Hey Saheli: Rina Soni

On reimagining traditional Indian weddings

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Photos: One Love Photography, Balerina Films, Deepak Mandyal

Fashion (Bride & Groom): Evotique, A.S Babu Sah, and Seema Gujral

Fashion (Bridal party): Priti Sahni Designs, Ombre by Anima  

Makeup: Kristina Curtis, Drea V

Henna: Minal Beauty, Amrin Henna

Organizing bridal party outfits for an Indian wedding can be a daunting task, but Rina Soni, founder of Hey Saheli, is up for the challenge. It was early in the morning in California for Soni when we hopped on a video call, but she greeted me with a smile and assured me that she had already been up and working before our appointment. Throughout our conversation, she oversaw my careful measurements and patiently explained the different ceremonies and events that were planned for my best friend’s Filipino-Indian-American wedding. Her confident and upbeat demeanor made what could have been a complicated process feel simple and reassuring.

While it might have been traditionally expected for me to wear a long skirt known as a lehenga, Soni had not hesitated to brainstorm options that would make me feel more comfortable and matched my identity and style. She found a designer that was willing to think outside the box and reimagine what traditional Indian formalwear could look like. What resulted was a kurta sherwani paired with a patiala salwar—a loose collarless shirt with a knee-length coat and balloon pants that resembled the rest of the bridesmaids’ skirts and kept the design distinct from the groomsmen. And when I expressed my struggle to find an outfit for one of the other Hindu events, she quickly offered to have another kurta tailored for me.

This personalized approach to fashion and customer service is a testament to the ethos of Hey Saheli—a business dedicated to South Asian bridal party wear. "Saheli translates to 'girlfriend' from Hindi," Soni explains during a conversation with Timid. "I really wanted to give off the feeling of sisterhood friendship." From bridesmaid outfits to groomsmen ensembles, Hey Saheli has expanded its offerings since its inception, but its name is a great reminder of where it all started and how far it has come.

Thinking back on her childhood, Soni recalls feeling like she had to juggle being Indian and being American as separate identities. “I always felt like I had to pick which of the two Rinas I was going to be, whether it's my Monday through Friday life with cheerleading and debate club, or ‘weekend Rina’ who was doing dance classes and attending temple and doing all my Indian things.”

Soni’s wedding presented an opportunity to bridge her two identities. At this time, traditional Indian bridesmaid outfits were becoming more popular, elaborate, and personalized. She decided to gift her bridal party their traditional outfits. However, when she began to execute her ideas, she found herself facing many hurdles.

“It was really difficult to work with vendors in India or find designers who understood what it meant to be in a bridal party by American standards,” Soni recalls. “I just kept searching for different designers and tailors who understood what I was looking for, could do it at my desired price point, and understood the sentiment behind why I wanted these matching outfits for my friends. The process ended up taking me a total of three trips to India, involved multiple relatives in taking measurements, and required two deliveries to get the outfits to my friends, and they still didn't fit or look exactly how I wanted.”

Fortunately, they managed to make it work. “I added jewelry and it ended up looking okay. My friends had a good attitude about it and visited their local tailors for adjustments. Then I kept getting asked about my bridesmaid outfits because people seem to think that they were really nice, and I'm like, ‘wow, you have no idea what it took to get it to this point.’”

bridesmaid outfit-PRITI SAHNI DESIGNS, henna-MINAL BEAUTY
bride & groom outfits-A.S BABU SAH, SEEMA GUJRAL, hair & makeup-DREA V MAKEUP, henna-AMRIN HENNA

She introduced her friends and family to the designer and tailor that she worked with, but what started out as a simple referral ended up being more complicated. “I realized—okay, I can put together a really easy measurement sheet for them,” Soni says. “I could put together a contact list for my friends and family.” As her involvement grew, she gained more insight on the different pain points that others experienced with this process, so she decided to come up with solutions for them.

“It was like being ‘weekend Rina’ again. I did all sorts of things for family and friends, then Monday through Friday, I worked at an awesome consulting job solving business problems,” Soni says. “When a friend reached out to me, the two came together. She was like, ‘Hey, I'm getting married in August. I'd love for you to own all of that process for me. Instead of giving me a list of designers or giving me a list of measurement sheets to distribute to my friends, I would love it if you could just own it.’ So, I did own it.”

