Archive for June, 2014

The Great Ethnic Trail

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

Outlook, June 30, 2014

In September 2008, Kunal Sachdev, 44, quit his job as CEO of internationally fashionable leather goods manufacturer Hidesign. He wanted to create his own global brand, but with a twist. For years, as he worked in the fashion and retail industry, a question had been bothering him. India is without doubt richer than any other country in the world in traditional handicrafts and artisanship, from textiles to fine embroidery to metalwork to leather craft to woodwork. Yet, traditional Indian crafts had made hardly any impact on world fashion, and the artisans remained poor, often hostage to middlemen.

The handicrafts sector is India’s second largest employer, yet accounts for less than 2 per cent of the world’s handicrafts export market. And 47 per cent of the country’s handloom weavers live below the poverty line.

Sachdev wanted to do something about it. If every man is finally defined by his passion, Sachdev had found it. And Caravan Craft was born.

People he spoke to initially were cynical. Another Fabindia, you mean? was the question he faced repeatedly. The immediate reference was of course a result of Fabindia being the most visibly successful Indian brand related to crafts. No, not another Fabindia, Sachdev would patiently reply: “Caravan will be urban chic with an international flavour. It will be global fashion aimed at consumers who currently shop at chains like Zara or Marks and Spencer, but built on Indian culture and craftsmanship.”

It was a difficult concept to explain. Even if an investor was convinced, after being shown designs and prototypes of the sort of products that would define Caravan, he would ask why Sachdev wasn’t thinking of an online store, why a chain of brick-and-mortar retail chain? Sachdev would explain that the unique differentiator for Caravan’s products would be their distinctiveness from anything that was currently available in the market, and that could only be established and stamped in the customer’s mind if she physically experienced them—saw them, felt them, tried them on. A real-world brand needed to be built, before a virtual delivery system. Caravan needed mono-brand outlets—even the outlets would be designed to stand out in the mall melee—to start with; this was a long-term brand play, not an e-commerce gamble.

My first impression, when I entered a Caravan store, was that its clean Scandinavian straight-line design evokes Zara or Ikea more than an Indian ethnicwear outlet. One looks at the women’s wear and jewellery on display (men’s apparel and home furnishing are next in line) and immediately sees why Caravan is not Fabindia. The cuts and silhouettes of the dresses are stylishly Western, yet the material and the craftsmanship are unmistakably Indian. Sometimes the patterns on a kurta are Western, but the execution is traditional Indian artisanship. Then there are patterns which are clever melds—Western tweaked to Indian, or the other way round.

Till date, two Caravan outlets have opened, in Phoenix Market City Malls in Bangalore and Pune, and the company is looking at 15 more points of sale over the next 12 months, in India and abroad. West Europe will possibly soon experience Caravan.

While Sachdev was hunting for finance, he was working with the National Institute of Design on blending Indian craftsmanship and design with Western aesthetics, and travelling the length and breadth of the country, locating clusters of artisans practising their traditional craft. He established contact with, among others, leather workers in Biaora in Madhya Pradesh, Ikat weavers in Pochampally, Mangalgiri weavers in Guntur, muslin weavers in Burdwan and Kantha embroideres in Shantipur in West Bengal, lacquer workers in Channapatna in Karnakata, block printers in Bagru in Rajasthan, metal workers in Bidar, applique workers in Mithapur, Gujarat, and made his proposition. The talent of artisans of nearly every state in India (including the newly created one of Telangana) is represented in Caravan products, a unique achievement by itself for a private enterprise.

But it was four long years before funding came through. The initial investment finally arrived from the public sector National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC), in 2012. NSDC recognised that Sachdev’s vision was tightly aligned with its own mission of up-skilling of artisans. Caravan was finally on the road.

By this time, the design team was in place. The firm began holding formal training courses for each cluster it planned to work with. Last year, it trained more than 500 artisans. By 2017, Sachdev hopes to take the aggregate number to beyond 30,000.

Says Sudipta Sinha, director and chief operating officer, Caravan Craft: “Every product of ours has three aspects: functionality, aesthetics and a story behind the product. To achieve all three, we had to do some deep design intervention, aligning colour palettes and silhouettes with consumer trends. We spent an immense amount of time on fabric and craft interpretation, and product detailing.”

As a result, the journey that a standard Caravan kurta may undertake—depending on the design—can often be extraordinarily long, literally. The material may actually travel 4,000 km to be finally ready for sale. For example, the design is done in Bangalore, the muslin woven in Burdwan, cut in Bangalore, the applique work done in Ahmedabad, and then the applique work is stitched onto the kurta back in Bangalore, and shipped to the Pune store. And at no point is there any middleman. The revenues are shared with the artisans.

“As far back as 325 BC, Alexander the Great was struck by Bandhini printwork in India,” says Sachdev. “But we have done very little about developing our wonderful traditional handicrafts to be in tune with the evolving customer. Today, we have a huge mass of globally aware and culturally proud Indians. And culture can clearly be a motivation for consumption, if it is adapted to modern tastes and needs.” Caravan has been careful to keep the price premium, but not luxury. The logic: the customer should see it as value for money for the amount of thought and labour that have been visibly invested in every piece.

Caravan is already attracting the attention of just the type of people Sachdev is talking about. Investment banker Roopa Purushothaman shot to fame in 2004 as co-author of Goldman Sachs’ legendary BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) report that placed India among the top three global economies by 2050. Purushothaman recently drove down from Mumbai to Pune to take a look at this unique fashion store she had been hearing about. She went back, a satisfied and loyal customer. “The level of craftsmanship coupled with design and high quality materials is striking in Caravan products,” she says. “It’s a unique balance that’s executed exceptionally well.”

