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Vision India 2020: Urja

Posted on Sunday, May 11th 2008

For many years, I had traveled around India and wondered how to take advantage of the tremendous craftsmanship that exists in the depths of India. Whether it is in Nagaland or Gujarat, Kashmir or Bengal, India’s heritage has been rich with artisans.

Yet, for all its creativity, the sophistication of design and quality of finish were always elusive. Indian designs were always too complex, too busy. Thus, the potential for a strong international brand that could transcend cultures and appeal to a wide audience somehow eluded India.

The answer came to me gradually, and received a propulsion during a vacation in Italy in the Spring of 2007. We were staying with Carol and Ginou in the Tuscan village of San Giovanni d’Asso. One evening, their friend Alessandro came for dinner. Alessandro had been a top executive at Giorgio Armani in Milan, and had traveled widely in India.

The question I was asking was also on his mind.

And that evening, under the Tuscan moon, Urja was born.

Urja, by the way, means born out of creative energy in Sanskrit.

Over the next two years, we simply kicked around the ideas, talked with people, and worked on recruiting a core team that could pilot our concept. Our core hypothesis was that if Italian designers were made to work with the artisans in India in various communities, design sophistication could be achieved.

We tested this with Lucknow Chikan as part of the pilot. Our Italian designer team in Milan and our Chikan team in Lucknow worked together to exchange design ideas. When the first set of designs came out of this pilot, we were delighted to see the simplification that the Italian team had been able to achieve, without losing the beauty, intricacy, and charm of the original art form.

A simple set of the most elegant dress shirts had been created.

Alessandro and I were primarily concerned with the fact that Indian designs were too complex for global taste, so this was a major milestone for us to reach to convince ourselves that sophisticated design was, indeed, possible through this cross-cultural exchange.

The next two big issues were “cut” and “quality control.”

Indian designers had very little experience of what I call “design for manufacturability” that is essential for a scalable ready-to-wear industry to come together. They had experience in designing salwar-kameez, ghagra-choli, or saris, but very little in western clothing.

The industry had to be trained in cut and manufacturing to spec. For this, we turned to Alessandro’s contacts in the Italian fashion industry, and recruited a top-notch team of manufacturing experts. Even on the Quality Control issue, we had the Italians train our teams in India.

With those 3 legs of our plan in place, we went and raised money. I convinced Alessandro to forget his retirement ideas, and take the CEO role. French Billionaire Francois Pinault, who also owns Gucci among other fashion brands, funded the concept, and his company became our long term investor through the next 11 years of Urja’s evolution.

We created the Urja brand using the Internet, as well as retail channels. Today, we have flagship stores on Champs-Élysées in Paris, Via Condotti in Rome, Fifth Avenue in New York, among others.

Our advertising campaign was very Web 3.0. Several of our Italian designers and Indian artisans became celebrities on the internet, since we encouraged them to engage with the customers on social media and the Glam.com network.

The side-effect was that we carefully monitored customer feedback, and in fact, engaged customers with our designers almost as pre-design focus groups, online. We learned so much through these interactions, and every time we were about to launch a new concept, we could go back to our core customer base and check the assumptions.

One by one, we incorporated Tassar silk from Bengal, Rajasthani Block Print techniques, Dhakai Jamdani fabrics, Gujarati mirror and bnadhni work, Kashmiri shawls, even tribal artisans’ work, into our collections.

We paid attention to every detail – from buttons to draw-strings. We had artisans who specialized in making the most unique collections of buttons and cuff-links!

Our Italian-Indian fusion brand became a sensation, injecting a sense of novelty and creativity into the global fashion world that had, by and large, become boring.

And most importantly, we were able to build a financially sound, compelling business that is now supporting the livelihood of 100,000 artisans across India.

Urja, indeed, was born out of creative energy. However, the business was chiseled and sculpted carefully, keeping in mind the core nuggets of our vision: simplicity, detail, sophistication and quality.

And with that, we seduced the fashion world.

Note: Vision India 2020 was subsequently published as a book. You can order it from AmazonKindleAmazon.in, etc.

A call to Indian entrepreneurs everywhere, Vision India 2020 challenges and inspires readers to build the future now. In this “futuristic retrospective,” author Sramana Mitra shows how over the next decade, start-up companies in India could be turned into billion-dollar enterprises. Vision India 2020, which encompasses a wide range of sectors from technology to infrastructure, healthcare to education, environmental issues to entertainment, proves how even the most sizeable problems can be solved by exercising bold, ambitious measures. Renowned in the business world, author Sramana Mitra conceived Vision India 2020 from her years of experience as a Silicon Valley strategy consultant and entrepreneur. Well aware of the challenges facing today’s aspiring entrepreneurs, Mitra provides strategies, business models, references, and comparables as a guide to help entrepreneurs manifest their own world-changing ideas. 

