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 bothered him. India is without doubt richer than any other country in traditional handicrafts and artisanship, from textiles to fine embroidery, and from metalwork and leather craft to woodwork. Yet, traditional Indian crafts made little impact on world fashion, and artisans remained poor, often hostage to middlemen.
The handicrafts sector is India’s second largest employer, yet accounts for less than two per cent of the world’s handicrafts export market. And 47 per cent of India’s handloom weavers live below the poverty line. Sachdev had to do something about it. If every man is finally defined by his passion, he had found it. Caravan Craft was born.
People he spoke to initially were cynical. “Another Fabindia, you mean?” was the question he faced repeatedly. That was, of course, a result of Fabindia being the most visibly successful Indian brand related to crafts. No, not another Fabindia, Sachdev would reply: “Caravan will be urban chic with an international flavour. It will be global fashion aimed at consumers who 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 products that would define Caravan, he would ask why Sachdev wasn’t thinking of an online store, why a brick-and-mortar retail chain? Sachdev would explain that the unique differentiator for Caravan’s products would be their distinctiveness from anything that was available in the market, and that could be stamped in the customer’s mind if she physically experienced them—saw them, felt them, tried them on at a store. 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.
The first impression as you enter a Caravan store is that it’s 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 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 outlets have opened, in Phoenix Market City Malls in Bangalore and Pune, and the company is looking at 15 more over the next 12 months, in India and abroad. Western 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 and locating clusters of artisans practising traditional craft. He met, among others, leather workers in Biaora in Madhya Pradesh, ikat weavers in Pochampally, Mangalgiri weavers in Guntur, muslin weavers in Burdwan and kantha embroiderers 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 to them. The talent of artisans of nearly every state in India is represented in Caravan products, a unique achievement by itself for a private enterprise.
But it was four years before funding came through. The initial investment arrived from the public sector National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) in 2012. NSDC recognised that Sachdev’s vision was aligned with its own mission of the 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. Sudipta Sinha, director and chief operating officer, Caravan Craft, says, “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, 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 involved. 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 Sach’s 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 totally committed to traditional Indian craft to make it to world fashionistas’ shopping list. All those years of pursuing a dream would then have paid off. As they should, in a fair world.
By Sandipan Deb in Bangalore