Indian Threads

A few Indie brands are forging a quiet revolution with heritage weaves and designs

Indian Threads
Think of mainstream Indian fashion and chances are images of Western wear or heavily embellished wedding lehengas come to mind. Yet far from the bling a few Indie brands are forging a quiet revolution with heritage weaves and designs.With a growing awareness by customers on the need to support labels that practice fair pricing and source ethically-produced and environment-friendly clothes, there appears to be a revival of sorts of the handcrafted and handspun. Plus it doesn’t hurt that the designs are both modern and tasteful. Spurning machine-made merchandise today’s handloom entreprenuers are going back to the basics in a bid to reconnect to their sartorial roots.

FabIndia

Fabindia can very well be called the pioneer in the homegrown Indian brands segment. The company, founded in1960 has its head quarters in Delhi and has gone from a single store to retail giant (over 250 stores across the country). It’s latest offering is the Fabindia

Experience Centre which features the Fab Café with live music, a Kids Zone, Organic India Wellness Centre and an Interior’s Studio. The brand mainly sources from villages helping enabling rural employment. Products are crafted by over 40,000 artisans across India.

The team works across Rajasthan with local artisans and has created a weavers’ cooperatives. Fabindia has an artisan-shareholder system where craftsman own collectively own roughly 26 per cent through ‘supply-region subsidiaries companies. The private equity firm of international conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), L Capital, chose Fabindia as one of the first Indian brands to invest in. L Capital had bought the 8 per cent stake in Fabindia in 2012 from Wolfensohn Capitat but sold the same to Premji Invest which already held significant stake in the company. What was a $20,000 start-up has grown into a company who is said to be valued at about 4,500 crore in 2012.

The company recently made a foray into the organic food sector by buying a 40 per cent stake in Organic India, a Lucknow-based organic food and supplements firm, for Rs 15 crore.

Founder: John Bissell

Popular products: Apparel, home furnishings, fabrics, garments, hand made artisnal objects d’art, furniture, organic and food supplements.

Locations: Over 250 stores across India

SOMA

The popular Jaipur-based block-printing and textile brand Soma now has a chain of chic boutiques across India that stock high quality textiles, including colourful block prints as well as a range of lovely apparel and handicrafts. Founded by conservationist Radhakrishnan Nair in 1985, Soma started out as an export house but soon found customers flocking to their Jaipur store in droves to buy their popular range of natural-dyed, flower-motif textiles.

Soma works with and toward promoting the work of rural artisans in Rajasthan in a bid to keep alive the ancient art of block printing, a skill that has been passed down through generations.

Founder: Radhakrishnan Nair

Popular products: Clothing, accessories and homeware.

Locations: Delhi, Jaipur, Cochin, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Chennai.

Sanganer

Situated about 8 kilometres south-east of Jaipur the town of Sanganer near Jaipur is one of Rajasthan’s historic block printing centres famous for its fine hand block printing in subdued colours. With its trademark Calico prints in small flower motifs which depict stylised sunflowers, narcissuses, roses, and other flowers of luxuriant foliage like daturas, rudrakshas, and arkas, Sanganeri printing gained popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries and became one of the major exports of the East India Company.

Prior to the 17th century, there is no mention of Sanganer as a centre of printing. At that time Sanganer was known as a centre of plain and dyed clothes. It was probably towards the end of the 17th century that this art form developed here. Probably due to a war with Emperor Auranngzeb and repeated invasions by the Marathas, many craftsmen (Printers) from the neighbouring state Gujarat came and settled in Rajasthan. By the end of the 18th century this industry was fully developed in Sanganer and received royal patronage. It is famous for dyeing and printing of colourful dresses, bed sheets, curtains, dress material and variety of other textiles. The bulk of the textile products of these industries is exported. Most of the textile industries of Sanganer are concentrated in this urban area. There are estimated to be around 500 block and screenprinting units in Sanganer. There are at present, about 125 hand block printing units in Sanganer. Sanganer was renowned for its small decorative and delicate floral patterns, called, ‘boota-booties’ which was printed on fine cotton

and silk.

The block-printing industry is heavily reliant on water sources; thus all the areas famous for this craft have sprung up near water sources. Other well known centres for block printing include Bagru, Akola, Pali, Barmer and Jodhpur.

