Survival struggle

Written by: Meher Castelino

What makes Indian fashion so different from the creations of designers in the rest of the world? The answer lies in the country's expert craftsmen and embroiderers who add amazing value to every garment created. Remove the embellishments from Indian outfits and the collections will wane in the arc lights. This expertise has won global acclaim and designers around the globe have added this value to their garments. However, following the covid-19 outbreak, many of the top embroidery brands are a worried lot with their craftspeople isolated in their villages or struggling to survive.

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Gayatri Khanna Sabharwal, Managing Director and CEO, Milaaya Embroideries: 

Milaaya Embroideries is one of the leading hand beading and embroidery houses in India, duly audited and compliant, incorporated in the US and India in 2000. Milaaya Embroideries has expanded its base over the fashion capitals of New York, Milan, Paris and London with the head office and factory in Mumbai. Milaaya offers hand embroidery, beading, machine embroidery, digital printing, hot fix, stitched and finished garments, and accessories.

Hand embroidery is a dying art. In India, this skill is passed on from father to son. However, with time and progress in technology and education, accessibility to other vocations, less and less people are choosing to come to this field. At Milaaya, they work in hygienic and comfortable premises. They clock in eight hours a day, are given salaries and EPF benefits; they attend trainings and seminars, and are respected for their talent and their job. Some of our clients include brands such as Balmain, Dolce and Gabbana, Armani, Versace, Etro, Oscar De La Renta, Michael Kors, Pamella Roland, Paco Rabanne, Marchesa, and many more.

Paying utmost importance to the drive for sustainable fashion and ethical sourcing, "we do an annual external audit by Intertek Group to check our status as a compliant and sustainable factory. We have a 100 per cent score on labour and environment and an overall score of 86 per cent, which puts Milaaya in the high-performance category as a sustainable factory. Our 15,000 sq ft head office and factory space is in the heart of Mumbai. We have over 350 people working here in the sampling, design, production, merchandising, quality control, stitching atelier, marketing, CAD and accounting departments all under one roof. We have around 160 hand embroiderers and four machine embroiderers in-house. Our estimated loss as of now is 70-80 per cent and our growth for 2020-21 is around 20 per cent.

The pandemic has caused a global slowdown. The challenge is to reinvent oneself with the times and adapt to the new markets and circumstances. We too are learning to swim with the tide. We are using our resources to the optimal level and trying to recycle and reuse wherever we can. We are constantly working on research and development (R&D) of products that will have a market in these unprecedented times. We are offering to make masks and loungewear to adapt to the current market for our clients.

We only export and work with clients outside the country. Around 70 per cent of the orders have been cancelled. Since most of our clients are from Italy, France and the US-countries heavily affected by covid-19, we missed the whole pre-Spring season, which coincides with this time of the year.

Since the start of the lockdown, our team and management have been in touch with every employee, checking on their well-being, and also training them on dealing with the pandemic and informing them of the safety precautions. Those workers who needed aid with their groceries and necessities were provided for. Many of our employees returned to their hometown when it was feasible to do so. The 30 per cent workforce, which is attending our office and factory in Mumbai, has been instructed and trained on all safety measures. We have arranged for transport for all our workers in Mumbai to get them to the office safely. The office premises are sanitised multiple times through the day. Before the employees enter their premise, their temperature is checked and recorded. Their hands and belongings are sanitised. They are given PPE kits and foot covers. Masks and distancing are mandatory.

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The strategy is to reinvent and adapt. We need to work as a team and make optimal use of our available resources. We are also using this time to strategise, plan and do a lot of R&D. Making the most of our experience from working with high-end luxury international brands, manufacturing embroideries for them and our available resources and set-up, we are now introducing our own brand Gaya. The first product we are launching are premium printed and embellished fashion masks.

In business there will always be highs and lows. No business can be future-proof-calamities or not. But as an organisation we are more mindful of the way we use our resources and plan our work. The idea is to understand and adapt to the ever-changing market demands and then to be quick thinking and quick to execute the back-up plan in case of a calamity.

While catering to the varied needs of over 150 clients all over, the world was literally our market to source. We source our fabrics and embroidery raw materials from Mumbai, Delhi, Surat but also fabrics and sequins from Italy, beads, sequins and fabrics from New York, crystals from Paris. The unavailability of these materials due to the markets being shut would definitely cause problems, but for times like these we also have an in-house store where we stock the most commonly used embroidery materials as well as fabrics to ensure that our clients' work doesn't suffer.