Initially, Soni approached it from a complete consulting perspective, beginning with a market research survey and other related analyses. However, a friend encouraged her to dive in and meet as many designers as she could, to share her concept for Hey Saheli with them, and to just trust her instincts to lay groundwork for her business—and she did. During a trip to India, she met Priti Sahni, a Mumbai-based designer who became Soni’s first collaborator. “I really loved seeing her collection, meeting her, learning about her team, and discovering how they persevered during the height of COVID. I really wanted to build a relationship with her, and that's how I got started.”

Since she started Hey Saheli, Soni’s process has evolved considerably. One constant, however, is her dedication to thoroughly understand her clients’ needs. “When I sit down with the couple, I try to understand everything that could affect the outcome of these outfits—where the wedding is being held, what type of ceremonies are they having, their budget—and then trying to understand who their friends are, how they'd like them to be dressed for the day, and how to best achieve that in a way that flows together but also encompasses everyone's individuality. It’s important that they feel comfortable in and are proud of what they’re wearing.” She adds, “Mixing and matching has been becoming more common for quite some time. I'm always trying to think ahead—what would be the ways to rewear or repurpose this garment? ”

After those initial conversations, Soni reaches out to the designer that she feels is the best match for her clients’ needs. “I work with several different designers in India, all of whom are excellent in their own craft, all female-owned and scattered throughout the country. They have different fabrics and specialize in various silhouettes,” she explains. From there, the designer produces sketches, and they work to find designs that align with the clients’ vision. Then, Soni works with individual bridal party members to capture and confirm all their measurements for the designer to get the outfits made.

Soni is full of effusive praise as she highlights her designers. “I found all of my designers through different ways,” she says. One of her most frequent collaborators is one she found through a mutual friend. Anima, who owns Ombre by Anima, is based in New Delhi. Soni was introduced to her through Leesha Arora, who runs Prune India, a company that specializes in floral jewelry. “Leesha's kind of a powerhouse in New Delhi. I met her as a customer in 2019 when I went to New Delhi to shop for my own wedding. She introduced me to Anima, who I’ve had the longest standing relationship with.”

bride outfit-EVOTIQUE, bridal party outfits-PRITI SAHNI DESIGNS, hair & makeup-KRISTINA CURTIS, henna-MINAL BEAUTY

She continues, “Another designer that I've worked with more regularly and shares the same Indian-American spirit that I have is Margi Sakariya. She's lived all over the world and currently runs her new label out of Michigan. She's really reimagined what it means to run an Indian label by doing it from America.”

Soni does not intend to stop there. “I want to continue expanding,” she says. “I want to give more Indian brands an outlet into the US market. And there's honestly so many people that do such unique, creative work. When we try to go wedding shopping here, we see under 5% of what's available in India and it's often quite outdated.”

While Soni is quick to highlight her designers, she deserves just as much recognition for her innovative approach to the industry. “I'm constantly refining my process to make it inclusive of Indian excellence and craftsmanship while providing an easy American shopping experience. The American public isn't used to custom items, so my goal is to bring more of that Indian aesthetic here in a digestible way.”

From a mission standpoint, Soni is always working to make her business more inclusive and ensure that her clients feel special with outfits that are meaningful, reusable, and reflective of their personalities. In her pursuit of making the wedding experience more memorable and inclusive, Soni has continuously refined her approach, starting conversations as broadly as possible to understand how she can make her clients' experiences easier without detracting from the sentiments around such a joyous occasion in their lives.

Soni's exceptional ability to adapt her processes and think outside the box sets her apart in the industry, both from a business and personal standpoint. She masterfully navigates the nuances of different cultural traditions and strikes a balance between the conventional and unconventional to create authentic experiences that resonate with her clients. “In an Indian wedding, there are roles for your mom, dad, and siblings, even your aunts and uncles and in-laws, but there isn't really a formal place for your friends like in Western weddings,” she explains. “By including a bridal party who’s actively participating such as throwing petals during a ceremony, it's a really special way to honor people you’ve considered to be your chosen family. So every day, I think about how to expand upon that.”

As Soni continues to break barriers by blending cultural traditions and personal preferences, her commitment to providing authentic and inclusive experiences for her clients will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression on the wedding industry and reshape the narrative for Indian-American celebrations.

bridal outfit-A.S BABU SAH, SEEMA GUJRAL, bridal party outfit-OMBRE BY ANIMA, hair & makeup-DREA V MAKEUP