Charu Gaur on Building Runway Square From the Ground Up With Thoughtful Storytelling
A digital guru resides in each one of us at this point – the toddler next door operates an Ipad with ease, grandparents religiously forward quotes on Whatsapp and your dad is an avid Facebook user. The job market, especially since the onset of the pandemic, is overflowing with roles requiring extensive experience with navigating digital platforms, social media apps, SEO strategies and even website management. It may not seem like a big deal now, but what about ten years ago when the power of the internet was foreign to most of us?
That’s the situation Charu Gaur found herself in when appointed as the Digital Editor at Grazia India in 2012, tasked with operating in a space that was nothing less than a mystery. Taking it in her stride, she successfully launched Facebook ad campaigns, conducted giveaways and pitched experimental ideas – which at the time wasn’t something you could take a crash course on through YouTube. Gathering all that practical knowledge, Gaur decided to launch a startup media platform that quickly shot to popularity for its powerful visuals and balanced content structure that was neither all things Bollywood nor mainstream fashion.
We speak with the impressive entrepreneur about what it was like to go digital in an era where Instagram didn’t exist, her guiding philosophy behind Runway Square’s inspiring editorials and the unhealthy ‘freebie’ system that needs to end in the Indian fashion industry.
Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career trajectory.
I grew up in a small town in Uttar Pradesh that was devoid of information regarding the fashion industry. Despite the lack of resources, I’ve always held an inclination towards the field, and knew that it was calling. I graduated with a degree in Mass Media from University of Mumbai and entered the world of advertising where I worked with some of the best agencies in India. Few years down the line, traditional advertising no longer excited me and it was finally time to pursue something in fashion.
I landed the position of Digital Editor at Grazia in 2012, despite having no prior experience in a similar role. But I’ve always abided a mantra – say yes to opportunities that come your way and the rest will fall into place. And so, I spent two years at the publication implementing everything under the ‘digital’ sun, carving out Grazia’s online presence in a setting where most people did not comprehend digital media and its untapped potential. It turned out to be a huge learning curve for everyone within the organisation! Currently, I’m the Founder and Editor of Runway Square – a fashion/travel focused digital magazine and consultancy based out of Mumbai.
Q. How did Runway Square come about and what’s the story behind its name?
The primary focus of most magazines and digital media houses in our country used to be (and still is) churning out Bollywood related content that does not venture beyond discussing the dressing sensibilities or airport looks of actors. The only alternatives available were internationally-based such as Songs of Style, Refinery29 and Man Repeller, making us rely solely on the West when we needed a break from reading all things showbiz.
There was a gap in the Indian market for a niche, home-grown digital magazine with quality content that did not succumb to the numbers race. I wanted people to regard Runway Square as a friend giving good advice as opposed to shoving advertising all over the website or advocating for something I didn’t believe in. The name stems from my desire to inspire people to travel and live in style – both industries sharing a sort of runway in contrasting forms.
Q. Runway Square is also a digital consultancy. What services does it provide for brands and how does it benefit them?
Content by itself, especially in India, is rarely profitable. I never wanted the pressure of making money to fall on Runway Square’s features and that is the reason its content remains untouched. Instead, we also function as a multi-disciplinary agency that help brands tell better stories.
We pride ourselves on being open-minded and flexible in terms of the services we can offer. Coming from an advertising background, I first try to understand the problem on hand, come up with suitable strategic or creative solutions and work out on how we can offer it to the client. This usually involves a lot of back and forth which ultimately forms a brief that could include the following tasks – amplifying digital presence, content creation strategies and collaborations.
Runway Square also conducts events and hosts experiences for brands. Last year, we hosted Cecconi’s Fashion for Brunch event at Soho House, Mumbai that featured a panel discussion including some of the most incredible names in the industry (see below). The result was an interesting conversation that shed light on how millennials are shaping luxury fashion and forcing brands to redefine their existing aesthetics – an insightful afternoon to say the least!
Q. As the founder of a start-up media platform, who did you turn to for advice or help?
To be honest, I used to be terrible at asking people for help. One day, I had a meeting with a former colleague who had recently launched a design agency and was keen on creating a website for Runway Square to kick things off. You’d be surprised at the number of people who’ve come forward since then and offered a helping hand. Not only did I break free from this self-imposed barrier, but also learnt that it’s absolutely okay to reach out for advice.
Q. What is one bit of career advice you wish you had received earlier in your entrepreneurial journey?
No one can prepare you for how hard it is to be an entrepreneur. When I began, start-ups were all the rage along with an incessant hype around hustle culture that involved spending an unhealthy amount of time buried in work. It isn’t a glamorous journey, and I was aware of that from the very beginning.
However, I realized along the way that there is an inherent problem with multiple Indian fashion brands in terms of how they pitch content, ideas and stories. There is this general expectation, almost like a norm, that media coverage should be free. In my opinion, paid content doesn’t equate inauthenticity and so the inevitable question pops up – why should I not get paid to talk about your brand?
With plenty of influencers and bloggers in the market, most of whom are willing to work for free or on a barter basis, brands continue implementing the above practice in one form or the other. Digital media platforms and influencers don’t fall under the same category, a distinction that most fail to make. If everyone puts their foot down and refuses to work for free, perhaps this industry would be taken more seriously.
Q. Which is one of your favourite Runway Square editorials?
Ladakh and The Landscape Of Textiles in India is an exciting editorial that was shot completely on iPhone, marrying nature and fashion in a way like never before. I’ve been lucky to have a great team of stylists, photographers and writers to collaborate with (it’s so important to work with the right people!) and our vision was to celebrate the intricate details of various textiles with Ladakh’s beauty in the background. The entire process was organic and most importantly we revelled in nature like never before.
Q. There is an oversaturation of fashion and beauty related content on the internet, how do you ensure your content stands out and amplify the same via social media?
I often ask myself – what can I create that’s fashion but also not? How can I make my audience spend a few extra minutes thinking about the things that I want them to think about and perhaps take home a different perspective? Admittedly, a single campaign won’t lead to a complete overhaul of an individual’s fashion choices, but it could encourage a meaningful step in that direction. Keeping this in mind, Runway Square collaborated with Gucci in September’20 to create some much-needed optimism during a period where our feeds were flooded with bad news on a daily basis. We reached out to six Indian sustainability activists, asking them to pen down a hopeful note or a love letter for the future.
To translate their words into full-fledged breathtaking visuals, we got onboard six stellar street artists from XXL Collective (best known for bringing to life the St+art India street art festival) who weaved their magic into each editorial that also features bags from Gucci’s sustainability-driven Off the Grid collection.The idea wasn’t to create just another pretty picture, but rather evoke a feeling of hopefulness that points to the light at the end of the tunnel.