We are 90 per cent hand embroidery and 10 per cent machine embroidery. Hand embroidery is more expensive, but the richness, quality and variety of techniques and materials that can be offered in hand can never be matched by machine. Machine embroidery on the other hand is less expensive, has more precision when it comes to huge quantities of production but has its limitation in the number of colours, materials or techniques that can be used. Both are in demand depending on the designs and budget.

We make training videos and modules for all employees, including artisans, in a language they follow. Working with international brands, we always get to learn about new embroidery trends, innovative techniques that they use, and any new materials introduced in the market. Our embroidery designers constantly work with artisans to implement these and thereby the artisans too learn about these and add to their skillsets. Besides professional training, we offer them seminars on personal development.

While we will continue working with existing clients, we are looking to expand to newer markets. We have businesses in Italy, France, the UK and US. We look forward to working with brands in other parts of Europe, Australia, Japan and even South America. We have also launched our own retail brand Gaya-a global, luxury ready-to-wear brand for women, men and children. We have introduced our first product range-a line of embellished and printed fashion masks. We are now working on launching dresses, tops, bottoms, jackets, t-shirts and even loungewear. In 2021, we hope to put Gaya on the map as a top-selling fashionable and luxury brand that has a soul and is for everyone across the globe.

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Sonal Garodia. Founder, SPM Garments: 

SPM Garments is a Mumbai-based high fashion hand embroidery export business with clients based out of the US, UK, Italy and Australia. The company was founded by Sonal Garodia in 2013, and has been growing steadily with a year-on-year growth of 10 per cent. A NIFT Mumbai gold medallist, Garodia worked in the industry for seven years before deciding to venture out and start her fashion export business. The initial seed money for the business was accumulated from personal savings and a bank loan. The bridal high fashion brand Kiaan also operates under the same umbrella.

During normal times, we have 25-30 in-house skilled embroiderers, who specialise in aari hand embroidered garments, bridal wear and accessories. Specialising in bridal embroidery means one has to handle a lot of white products and therefore has to maintain a high level of quality and detailing.

Hand wiring is a special technique that we have helped in popularising. It is a special technique, which is done by shaping a wire with stones and bead-in-air (hawa ka kaam) creating a very 3D product. Bridal accessories are made using these products and are popular in the US and UK markets.

Business during the pandemic has been a new experience. Safety and precautions have become the most important things to focus on. Departments like design, accounts and merchandising, have been working from home. The factory has reduced the number of karigars, under a supervisor and manager with proper social distancing norms and hygiene practices. Each karigar sits at a standard distance from another, and hygiene practices have been explained to them. Logistics have become slower than usual, but our clients understand this as everyone around the world is adjusting with the new norms. Work from home is the new normal, with only important office visits.

When the pandemic hit India in March, we were sampling for the April New York Bridal Fashion Week. Production was in full swing from the orders of the October 2019 trade shows. So, a lot of sampling started to get cancelled. It became clear slowly that the April trade shows would all be cancelled or happen online, not attracting the usual interaction. Production was halted midway as the lockdown was declared. After June 1, the lockdown norms were relaxed, and we eased into production again with the new safety norms in place. We are now preparing for the October 2020 trade shows, but the sampling has been less compared to last year. We are predicting a slow 2021 as well. Buyers have become more wary of where their dollars are going.

With our domestic high-fashion brand Kiaan, which specialises in bridal gowns, we have seen weddings getting cancelled or delayed. So, there has been a significant drop in business domestically.

The workers have been given a place near the factory; so, they don't have to commute and thus avoid being at risk. The number of workers reduced considerably during the great migration of April 2020. Now we have 50 per cent workers with whom we ensure social distancing norms. They sit at their embroidery frames, standard distance apart; each worker is provided with cotton masks and sanitisers. We have ensured that our workers have a roof over their heads and all basic amenities are available. We have to be sensitive to their needs beyond business and offer help where possible.

We specialise in the bridal industry and we know that even though weddings have been delayed or cancelled, those are a part of our lives and will continue to happen. The spending outlook will be more conservative. Apart from this, we are looking to cut costs wherein additional space and resources will be optimised as per current working norms. We will keep an eye on the profit margin and budget throughout this year, which will allow us to reallocate some funds and adjust our budget for the next year.

The best way to ensure that your business is not affected by external factors is to make sure the business model is sustainable. The products and services we offer should be indispensable. Business resources should be optimised and unnecessary costs cut down. Being proactive in communicating with clients in order to manage expectations and address uncertainties is a good step. Having an updated database and insurances in place help in these situations. From a business and economic standpoint, human capital is by far the most valuable. Ensuring that your employees are as personally secure as possible allows you to focus on business continuity plans.

