful when somebody like Nykaa is doing it versus somebody like us. There’s no way to deny that.

I am happy that there are brands taking cues from us and are doing what was missing in the domestic space for a long time. This has set off a trend in the country that we feel is very positive and logarithmic in some sense; it’s just going to have a multiplier effect that will rapidly help us achieve what we need in regard to advertising and ethical representation.

I see regular people and not “models” on your social media feed and website. With a promise like yours – underwear for all body types – the marketing strategy becomes very easy. How does it drive the change that is needed?

When we started out, when we spoke to investors, we heard, “Nobody wants underwear for ugly people”. But the truth is that everybody needs underwear and more importantly, we definitely believe that all people showing our underwear are beautiful.

Of course, a large part of where the body positivity conversation is moving is body neutrality, where you are not telling people to love their bodies, you’re not gauging people based on their bodies at all. So, body and shape are out of the question, and out of the conversation in some sense.

Body positivity can sometimes create this pressure to accept yourself and love yourself, as though that is easy to do. It’s not easy to do because there are years of conditioning, stereotype, self-loathing, unhealthy eating habits and disorders that have resulted in this dysmorphic relation that people have with their bodies. To just ask people to love their bodies – if it was that easy, people would be doing it.

You need a much more mature and scientific approach in terms of how it is handled and how we encourage and help people to get there. But in that time, you also create a safe space where loving your body is not a requirement for you to enjoy a space that is body positive. In that sense, we believe that everybody we show is beautiful.

So yes, it has been a very strategic choice, a no-brainer to some extent. However, beyond that, it has created some difficulties and challenges in terms of manufacturing and holding inventory. It’s important that people have peak comfort in what they are wearing and not something that just “stays” or the waistband doesn’t fall. That’s not and shouldn’t be good enough.

Also, it is a challenge to get people to shift from other brands to ours because they might fall between sizes. An M in another brand may not always mean an M in our brand.

It’s a work in progress. We are still adapting to improve what we offer; we are getting data from our customers.

From a representational standpoint, it has been relatively good and easy, and it has been accepted by the community exactly as we intended.

Why are you doing all your advertising and communication in-house? Is it just because you’re “bootstrapped” or the fact that it might take a little more effort to convince an agency to drop the cliches and convey what you really want to?

I used to be an assistant director working in the movies. When we started, what I knew I had to bring to the table was something to do with the creative space. My co-founder was bringing a lot in terms of sustainability, general company management and innovation and so on. My third co-founder has been making underwear for two decades. He knows underwear and has an academic grasp of ethical manufacturing.

We had specific skills sets that we had to bring when we started. At that time, budgets were a concern but beyond that, whenever we worked with people, I found it difficult to communicate the idea and get them to care as much. Male body positivity was a recurring theme in our conversations before we started this brand. The fact is that what we were trying to do wasn’t being done. There was no reference, so we had to do it first.

But now, increasingly, there is a lot of interest in terms of brands wanting to move in that direction. But largely, an agency that advertises and prides itself on being progressive and will work with clients only for progressive content – nobody is willing to take a stand like that.

There is a need for brands to be able to associate and work with creative people who are very clear that they will be working within boundaries, ensuring that advertising is ethical and humane.

You are now promoting only on social media and there of course is word-of-mouth. It is working well for you. Do you have any plans to go into films and print at some point in time?

We have a lot of ideas that I think will really help the masses to be able to consume and discover. The impact will be the same as we scale it up. We want to have an extremely body-positive representation on a massive hoarding on a highway. It will matter. To have airport signage is going to matter. It is going to demand attention and spark conversations. Some people are reaffirmed, some are empowered, some feel validated seeing that. Everybody should feel validated actually. Getting on that journey is something that we have to instigate by having more of these mass representations and visibility.

Do you think it is easier for a direct-to-consumer brand like yours to take a stand than an established mass brand?

I do think it is easier for us as a small company to make the decision. But, if Jockey were to take a body-positive stance versus us, the impact is much easier for a Jockey to make and turn the movement into something so big and widespread that no other alternative exists except inclusive advertising for a brand to function. Something like that is much easier for a Jockey to achieve than it is for us.

But making such a call that challenges essentially a decade of how advertising has worked is the hard part. It is making the decision to change, recognising that change is necessary which are things that are harder for a big brand to do. However, in terms of execution, actually being able to do something amazing with this idea, it will be much easier for a Jockey to pull off.

To do that, you have to first admit you were doing it wrong all this time. That’s the hard part. The hard part is admitting, “We were negatively reinforcing negative stereotypes for the last few decades. We were actively complicit to some extent in creating such an unhealthy perception and body image. We have been willingly participating in propagating this.”

People will be glad if you woke up now. When you wake up, people will not ask why you were sleeping all this time because of the relief of knowing that the big players are on board.

It is possible but it will require some courage for sure.

Your communication strategy probably makes an endearing statement. Do you think your customer may feel, “This is nice. Forget quality or the product for a while. I want to be a part of this”?

That absolutely does happen! Sometimes, that can even lead us to neglect a product even. Ultimately however, the product is the most important thing for us. Not just from a sales standpoint. The idea of the company is to create a very solid wearing experience. This is just a way we want to package the whole thing. The product is where our real focus is.

One of the things we have struggled with is to create a garment that is functional across genders; there are some anatomical challenges in designing such a product. We have done that now. We will be launching an actual unisex underwear.

While the community may such that it doesn’t care about the product, we do offer a satisfaction guarantee wherein if you don’t like the first product you buy from us for any reason, you don’t have to explain and we will return your money.

The product is what we are most confident about. In terms of branding, we are learning and we might not always get the right message across. There is nothing we can guarantee in terms of representation or inclusivity. The community responds to our advertising but as a company, we have a high repeat customer rate that comes from the product itself.

You mentioned you are still learning. What have been some of the key lessons since the launch?

We got so caught up in this wave of trying to be an activist brand and wanting people to know that we tried to comment, participate or generally be involved in conversations that we actually didn’t have the authority or expertise to talk about. It was insincere to a large extent.

Understanding our voice, what we should be doing, where we want to build credibility have happened in the last few years. Lots of people online talk about things they are not qualified to talk about, especially with things like diet culture, eating disorders or body positivity.

Understanding the distinction between the fact that we are a brand that is body positive but not doctors has been an important learning for us. We don’t intrude or propagate certain false ideas that have no truth. I don’t think we were doing it but we were definitely toying with the idea. I think it has become much clearer now.

How can brands in India be more inclusive regarding the promises they make and the communication they put out?

The first thing they need to do is reassess their product offering. The first step cannot be inclusive advertising; it comes later. Study the market first, see what you are not offering and where you are not inclusive from a product and service standpoint internally before you get more inclusive with advertising.

A lot of brands want to jump into advertising and branding without building the company around that in the first place. It has to happen from an internal standpoint first, then the advertising becomes easy. All you need is transparency but people are so scared of that.

The first step is internal. It has to be a very honest and critical look at your own company. Whether your manufacturing is actually ethical, you are helping the bottom-rung employees, creating a more inclusive work culture, you have policies and functions in place for women to feel safe in the company, you have products for everybody. It’s important to be able to do this research in actuality and know that you are inclusive as a company before you begin advertising in an inclusive way.