Designer Rahul Mishra’s brand is on a roll. From winning the coveted Woolmark Prize in 2014, to shows at Fashion Weeks in London, Dubai and Australia, and a new joint venture with Reliance Brands (RBL) to create a ready-to-wear brand that will be sold in independent stores around the world, Rahul Mishra is literally going places. His USP? Handcrafted garments made using sustainable materials.

“Sustainability is all about processes that are slowed down to follow the rhythm of the world,” says Mishra. “When we increase the number of hours, it allows nature that many more hours to replenish itself. The slowness allows hundreds of people to work on it, creating job security,” he adds. The focus on sustainability and handcrafted products has earned him a name, and fame, in international fashion circles. In fact, a major chunk of the revenue for his eponymous couture brand, which retails in the range of ₹50,000-6,00,000, comes from abroad.

“I saw my grandmother spin Khadi on a charkha. It was given to a local weaver, who would make sarees for her, which she would block print herself. That way, you are never going to throw away those sarees,” says Mishra. Exposure to this way of living defines his design language. He prefers his clothes to be more colourful, so that they can be worn on different occasions (not just weddings), and mixed and matched. Sample this: Natasha Poonawalla, executive director of the Serum Institute of India, wore one of his lehengas on four different occasions, styled differently for each. He has also dressed Hollywood actors, including Zendaya, Mindy Kaling, Poorna Jagannathan, English singer Ellie Goulding, and Asian celebs like Chinese singer Bibi Zhou.

Mishra’s is only one of the brands putting India on the global luxury and affordable luxury map. Others, including Forest Essentials, Jaipur Rugs, Sabyasachi, Hidesign, Nappa Dori and Tilfi Banaras, are going global as well, equipped with sustainable and socially responsible handmade and handwoven products. At the back of it all are artisans, craftspeople, and weavers, harnessing traditional knowledge and skills to make truly Indian products.

“When a country produces luxury brands in the international market, it has to tie in with the country’s value proposition,” says Neelesh Hundekari, partner at global management consulting firm Kearney. He believes each of these brands has their own competitive advantage, which is inherently Indian. “For personal care brands, it is Ayurveda, the science behind the product. Secondly, there are ingredients, many of which are only sourced in India. A combination of traditional knowledge, skills, and recipes is the secret sauce helping these brands compete internationally,” he adds.

The toughest part of being an Indian brand outside is the competition. Gautam Sinha, founder and creative director, Nappa Dori, which makes handcrafted leather goods and has a store in London’s Covent Garden (it recently opened a new one in Dubai as well), believes the competition is fierce as consumers have multiple options. The brand makes a variety of goods ranging from stationery starting at around ₹500 to luggage, which can cost up to ₹40,000.

“We are going from a pool of roughly 100 good brands in India to around 1,500 in a city like London. To stand your ground you need to have a strong DNA. We have created a market for ourselves abroad the same way we did it in India by integrating ourselves in the social fabric,” he says.

‘Brahmaand — A Cosmic Affair’ collection by Jaipur Rugs, inspired by a series of watercolor paintings by designer Ashiesh Shah.
‘Brahmaand — A Cosmic Affair’ collection by Jaipur Rugs, inspired by a series of watercolor paintings by designer Ashiesh Shah.
Image : Sanjay Rawat

Banaras-based Tilfi is another example of a brand that is taking something traditional and handcrafted to consumers across the world. Before co-founders Aditi Chand, Udit Khanna and his brother Ujjwal Khanna launched the brand in 2016, the family’s wholesale saree business was about to be wound up, Udit’s father was ready to retire, and the three of them had careers abroad. Coming to Benaras was not on the cards, but the trio decided to take the plunge and build a digital-first brand that can reach true patrons of the Banarasi weave no matter where they lived in the world.

This was not at all traditional because Banarasi fabrics were not typically sold online. After all, touch and feel is an integral part of buying a rich fabric like Banarasi. But they wanted to take that experience online.

“We thought maybe this is an opportunity to build a global luxury brand with roots in a city which is so rich in artistry,” says co-founder Udit Khanna. The company, which runs its only physical store in Banaras, says the brand has also been able to provide consistent employment to weavers who were growing increasingly disillusioned with their craft due to stagnant incomes. Tilfi makes sarees, lehengas, jackets, dresses, and more, which retail in the range of ₹15,000 to over ₹3 lakh. The company, which manufactures 1,000 sarees a month, says it exports to over 30 countries.

Art And The Artisan

Traditional crafts and artisans these brands work with are the backbone of the system. The brands support local artisans and gain credibility for being socially conscious in addition to accessing knowledge that is passed on through generations. For example, Jaipur Rugs, which sells in more than 70 countries, relies on 40,000 artisans spread across 600 villages in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh to make their rugs, which sell in the range of ₹3,000 to ₹25 lakh. The company buys raw wool, which is spun into yarn on a charkha, dyed, and sent to the doorsteps of the weavers, who then make rugs and carpets, says director Yogesh Chaudhary.