The majority of the artisans belong to the Chhipa caste. The Chhipas pass their skills on down generations, from parent to child, so that the expertise remains within the family.

The art of blockprinting

It is believed block printing was first invented in China during the Tang (618-906) dynasty, possibly between the 4th and 7th century AD. It began as blocks cut from wood used to print textiles and then was used to reproduce short Buddhist religious texts that were carried as charms by believers. Though not the first, the “Diamond Sutra” scroll is the world’s earliest example of block printing which bears an actual date from 868 A.D (currently in the British Museum).

The hand block is carved out of wood and is the simplest of printing devices. Dyeing with vegetable colours is one of the oldest colouring techniques. The wooden blocks are hand carved in intricate designs; each colour is printed with a different block to complete the motif. A high degree of skill is required for both the placement of motifs and the application of pressure. It can sometimes take almost 16 blocks to create a 5-colour design.

Legend has it that block printing came to Rajasthan probably towards the end of the 17th century that this art form developed here. Due to constant wars with the Mughals and Marathas, many printers migrated from Gujarat to Rajasthan where vibrant prints of birds, animals, human figures, gods and goddesses became popular. In olden times, the fabric was printed mainly for use by royal families and the rich but under royal patronage, by the end of the 18th century this industry was fully developed. Today this ancient tradition has been kept alive in villages throughout Rajasthan due to the efforts of conservationists and home grown textile brands. Block printing provides a livelihood to hundreds of local families besides keeping precious traditional skills alive.

Anokhi

It’s name means “unique” and for over 40 years, Anokhi has occupied a remarkable spot in the annals of Indian design. Known for its beautiful contemporary designs using traditional techniques in block print Anokhi has proven to be a front-runner when it comes to the revival of traditional textile craft in Rajasthan. Started over 40 years ago by conservationist J.P. “John” and Faith Singh Anokhi began life first as an export house, with block-printed material being exported to Europe. It was only in the 1980s that the first Anokhi shop opened in India, after the couple ensured a secure livelihood for skilled local crafsmen. The success which followed proved the revival of traditional textile skills was not only good for conserving India’s ancient textile heritage but it also made good business sense.

For many years, Anokhi has also been developing products in specialised areas such as appliqué, embroidery, patchwork and bead work, which now constitute a significant part of its product range. Together with garments — Indian and Western in design — home textiles, sarongs and accessories, Anokhi offers a diverse and colourful selection of products.

It has been said that Anokhi is one of the reasons hand block printing is still in existence in India.That may be a bit of an exaggeration but it can be said that Anokhi works to maintain the highest standards of quality necessitated by its cult status among customer’s world-wide.

Anokhi has a state of the art work unit, with more than 200 sewing machines, dry cleaning plants, and checking and packaging units in Jaipur. The company deals with more than ten different printing units and two dyeing units which have largely hereditary practitioners of their respective craft.

Founders: JP ‘John’ and Faith Singh

Popular products: Clothing, accessories and homeware.

Locations: 18 cities in India including Kochi and Pune.

Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing

This little known gem of a museum should be on the itinerary for your next trip to Jaipur. Located in the shadow of Amber Fort and a mere ten minute walk through the cobbled streets of Amber, the historic capital of Rajasthan, lies the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing (AMHP). Housed in a magnificently restored 400-year-old haveli, the museum displays a varied selection of block printed textiles alongside images, tools and related objects – all chosen to provide an in-depth look into the complexity of this ancient tradition.

Like crafts worldwide, the block printing industry faces serious challenges trying to keep pace with modern manufacturing. The Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing addresses this fragile situation primarily through education. By maintaining an active acquisition program, the AMHP collection continues to grow with frequent additions of hand printed textiles along with relevant objects and photographs. The extensive Anokhi Archives also provides a rich repository of clothing and home furnishings dating from the early 1960s to present. The museum focuses on contemporary fabric ranging from innovative designs created by talented artisans, to traditional outfits still worn in select regions today, albeit in dwindling numbers. A focused selection of historic textiles provides a context for further understanding of block printing.

To illustrate the breadth of the craft, textiles in the permanent collection display a range of natural and chemical processes including dabu mud-resist printing, and gold and silver embellishment. A display of wooden and brass blocks with carving tools highlights an aspect of the craft that is often neglected when discussing the beauty of printed cloth.