Since we do hand embroidery, most materials are sourced locally. However, there is a portion of raw material that comes from other countries-beads and stones from China, trims from Hong Kong, and fabrics from Italy. The raw material from China has been hugely impacted as no imports are happening from there. Therefore, we are trying to replace such items with Made in India items as much as possible and in some cases if the buyer cannot accept a certain change in quality, we are facing order cancellations. The supply chain was hugely impacted in the first few months of the lockdown. There have been shortages as well. We have also ensured to stock items that we use on a regular basis.

We only do hand couture embroidery. The demand of each depends on the clientele. If clients are looking for more "value for money" products like in the case of pret, machine embroidery is used more often. If the client is into couture and high fashion, hand embroidery is more in demand. Hand embroidery is always more in demand because it is exclusive and more customised to a client's needs. It is also more sustainable than fast fashion. But quantities are less, as value of each product is high.

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We offer artisan training for new karigars. We identify people with leadership skills among them so that slowly they can grow into bigger roles like supervisor, manager, etc. Some karigars are very skilled in making beautiful samples; so, we team them up with sampling designers and together they create samples. Keeping them up to date with the embroidery technique that is in fashion around the world is also important. The most exposure comes to them in the form of our clients visiting the factories wherein they get to interact directly with the buyer's design teams and they learn a lot in the process.

Since 2020 is not going as expected, our plan for 2021 has shifted. A major part of the early 2021 will still be about recovering from the impact of covid-19. We do intend to develop a flexible strategy for 2021. With those goals and plans in mind, we can look forward to the next year. Every quarter, we reassess our current yearly goals, noting analytics, insights, customer reviews, and more. During this reassessment, we consider how this impacts our current plans moving forward and adjust accordingly.

Arguably, one of the most important aspects of any business is the budget. After all, increasing our revenue and improving our bottomline should always be a yearly goal. Before the year begins, we should have already had our budget solidified. As the year progresses, we will see if we made the right choices, whether or not certain techniques were profitable.

One of the best things for the company is staying up to date on upcoming trends, whether they are in design, marketing, technology, communication, or other areas. Even though our business may be excelling, a new advancement may be able to help our business reach new heights. Thanks to the speed at which technology and the world advances, there may be something that appears throughout 2020 that we didn't know existed when we initially planned for this year and 2021. This also ties into being flexible. The ideal is to stay flexible with the strategy, and adapt as per how the covid-19 situation evolves.

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Anand Gupta, Founder, Pretty Lady:

Anand Gupta started the Pretty Lady brand in 1989- 90 in Ghatkopar, Mumbai with an investment of ₹10 lakh in a workshop and office space of 2,500 sq ft area. The next investment was in sewing machines worth ₹2 lakh with an initial working capital of ₹10 lakh. From these investments, the brand did an average turnover of ₹50 lakh to ₹100 lakh and slowly moved to a 3,600 sq ft space. The company did suffer a loss in between during the 1992 Mumbai riots since the company was uninsured.

Supplier to Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli and Naomi Harris, the embroidered gloves by Pretty Lady were seen in the film Skyfall, while the collections of Anand G, as I like to be called, were featured in Collezioni Moda, Sposa and Haute Couture, Vogue London and Fashion Italy. The Indian bridalwear market kept Pretty Lady in the limelight as 10-12 brides a month were dressed in glamorous creations.

But the lockdown and covid-19 have had a disastrous effect. Our present valuation would be .8 crore. Before covid-19, our turnover was .1.5 crore–2 crore, but it has dropped to a dismal .50 lakh.

Here the problem is that we are not able to aggressively accept or persue orders as working with new clients increases the risk while old clients are delaying our payments or paying just a small part. Some have even stopped further production while concentrating on selling existing stocks.

Our growth percentage before covid-19 was not steady as some years it would be 20–30 per cent and for some years 10–15 per cent, and at times we would struggle to meet the previous years figures.

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Before covid-19, we had 80 embroiderers, which has now decreased to just six. Pretty Lady is the oldest company of our group which started as a unit for hand embroidery and sewing complete with pattern making, cutting, dyeing, printing, etc. We offered complete manufacturing sourcing support to brands, labels, designers and couture houses. Our USP was that—since I have lived and worked in New York—I understood the buyers’ problems better than others. In case of issues, the buyers would know about it and together we would resolve rather than hide and surprise the buyers.

Till 7–8 years back, our customers were based in the UK/EU. It’s only in the last few years that we have been welcoming Indian corporate clients.

