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Interview with Aparna Thyagarajan

Aparna Thyagarajan
Aparna Thyagarajan
Co-founder & Chief Product Officer

We aim to build a world-class brand from India, for the world!
Shobitam, founded by the creative sisters Aparna and Ambika in Seattle, is a dynamic D2C brand revolutionising the accessibility of Indian ethnic wear globally. With a mission to make high-quality sarees and jewellery both affordable and elegant, Shobitam is dedicated to empowering weavers across India, championing sustainability, and ensuring that wearing ethnic fashion is a source of pride and joy for people everywhere. Speaking to Fibre2Fashion, Co-founder & Chief Product Officer Aparna Thyagarajan discusses catering to global demand for India’s traditional weaves.

From your perspective, what impact does the rise of fast fashion has on the consumption of traditional ethnic wear?

I think fast fashion has a whole lot of negative effects on traditional ethnic wear. The affordability factor and mass manufacturing of fast fashion products, often using synthetic fabrics coupled with heavy discounts and offers, kill the demand for authentic handloom products.
As custodians of Indian art and weaving, it is our duty to preserve our centuries-old techniques and protect them from the volatility of fast fashion. We recognise the timeless appeal of traditional apparel and the craftsmanship imbued in every thread, which cannot be replicated by mass-produced clothing. To maintain our cultural identity, we must adopt sustainable practices to ensure the longevity of these rich traditions.

Can you share the inspiration behind founding Shobitam?

As children, my sister Ambika and I shared a fervent interest in fashion. Moving to the US for our careers brought a new level of appreciation for Indian ethnic wear, particularly sarees, allowing us to stay connected to our roots and embrace our cultural heritage. Frustrated by the difficulty of obtaining authentic sarees, we were inspired to create a world-class brand that is accessible to the global women of today. That led to the birth of Shobitam, where masterpieces of Indian heritage weaves are peppered with modern aesthetics.

How do you ensure that the unique craftsmanship of the weavers you collaborate with is showcased in your collections?

Our country boasts a diverse range of languages and dialects, and the same can be said for its intricate weaves and textile art forms. Each state has its unique weave, whether it be the vibrant ajrakh hand printing from Kutch or the meticulous ikat geometric patterns of Odisha. At Shobitam, we celebrate the rich tradition of Indian textile art and strive to showcase the exquisite craftsmanship and timeless quality of each weave. We carefully select only authentic weavers who embody the essence of their craft. Our brand preserves the originality of each craft and adds modern aesthetics to make it relevant to today’s society. Our innovative approach often involves merging multiple art forms from different regions to create something truly exceptional.

Can you elaborate on the process of designing and curating collections that reflect both traditional Indian aesthetics and modern trends?

Our clientele is diverse. Some have experienced life outside their homeland and take pride in honouring their roots, while others are new to Indian fashion but are captivated by its rich intricacies. Both value cultural significance while embracing modern trends. We re-imagine traditional weaves through a contemporary lens. We present trench coats in exquisite banarasi brocade fabrics and several Indo-Western garments to satiate the sartorial choices of our customers. Today, people do not want to follow trends; they want to be trendsetters and our sarees and blouses are no different. We have chikankari, kanjivarams, banarasis with Kerala murals, and blouses crafted with denim, making them true stand-out pieces.

What challenges have you faced in popularising lesser-known and unique Indian weaves, and how do you overcome them?

At Shobitam, we strive to showcase the length and breadth of India’s weaves and artistic heritage, bringing attention to the often-overlooked techniques and styles that rival those of the better-known. We believe that every weave and art deserves recognition and appreciation, and we are committed to elevating their status and value. We have taken significant strides on this journey by increasing awareness and forging a connection between the art and our customers.

What role does sustainability play in your brand’s ethos, especially in the context of the fashion industry’s environmental impact?

The fashion industry is one of the top polluters worldwide. It is high time that all stakeholders took charge and did their utmost to improve the situation. Our major category is sarees, and they being timeless pieces that get passed onto generations, they are one of the most sustainable garments.
We follow the mantra. ‘Look good, do good, feel good’. Most of our products are made from natural fabrics that are good both for our skin and our environment. We have gone one step further and we actively promote and popularise vegan silks made from agro residue that make it a win-win for our customers and the environment.

How do you balance quality, affordability, and accessibility in your product offerings, particularly when it comes to sarees?

Our customer-centric brand takes immense pride in delivering unparalleled value to our customers. Our stringent quality standards, upheld by our skilled team, ensure that every product is checked thrice and that only the finest products reach our customers’ hands. Our unique approach of being completely vertically integrated with our weavers and artisans along with our rich technology stack enables us to disrupt this highly fragmented space and also to swiftly create each design with utmost precision. Additionally, our silks are certified by Silk Mark, instilling confidence in our customers with each purchase.
Our dual fulfilment model ensures that customers anywhere around the world receive their saree along with a stitched blouse in 5 to 7 days, ensuring that they have access to authentic world-class Indian heritage products at the click of a button.

Can you share some insights into the process of sourcing materials for your collections and ensuring they meet your standards of quality?

The handloom arts and crafts space is the largest industry after agriculture, and its production methods are very archaic, with very little penetration of technology. We are changing the landscape of this industry by leveraging technology. Our native apps ensure that we have visibility and control over quality and designs right from the production stage, which significantly reduces quality issues later in the cycle. The loyalty from our artisans ensures we have a strong supplier moat, and the designs we co-create remain unique to us for much longer. The exceptionally low return rate of our products from customers is proof of our watertight quality control process.