Almost 85% of weavers Jaipur Rugs work with are women. Chaudhary says these women have seen a rise in incomes, helping them attain more financial independence. Some have paid for their own weddings, invested in their children’s education, and even bought land, jewellery, refrigerators etc. According to Chaudhary, when his father Nand Kishore Chaudhary started the company in 1978, with two looms, nine weavers, one scooter, and a loan of ₹5,000, he helped weavers gain a level of autonomy, by getting rid of the middlemen.

“My father went directly to weavers rather than going through the contractor and the subcontractor. Because of that, he was able to pay the weavers higher since there were no middlemen to pay. And because they were getting paid higher, they produced better-quality work,” says Chaudhary. Jaipur Rugs, which reported sales of ₹776 crore in FY22, is looking to cross ₹1,000 crore next fiscal. It opened its first flagship store in Milan in September last year.

Aditi Chand, co-founder and CEO, Tilfi, believes they have been able to contemporise the design language in a seamless manner, without any major departure from what was conventionally produced in Banaras, and that has worked for the brand. “There are innovations, but they are subtle. It is something that weavers understand, they like it, they want to make more of it, and they feel that they are growing because it taps into different skills and expertise passed on from one generation to another,” she adds.

Handmade, sustainable and socially conscious products are also of great interest to large buyers, especially abroad. Jaipur Rugs, which has a massive export business, says its Manchaha collection was born after one of its buyers was fascinated by a rug made out of leftover materials. Each rug made for the collection is designed by weavers, who tie more than 20,000 leftover scraps of material. Freedom Manchaha is another sustainable initiative, where the company works with prisoners in jails in Jaipur, Bikaner and Dausa. The collections, says Chaudhary, are a hit with buyers.

Changing Times

According to a survey by online magazine and website Business of Fashion and consultancy firm McKinsey’s, digital and sustainability will offer fashion’s biggest opportunities for growth going ahead. Around 12% of the respondents surveyed said sustainability is an opportunity, and challenges will be “outweighed by business benefits associated with improving the company’s impact on the environment and society”. Meanwhile, consumers globally are gravitating towards more handmade and environment-friendly products, which are also chemical free.

Even though various studies say people are becoming more conscious about the environment, fast fashion is thriving. While Mishra says consumers still have a long way to go as far as sustainability is concerned, Chaudhary believes buyers, especially those outside India, are asking the right questions.

Consumers have evolved, says Samrath Bedi, executive director, Forest Essentials. “It has become very important for them to understand where a product is coming from and how it’s made. There are consumers willing to give up on certain aspects of luxury to incorporate what they think is better for the world, better for themselves or better for their children,” he adds. Forest Essentials, founded by Mira Kulkarni in 2000, has grown significantly in India. The brand, which draws from traditional Ayurvedic recipes to make everything from creams to shampoos, and perfumes, started with a store in New Delhi’s Khan Market. It is now sold in more than 100 countries online. The company is also planning to open its first flagship store in London’s vibrant Covent Garden later this year, among well-known names, including Tom Ford Beauty and Jo Malone. Globally, Forest Essential products retail for between $5 and $140. “We are also in talks with distributors in West Asia. We will see some stores in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region as well. That will probably be in the fourth quarter of this year,” says Bedi. The company will continue to make its products at its facility in Lodsi village in Uttarakhand.

Mishra is planning to open 10-12 stores across cities, including London, Milan, and Paris, along with 50-60 pop-up stores that will feature his ready-to-wear line, in the next five years in tie-up with Reliance Brands. He, however, doesn’t think it would be harder to make sustainable and handcrafted goods on a larger scale. “Instead of around 3,000 human hours (spent on couture pieces), which is really very expensive, I want to have 40-50 human hours (for ready-to-wear products).” He believes it will also help engage younger, less-experienced artisans, who make up for a significant portion of approximately 45 million workers and artisans in India’s textile sector.

So, has the time come for luxury Indian brands to explore higher global reach? Bedi believes while consumers in the U.K. are aware of what Indian luxury is, in the U.S. the perception about India is still riddled with stereotypes.

Dilip Kapur, founder of affordable luxury brand Hidesign, which has been selling outside India for a while, says the country needs to work on a clear brand language. “People (associate) China with mass manufacturing, fast fashion, and industrial (goods). For India, they think of more handcraft, more organic goods. Those are the terms that come up, but I don’t think the brand language is clear.”

Chaudhary of Jaipur Rugs agrees. He believes Indian brands have just started “We understood this only several years ago, what we’re trying to do right now is to see if we can tell the story of who we are.”

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