The humble six-yards sari has got a new lease of life in the past few years, with it becoming a fashion statement. Not only are women flaunting their collection of drapes from across the country through social media groups such as SixYardsAnd365Days and Saree Speak, celebrities are also displaying their Indianness by wearing handwoven sarees. The latest being producer, Guneet Monga, going up to the stage to receive the Oscar for the documentary ‘Elephant Whisperers’, in a resplendent dark pink Benarasi sari.

Sari is a ₹80,000 crore, highly unorganised market. Barring Nalli, most of the heritage brands such as Rasi Silk in the south or Ushnak Mal in the north are regional brands. Ask an average Indian woman, if she is particular about brands, her instant response would be that it is the weave and quality of the silk or cotton that matters the most. The sari is invariably bought from a trusted local retailer. “I like original, traditional weaves, rich colours, as well as the feeling that it comes from a tradition. It is like a form of Indian art and by buying and wearing a sari, I am able to continue with our rich heritage. It also provides support to traditional weavers,” says sari-lover and Founder of Avaana Capital, Anjali Bansal. She prefers buying her six-yard drapes either from organisations promoting traditional weaves or directly from a weaver.

However, the resurgence of sari as a fashion statement has led to the building of brands and an effort to organise this highly unorganised market. These are not necessarily saris crafted by celebrity designers such as Sabhyasachi or Manish Malhotra, but sourced directly from weavers. While Titan Company is leading the pack with its ₹100 crore brand, Taneira, the other brands include the likes of Karagiri, Suta, Raw Mango, Ekaya Benares and Tilfi. These brands are not just sourcing sarees from weavers across the length and breadth of the country and thereby positioning themselves as national brands, they are also playing the scale game by building a robust supply chain, and investing in design as well as in the texture of the fabric. “Consumers are loving the choice of clusters that we are sourcing our saris from as well as the comfort of the fabrics,” says C.K. Venkatraman, MD, Titan Company. Taneira has 40 stores and the plan is to launch another 40-odd stores within the next one year.

While Taneira is a brick-and-mortar brand, the others are digital-first. Ananth Narayanan, founder, Mensa Brands (which owns Karagiri), says that his vision for Karagiri is to create a modern digital version of Nalli. “D2C models help to develop brands. Our access to technology enables us to predict demand and give that projection to vendors who are able to cater to the demand,” he explains. Technology, says Tribikram Mishra, Lead, Fashion Portfolio, Mensa Brands, has also helped to build scale by standardising designs and weaves. “We use technology to predict demand. For expensive saris we use the made-to-order route, but when it comes to bestsellers our tech system helps us predict the demand.” The ₹60 crore brand works with over 2,500 weavers and has an inventory of 15,000-18,000 saris.

The biggest standardisation according to Narayanan is on quality control. “Every cluster has a quality control person from Mensa Brands. We do periodic quality checks.”

An average Karagiri sari is priced at ₹4,000. Mishra agrees that the pricing isn’t low, but the objective is to ensure that the brand is able to source at a competitive price, which is fair to the entire value chain. “We ensure not to squeeze the weaver just to get margins. The more we build capability with weavers, the better value we can pass. Our focus is on improving the capability of the weavers. If he is making one or two products, how do we strengthen his capability for a long-term supply chain? Earlier, weavers did one or two orders a day, now they are doing 100 orders a day.” Mishra claims that since the weavers have been able to bring in scale, they are upscaling capabilities by hiring more people and investing in better quality management systems.

The branded sari market, according to Aditi Chand, co-founder and CEO, Tilfi (a high-end Benarasi sari brand), is today in a similar position as that of Titan’s jewellery brand, Tanishq, during its early years.
The branded sari market, according to Aditi Chand, co-founder and CEO, Tilfi (a high-end Benarasi sari brand), is today in a similar position as that of Titan’s jewellery brand, Tanishq, during its early years.
Image : Tilfi

The branded sari market, according to Aditi Chand, co-founder and CEO, Tilfi (a high-end Benarasi sari brand), is today in a similar position as that of Titan’s jewellery brand, Tanishq, during its early years. “Tanishq created brand awareness and trust. The same model is getting developed in the sari market. Sari is becoming a nuanced market.”

The emergence of brands promoting the weavers behind the loom, has made saris more valuable. “People understand that designers don’t weave saris. Earlier, handcrafted saris were associated only with designers,” explains Chand.

Taneira, says Venkatraman, in its newly opened store in Coimbatore has set up a loom. “We have a weaver weaving saris live. This has helped enhance the experience of buying a sari as well as create respect for the weaver.”

Brand-building, says Chand, has also helped in bringing in a creative voice. “Most Banarasi saris look almost the same. However, with brands coming to the forefront, there is experimentation in design as well as in textiles.”

Tilfi, for instance, has recently launched the Kashi collection, which is a tribute to the city of Varanasi, which is home to the Benarasi weave. “Most of the existing regional sari brands are modelled around curation. They, of course, offer you trust and you are confident that you are getting the right product. But these brands don’t innovate. For us quality is hygiene. The differentiation that we bring to the table is innovation and creativity,” Chand further adds.

Though these brands are trying their best to put in place standards and methods to the sari market, social media is flooded with sari entrepreneurs and each of them also claim to be touching the lives of weavers. “The difference is scale,” points out Narayanan of Mensa brands. “We work with over 2,500 weavers, we have four warehouses from where we are able to deliver within India in 3-4 days and within eight days internationally,” he adds.

Will a digital-only brand in a category like saris work in the long-run? While the Mensa team believes digital will help democratise the category, Chand of Tilfi says omni-channel would be the way to go. “Though bulk of the sales will come from online, we need to offer a sensorial experience too.”

Serious sari patrons, however, prefer physical stores to online. They are still not as brand conscious as the industry would want them to be. The branded sari market is still at its infancy and will take a while to mature.

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