We specialise in almost all kinds of handwork—be it zardosi or aari technique, gota appliqu or cutwork. Our embroiderers are from the traditional Nawabi embroiderers’ families; so, they were experts in the old art of zardosi. One of the fine works includes the technique where they would untwist a silk yarn to embroider with single ply silk. Their children-some of whom have reluctantly come into this—prefer to do aari work which is faster. Depending on the work involved, we had a group that excelled in the particular technique. It is important to remember that not all embroiderers can do all the techniques. We have not tried to revive any techniques since we are market-driven rather than us driving the market.

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As far as social responsibility is concerned, we have adopted a small unit of hand made paper in a remote village off the Ajmer-Jodhpur state highway in the midst of sand and desert. We got various papers made there from banana stem pulp, cactus pulp, as well as wildflower pulp and mixed it with cotton and silk waste. The women folk were trained to cut and bind it into notebooks, for covers that we would design and embroider on various handloom silks. These were unique pieces of art that caught the eye of the Italian and French designers who got the books custom-made to create their season’s lookbooks. We also sold them exclusively through an antique store in Milan. Of course, there were quite a bit of issues in the project mainly telephone connectivity, posts took almost a week and normally women would come with their kids to work who would at times soil the work making it unsaleable, which they hardly realised.

As far as raw materials are concerned at present, we have enough stocks and our existing suppliers are able to meet our needs by almost 70 per cent. The impact is not much, but our demand is highly subdued, since we specialise in 99 per cent hand embroidery. Our workers come from traditional families of embroiderers who have the knowledge of technical and artistic skills. But we have to train them to our level of quality, finesse and finish. They learn this on the shop floor when they sit alongside experts.

Handling the business during the pandemic has been difficult. There is practically no business, no sales of any real worth. While the workers were in Mumbai, we did care for them in terms of the basic minimum. Most workers are in their villages involved in farming or jobs in various government schemes. All seem happy. No one has shown any inclination to return. They keep calling us occasionally.

We are planning our strategy to recover, by being patient—waiting and watching. We may need our savings to last for the next two years. If something comes along and payment is assured, we will take it up. Our plans to future-proof the business is to divert on to the digital platform in some field, do research on diversion into fields like pharma, food etc. The impulse buying sector cannot be future-proofed.

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Karishma Swali and Monica Shah, Founders, Jade: 

Jade by Monica Shah and Karishma Swali is the fruit of the designer duo’s creative spirits, devotion of India’s artisanal heritage and passion for design. The label was founded in 2008 in Mumbai under the parent company Chanakya International. Jade caters to brides across the globe and is known for its distinct aesthetic that blends traditional crafts with modern styles. Jade is known for the Ek Taar pieces, which include bridal ensembles as well as jackets, treasured and cherished by women from India to Italy. Jade is guided by two core values: to enable women to express their individuality and authentic spirit, and celebrate India’s rich cultural heritage of arts and crafts. The brand keeps India’s artisanal excellence at the heart of all that it does, while seamlessly reflecting a timeless, global sensibility.

We have launched our ecommerce platform. We are also offering virtual consultations to brides-to-be as well as her entourage, which has met with tremendous success. We’ve also opened our store, which is functional three days a week. We’re accepting visitors on an appointment-basis only. And, we are taking all the necessary sanitation procedures to ensure the safety of our team as well as our clients.

Some of our workers are back in their hometowns, some of them are still in the city. We’re ensuring that all our workers are getting paid besides getting the adequate assistance as required.

We’re focusing on driving sales via our digital platforms. Our aim is to offer a seamless, intimate and holistic shopping experience virtually. At the same time, we’re making sure our store continues to offer the authentic and unique luxury experience it’s come to be known for in the best possible way. Digital is the way forward. More and more consumers are moving to online shopping and virtual experiences. I think it’s important to have a robust online presence.

We source our materials from various parts of the country. But now, sourcing has become a challenge due to the safety restrictions. We’re looking for sourcing options locally at the moment.

Most of our embroidery, especially couture, is made by hand. When it comes to couture, our clientele understands the beauty and effort of handcrafted and hand-embroidered pieces, and why it’s on the pricier end. Hand-embroidered pieces may not enjoy the mass appeal of fast fashion, but it has its own loyal customer base.

We have founded the Chanakya School of Craft. The Chanakya Foundation (an independent NGO) focuses on all-round development through education, skill development and women’s empowerment while investing in the preservation of our heritage and promotion of the arts. Our mission is to provide women from low-income communities with high-quality education in hand embroidery and craftsmanship, enabling them to maximise their potential and enhance their lives.

Our focus is on strengthening our ecommerce presence, by leveraging technology to make luxury and couture effortlessly available to women across the globe. We’re constantly innovating to recreate the unique, immersive and luxurious experience of our store online as well.

This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of the print magazine.