The world is getting interested. When I call up Sachdev for a clarification, he is on the Paris leg of his European business tour. He is cagey about revealing details, but says that yes, some top retail and fashion chains are very interested. “Fingers crossed!” he says, laughing.

If Caravan can crack the global market, it will be the first Indian brand committed totally to traditional Indian craft to make it to the world fashionistas’ shopping list. All those years of pursuing a dream would then have paid off. As they should, in a fair world.

Being a Germany Fan in India

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

Mail Today, 20 June, 2014

Behavioural scientists could quite easily develop a test to classify football fans in categories denoting intensity of fan-ness—passion, commitment, level of apoplexy over a disputed goal. If the test is questionnaire-based, the questions could be of this sort:  Would you miss being present at your first child’s birth for a football game? Would you quit a job if your employer didn’t grant you the two weeks’ leave you asked for to watch all the World Cup games from the quarterfinals onwards? Is your spouse sleeping in a separate bed now because you kicked her hard in the throes of a delightful dream, where you had dribbled past the goalkeeper and an empty goal awaited you with open arms? Have you bought the rope you’re planning to hang yourself with after your team loses in the final? If yes, then have you also tested it for strength?

A few World Cups ago, a friend of mine lost his job in a multinational bank, not because of anything he had done or failed to do, but because of some global mega-merger between his employer and another bank, and suddenly the merged entity decided to close down part of its business in India. This happened a week before the tournament began. I read about the goings-on in the bank in the newspaper, and immediately realised how this decision taken in New York based on a PowerPoint presentation and a couple of spreadsheets would affect my friend in Delhi. I called him up. “Hey, what’s the scene?” I asked, tentatively.

“Great, man, great!” he was in the best of spirits. “Now I can watch every match in the World Cup! I’m not going to look for a job till it’s over!” He then—being a methodical banker—proceeded to survey all the pubs and bars in South Delhi to decide which offered the largest TV screen with the best sound and audio quality, the most appropriate ambience and nature of clientele. And every evening, we would find him there—at the pub that had met his high standards—with a pitcher of beer, watching football, bonding with strangers, and exhorting the rest of the audience to cheer louder and wave flags harder.

After the Cup was over, he set about hunting for a job, and soon landed a good one. During his interview, he was asked: “What were you doing for the last two months?” and when he replied honestly, there was instant enormous bonhomie in the room, and the rest of the interaction was solely about Bebeto, Ronaldo, Zidane and Barthez.

I am not a football fanatic. I can’t even be called an avid fan. If those behavioural scientists did carry out their tests, I would fall in the category of “If the World Cup match begins by 9.30 pm, I’ll watch it, but if it turns out to be boring, I’ll go back to my DVD of 24 Season 8.” Unless it’s Germany. For yes, even though I am a desultory follower of the game (I watch my friends’ heated discussions on Man U versus Chelsea vs Liverpool with dumb wonder), I do have a favourite team, which I have supported loyally for decades.

And being a Germany fan in India is not an easy life. You are a small shady minority and you usually try to say bland nothings in World Cup-related conversations to stay above suspicion. A bit like the Freemasons or something.

For, how do you explain that you like the precision, the discipline, the calm commitment to getting a job done. that they never miss a penalty kick, and you admire the methodical efficient teamwork-driven style more than the flamboyance and “coolness” of the other sort of football? In fact, more importantly, how do you convince people that for more than a decade now, German footballers have defied the “plodding, clinical, workmanlike” stereotype? That today’s German team plays with as much flair and panache as say the Netherlands or Argentina, but with an overlay of great discipline and method? Most people don’t seem convinced even by what their eyes can see.

In most circles, if you mention that you like the German way, you are in immediate danger of being branded a Fascist, and if you are a Bengali, much worse—woe betide you if you aren’t rooting for “Braajil”; you are not only a Fascist, you are also an uncultured brute, who should be put in solitary confinement with Rabindrasangeet and commentaries of Brazil’s victorious matches blaring 24/7.

In 2002, Shekhar, a friend who is a committed Germany supporter, and I went to a five-star hotel to watch the Brazil-Germany final on a giant screen. At the door, they were giving out little flags of the two countries to pin to our lapels. Shekhar and I were the only ones who took the German flag. Some time later, an elderly English lady sitting behind me asked for a light (yes, we could still smoke in bars in those days). As I turned to light her cigarette, she noticed the flag and said, in delightfully sweet commiseration: “Oh, you poor dear!”

During half-time, Shekhar and I agreed that if Germany could get away with a mere 2-0 defeat, we could consider ourselves lucky. And 2-0 it was. I’ll never forget the sight of the splendid goalkeeper-captain Oliver Kahn sitting forlorn at the end of the match, leaning against a goalpost, after everyone had left the field. Kahn had almost singlehandedly taken Germany to the final. In that game, he made the only two mistakes he made in the entire tournament, and Brazil scored off both of them. He was a true hero, and when the German team returned home, they were greeted by their countrymen like champions.

Germany’s 4-0 drubbing of Portugal a few days ago was hardly workmanlike dull football. It was great, exciting stuff. Of course, it was also clinically efficient. But most people I know only notice that aspect of it, not the elegance. Not fair.