The museum is closed from May to mid-July

Anokhi cafe

Located above Anokhi’s flagship store in Jaipur, the Anokhi Cafe is a favourite with tourists and the city’s well- heeled set. Head there for a healthy and tasty selection of dishes including scrumptious cakes, fresh fruit juices and organic salads.

Kilol

With a name that’s derived from a Sanskrit word, which means ‘to play’, Kilol is a brand that doesnt belive in being contained by boundaries. Playing around with delicate traditional designs and

conventional weaves, Kilol creates contemporary outfits that comfortably fit into an urban lifestyle.

A business founded in 1986 out of a garage in Indore that housed a single printing table and one kaarigar (printer) today boasts a head office and production unit in Jaipur and a retail chain spread across 10 stores. The fusion of hand-woven borders with hand block printed motifs has given Kilol a unique identity and reputayion as a line of ethnic wear that is contemporary and comfortable. Kilol is dedicated towards promoting hand block print and empowering local craftspeople across India as well as upcoming designers.

Founder: Mamta Mansingka

Popular products: Ethnic wear like salwar-kameej, sarees, kurti, fusion wear and home furnishings in cotton, terry voile, tussar silk, maheshwari, chanderi and blended fabrics

Locations: Presence in 11 cities across India including Chandigarh and Noida

White Champa

Eclectic and whimsical and at the same time sophisticated and architectural. White Champa is a celebration of artisanal skills and has been defined by its unwavering pursuit of the

creation of basic, timeless and classic pieces.

The emphasis of the clothes is on impeccable cuts and exceptional materials. Materials are updated and tweaked slightly each year.

Embroidery is a key element for White Champa. Looking at the long and exquisite tradition of embroidery in India and the skill of the master karigars, the wish arose to keep this art alive in a contemporary form. It is used in light touches to emphasize a neckline, hem or cuff, bringing a rare, sophisticated flair to the pieces.

The exclusive embroidery designs are one of the signature details of the brand. White Champa carefully builds a foundation for a whole wardrobe, effortlessly combining high quality natural

fabrics like pure linen, khadi cotton, silk and wool, with unique

hand-embroidery and contemporary silhouettes.

Unconventional and purposefully un-advertised, White Champa has nonetheless a dedicated following of customers who respond to superb quality and distinction. The White Champa woman has a sense of

adventure and loves to wear beautiful yet comfortable clothes.

Founder: Anjana Das

Popular product: Apparel

Locations: Available in four cities in India and Japan.

Mogra Designs

Whimsical and bohemian are just some of the adjectives used to describe this new brand on the block which marries Indian crafts with Western design. The Mogra design team sources fabric directly from craft clusters and handpicks all materials (even linings, threads and buttons), which is why they personally get to know all their weavers, printers, embroiderers, vendors and tailors.

Responsible sourcing, quality and fine artisans, ensure that every piece is crafted using quality textiles bought directly from craftspeople at a fair rate set by them. The label only sources handmade, handcrafted, traditional or local textiles.

Founder: Sheena Roy

Popular product: Ethnic wear for women

only online at Mogra designs on Facebook and etsy.com/shop/MograDesigns.

Nicobar

Dynamic, authentic and young; Nicobar has edged out brands who had a first-mover advantage. The focus has been to create a brand with a deep purpose, passion and patience while nurturing a culture of creativity and collaboration. In conversation with Co-founder and CEO Raul Rai, we find out just what Nicobar is all about.

Q. In a short span of 2 years, Nicobar is giving its competition a run for it’s money. What do you credit this to?

A. We have just started and are at the infancy of our journey, which I hope lasts a long time. Nicobar for us will always be a dynamic work in progress—always striving to change, reflect the times and become better. What’s important at this stage is a good, steady beginning with strong foundations— even if it’s quite distant from how we define ultimate success. Success for us will be if we manage to shape culture and we have barely begun; we are extremely happy to be recognised but ultimately, time will tell, if we have managed to shape culture; if we have been able to create a new global aesthetic, rooted in ‘Indianness’ but at home everywhere.

Q. What is Nicobar’s biggest asset?

A. Our distinct design aesthetic. It’s relevant to today’s consumer. A guiding principle for us came from one of our advisors, Prof Raman, who told us three years ago, “Out of chaos comes revenue and out of discipline comes profit. Remember you are in the stage of chaos, just focus on creating a product that customers love at this stage.” So we embraced chaos because creative environments require some chaos.