In what ways do you plan to expand Shobitam’s reach and impact globally while staying rooted in its mission of affordability and elegance?

Our five strategic pillars drive unparalleled expansion. Customer devotion is our number one imperative, as evidenced by our impressive 7,500+ five-star customer reviews. Our second pillar is selection – we offer exquisite weaves from all corners of India. Quality is the cornerstone of our third principle – each of our silk items is certified by Silk Mark for excellence. Our fourth pillar is unmatched five-star service – we provide value-added assistance, including falls, pico, and blouse stitching, catering to the needs of the global woman who may not have access to such services elsewhere. And finally, our fifth pillar is quick fulfilment – we guarantee delivery within 5 to 7 days worldwide.
We aim to build a world-class brand from India, for the world!

Looking ahead, what are some of the key goals and aspirations for Shobitam, both in terms of business growth and social impact?

Shobitam’s mission began with unwavering determination and a profound sense of purpose. This commitment to social impact has been a driving force since our inception on International Women’s Day in 2019, well before we became a prominent brand. Through our ‘Shobitam Cares’ programme, we support and uplift our weavers, through various programmes. During the pandemic, we also ensured their well-being by supplying dry rations to over 600 families, thereby building loyalty. Additionally, our ‘Shobitam Gives’ initiative has allowed us to partner with various NGOs and offer financial support. We extend our empowering efforts beyond our team and artisans to the larger community, with a particular focus on empowering and celebrating women.
In 2023, we started the Shobitam Centre for Excellence in Collaboration with BITS Pilani with a fund of ₹10 million. This centre aims to close the alarming gender gap in the start-up world with one woman entrepreneur at a time.  Our endeavours will persist and expand on a national scale.
On the business side, our consistent goal is to create a world-class D2C platform backed by technology for ethnic products globally. We are rapidly expanding to categories such as ready-to-wear Indo-ethnic, kidswear, menswear, lehengas, jewellery, and home décor.

How do you think the fashion industry can contribute to promoting cultural diversity and appreciation through ethnic wear brands?

I believe the fashion industry plays a pivotal role in promoting cultural diversity in several ways. Ethnic wear brands like Shobitam cater to the South Asian diaspora spread across the globe, making it one of the simplest ways to celebrate one’s cultural identity and roots through ethnic wear. Sarees, in particular, act as a vibrant thread connecting us to our past, with each motif on a saree reflecting the place and times that have passed. For example, kanjivaram sarees bear motifs inspired by the temples and palaces built during the Chola period. The design vocabulary of a banarasi is filled with Persian and Mughal influences. It reminds us of our cultural diversity and inclusive past and also aids in self-expression.
Each one of our heritage weaves celebrates various ethnicities, their belief systems, and the craftsmanship they promoted. Through the cross-cultural collaboration of artists where we can marry various art forms together, ethnic brands can promote inclusivity and diversity. In this process, they can also create some unique offerings, leading to widespread appreciation and recognition of our age-old textile traditions.

In your opinion, what role does e-commerce play in democratising access to traditional fashion, especially for diaspora communities?

Our big bold vision as a company is to democratise ethnic fashion and we believe the best way to do so is through e-commerce, due to the following reasons:
Irrespective of geographical location, one can have access to a lesser-known art form. Sitting in Sydney, a person can select from over 3,000 products and choose an authentic gondh saree produced in the heartlands of Madhya Pradesh, which would not have been accessible in the brick-and-mortar model. With e-commerce, barriers disappear, and people can effortlessly obtain what they truly desire.
For a brand like Shobitam, our tech-backed solutions serve as catalysts on the e-commerce platform.  We have implemented a bespoke blouse solution for women, which is the first of its kind in the world. Customers can choose necklines, sleeves, and choice of fabrics and create and view the blouse that they want. Our custom blouse solution for sarees allows customers to enter their measurements and patterns seamlessly in the front end, it validates them in the middle tier and converts to a sketch for our tailors, enabling us to provide value-added services at scale.
E-commerce and technology also make it possible to build a vibrant online community that fosters this space.

What are some of the challenges faced by traditional artisans and weavers in India, and how can brands help address these challenges?

One of the major challenges they face is the presence of a thick section of middle people between them and the end customers. They do not get paid fairly for their work as a major chunk is taken by the middle layer as commissions and other miscellaneous charges. The other major setback for them is the unlawful practice of flooding the market with counterfeit products. Products manufactured at power looms are often sold for cheaper rates as handloom products, often leaving weavers in a state of distress. They also need more dedicated support when it comes to service and maintenance of their pit looms. 
Brands like Shobitam support the artisans by being vertically integrated and completely dismantling the middle layer. We provide fair wages to the weavers and assist them in the procurement of raw materials. We also create a healthy pipeline for them by generating demand for their products.

How do you see the intersection of fashion and technology evolving in the coming years?

It will be very exciting to see the possibilities that arise and the game-changing evolution of the fashion industry due to technology. The lines between real and virtual are already blurred. With the advent of AI and AR technologies, we are going to witness trends that are innovative, hyper-personalised, and sustainable. The entire landscape of fashion design, production, and consumption will see a massive transformation. With highly automated solutions we can expect more transparency in the supply chain. Technological intervention in fabrics can lead to more recycled and sustainable materials.  Shortly, we may see AI-powered styling assistants and the integration of wearable technology into fashion. In all areas of fashion, technology is bound to bring about transformative solutions.
Interviewer: Shilpi Panjabi
Published on: 15/04/2024

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.