Q. Purpose?

A. Creating a modern Indian way of living, dressing and looking at the world. The ‘looking at the world’ part excites us the most. We are trying to capture India not just at a physical level but also at the mindset level. Articulating this has been very grounding for all our endeavours.

Q. Passion?

A. We love what we do and we only design products we’d love to use ourselves today, and which will be as relevant in the next 3-5 years. We are about timeless style not trends.

Q. Patience?

A. We believe in doing few things and doing them really well, even if it takes time. We took 18 months to launch. We take decisions based on asking ourselves if it’s good decision not only for this year but over a period of 5 years. We opened our fourth Jodhpur, because we are very passionate about the current influence on the regeneration of Jodhpur.

Q. Culture, Creativity & Collaboration?

A. We wanted to create a culture where creativity is nurtured and thrives; combined with a spirit of collaboration. If we create the right culture and right values, we will do the right things— even though we may not be able to imagine what all the right things are. I believe we have brought together an amazing team and hopefully created a culture that helps our teams to produce their most creative work to date. I feel lucky that so many individuals have put their faith in us. We have a fabulous set of advisors—Santosh Desai for brand, Ireena Vittal Ex Mckinsey for Consumer & Retail and Prof Ananth Raman from Harvard Business School for Supply Chain.

Another lens to look at is how we approached building Nicobar—deep focus on the brand experience. The brand manifests itself primarily through four routes. In each sphere, we are lucky to have very strong creative leaders.

Q. Community?

A. We are in the early stages but we have started curating events in our studio & stores which will hopefully become the Nicobar community— music, styling events, Kommune story telling etc.

Q. A store with extensions—a cafe, a reading section, and area for performances. Details please.

A. Nicobar always thinks about culture and commerce together. That’s why our stores hopefully are destinations not just for shopping but where interesting things happen. We want you to linger, to relax—even if you don’t shop. It’s meant to be an oasis in urban jungles. In places of culture people often don’t spend money, they spend the most precious currency we all have—time—in exchange for being enriched in culture—and that’s the Nicobar culture we are talking about. Right from the beginning we have had a very active NicoJournal as part of our digital experience, which always makes me smile and think—which is what we hope Nicobar can do in people’s lives.

Q. Product vs. Experience?

A. We think about experience vs. product. Product is the starting point—without great product, you have nothing. However, the aspiration is to surround a great product with emotionally engaging content, stunning visual merchandising, a sensory experience through fragrance and music in the stores and most important of all human connections in customer service. We even have our own Nicobar signature Cocktail.

Q. The focus on e-commerce has given the brand an edge. How important is e-commerce in this segment?

Design and digital have moved from being peripheral to being at the centre today. Design and digital thinking is Nicobar’s aspired way of being. Our culture and people focus led us to build a “team crazy about design or digital—hopefully both”.

E-commerce accounts for about 25-30% of our revenue. For a brand like us, the touch and feel of the product and the interaction with our teams goes a long way to building trust. So we are finding, there are a lot of people who first experience us offline and then come back. About 22% of our guests have bought both online and offline. Almost 80% of our customers who come to our stores have already discovered us online, or through friends. We love data but we allow our judgment to override data many times!

Distinctions between online and offline are becoming blurred. Brands like Ralph Lauren were built offline and Warby Parker started out online. But the future is for brands that embrace both. Therefore it is very important for Nicobar to have a strong omni-channel DNA. We launched online and our Mumbai store simultaneously. Today over 25% of our online orders are fulfilled in whole or in part in store. People want to touch and feel; we are focused on merging physical experiences with a digital platform and aspire to be a human centered digital brand. People mistake online for just the website. It’s a mindset, a way of working and being to experimentation, learning and iterating.

Q. Make in India or Indian aesthetics?

Nicobar is rooted in India but not limited by it. We represent the modern India which is proud of its past and is now looking at a way to express it. Now is the time not just for intermingling of cultures but interdependence on each other.

Good earth

Two decades ago you wouldn’t have guessed that a small home store in Mumbai would redefine traditional aesthetics and revolutionise Indian design. Good Earth has changed the landscape of what one perceives as ‘Indian.’ The brand created a niche segment where none existed.

The stores are distractingly beautiful—rich wall paper, bone china, glowing lanterns, silk bedding, timeless furniture and tableware; just about everything dreams are made off.

Founder and Creative Head, Anita Lal, has achieved no small feat. She takes out time for a tête-à-tête with FC. A testament to the phrase hard work pays off -the journey from housewife to creating a global brand has been tough and pleasurable. Almost no business knowledge, hardly any experience, some financial backing, a whole lot of dedication and unwavering passion—behold the story of Good Earth.

Q. What is the USP of Good Earth?

A. The USP of Good Earth is mindful and sustainable luxury—we truly believe luxury is about surrounding ourselves with beautifully designed, artisanal products that sustain traditions, livelihood and the planet.

Q. Good Earth has made the right connect with its clients. What has led to its success?

A. We opened our first store in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner in 1996, it has truly been an exciting and fulfilling journey. I was always inspired by India and the immense potential it held in its rich heritage and diversity of crafts. Right from Good Earth’s inception, we wanted people to be proud of owning a luxurious item that had a distinct Indian design expression. Through the years we’ve been able to build a certain design philosophy that our customers can relate with and a lifestyle they can adopt.

‘India Pride’ owning and truly respecting homegrown, artisanal products has become a consumer trend, and Good Earth certainly will continue to benefit from being a truly established brand in this space. It has been refreshing to see how our customer relationships have evolved to an extent where they have imbibed the brand into their lives and believe in Good Earth as a philosophy and a lifestyle, going beyond just products.

Q. With 10 boutiques in India, any expansion plans?

A. Over 21 years, we have always believed in expanding our retail presence organically. Currently present in 6 cities, the turning point for us was the launch of our global web boutique in 2013. It caters to 40 countries. It is very important to us to be present in the right retail atmosphere and format and for the right consumer demographic. For instance, we opened a beautiful jewel boutique in Jaipur last year at the Sujan Rajmahal Palace, since both the location and the city resonated with us beautifully, we designed a space that was a true amalgamation of heritage and modernity.

Q. What is the vision for the future?

A. We plan to continue growing organically with a focus on building growth through our web-boutique both in India and internationally; and through thoughtful business and brand collaborations that help us expand to newer verticals and expose us to new consumer sets. For instance we launched our range of Silk Route wallpapers in collaboration with Asian Paints Nilaya last year and entered a new vertical of designing interiors. We have never assessed expansion in terms of retail doors, and the focus will continue to be on strengthening our positioning with the right growth opportunities.

Q. Do you feel Good Earth has first-mover advantage?

A. Good Earth is a brand born out of passion and has had fair share of challenges. There weren’t many homegrown design stores in the market when we started, and entering this new space meant I had to find my own materials and artisans & develop my niche in the market. I recall my enthusiasm of studio pottery as a child, which led to a shop at Santushti in Delhi. Since then, there has been no looking back. When we started building Good Earth, everything started falling into place organically as people sensed a personal connect to the brand.

Q. Has the ‘Make in India’ concept worked in the brands favour?

A. At Good Earth, ‘Made in India’ is our identity. It is an integral part of our design language and the inspiration for our sustainability endeavour. One of the most exciting ventures undertaken to elevate Indian design aesthetics has to be the Make in India initiative, launched by the Government. This gives leeway to companies like us to showcase the potential of creation, creativity and evolution across the country’s manufacturing sectors.

I feel this has initiated a trend at large – reviving the pride of Indian craftsmanship. We have seen this market grow immensely over the last 2-3 years, and the entire fashion industry at large imbibing this conscious approach.

Q. Tell us about The Tasting Room.

A. Good Earth flagships will always have a café; they are an ambient extension to the lifestyle we want to welcome our customers into. Our cafes embody Good Earth’s quintessential style of entertaining. The Tasting Room, our café & wine bar in Mumbai’s Raghuvanshi Mills ranks in Mumbai’s top dining destinations.

Q. Good Earth’s ethos?

A. What started off, as a passion project is now one of India’s leading luxury design houses. Design is sacrosanct at Good Earth and we believe that every product should have its distinct design story that takes the customer on a journey. I am extremely happy to see the gradual shift in the perception of luxury. The spotlight is back on impeccable quality, attention to detail and a more mindful lifestyle overall. We have aimed to ensure an open creative deliberation to create quality designs with love and passion. Our focus has always been on marrying contemporary aesthetics with a traditional approach to design that is rooted in India’s history. That’s where we found our distinct language, and now the process has become effortless.

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