This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020

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Sramana,
Wow! just today my wife and I went out to get a gift for a Japanese customer. Went to our favorite Kashmiri handicrafts store here in Bangalore – fell in love with hardwood (walnut) boxes with trick latches – some incredibly intricate, and others striking in their simplicity; the front was done without a blemish and no indication of how you open it (or even if you can) – however the internal finish, for instance where the lock latches or in the back around the hinge left much to be desired. So even when we produce products that are amenable to global tastes, the sophistication (or lack thereof) of finish is a skill our artisans and we marketers have to acquire. So the vision and dream of Urja burns inside me as well.

Question I had here, really a clarification, is that in your earlier vision of training and now with Urja, the strategy you seem to have taken is to build on an existing global brand – is the intention to shorten the cycle to success, or is there any reason we cannot build a Native global brand?

In an aside, I always wondered if tongue twisting names such as Salvatore Ferragamo can be household brands, why Kuppuswamy Karupazhagan can’t be a global fashion brand? Guess Sabhyasachi is our first shot across the bow. Would love to take this discussion off line as I am working on something on these lines (without any Italians, friendy or otherwise :-))

K. Srikrishna Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 8:02 AM PT

Sramana,

This piece & Gautam Godhwani’s work towards the India Community Center (part of your Interview Series) got me wondering.

Is there an “India Outreach” website (or other such) where such diaspora related success stories are captured?

Srinagesh Eranki Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 6:17 PM PT

Srikrishna,

Urja is not an existing global brand. I took the strategy of (a) hiring experienced management from a global brand (b) money that has the experienced of building global fashion brands. Urja itself is not an existing brand at all. In your words, it is a “native” brand, with a Sanskrit name.

By the way, someone should coach Sabyasachi. He has absolutely no clue about designing western clothes. It’s awful – what he is doing.

As for long names, I personally don’t like long names. But you can try 🙂

Srinagesh,

I don’t believe any such site exists. You can read many such stories on this site, though. I have profiled many entrepreneurs over the last 2 years.

Sramana

Sramana Mitra Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 8:28 PM PT

Is there a chance you could post a pic or 2 or maybe some flickr link etc for us to see what the final creation looked like?

Arpan Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 10:47 PM PT

Arpan,

That would require that I hire Italian designers and Lucknowi Chikan designers and create this brand.

I think, you are missing the point of this series.

Sramana

Sramana Mitra Monday, May 12, 2008 at 8:00 AM PT

I liked Arpan’s question. Where is the pic of the design ! Seeing is believing. We will see this in the year 2020 Arpan. By the way the number 20 is very popular now a days in India having IPL Cricket teams fighting it out on the field in the form of T20 maches. The kind of business they are already doing I wonder what is their vision for the year 2020.

Santanu Monday, May 12, 2008 at 10:02 AM PT

Santanu, Arpan –

To have a significant multi-billion dollar brand by 2020, you have to start seeing pictures and products by 2010-2011.

Sramana

Sramana Mitra Monday, May 12, 2008 at 10:23 AM PT

Here are some pictures of shirts that have the right styling / cut / quality. The Indian fabrics and embroidery would need to be layered in.

Armani 1 Armani 2 Armani 3
Armani 4 Armani 5 Armani 6
Armani 7

Sramana Mitra Monday, May 12, 2008 at 10:32 AM PT

Nice pictures, Sramana.

We already have designers in India like Rohit Bal, Ritu Kumar, Ritu Beri etc, who have achieved some success in Europe.Such people have the experience of doing what it takes to provide sophistication to Indian textile arts.I am not sure why none of them have tried designing a pret-a-port series fusing Indian arts and Western processes. Or may be they have, with limited success.

How big do you think such a venture can be, with (what seems to me) a targeted customer base comprising Western middle and upper middle classes?

I suppose Urja need not be limited to fusion dresses.We could build the Urja brand doing some thing else, like decorative items, toys etc. based on traditional Indian handicrafts. This approach may not need a high seed investment.

However, if Urja needs to be positioned as an exclusive fashion label, it needs to play by the rules of the fashion industry, invest in the branding and exclusivity, and only after the brand is established (say by 2015 or so), we could look at expanding the scope of the brand.

Kumar Narasimha Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 12:26 AM PT

Yes, Rohit Bal, Ritu Kumar, etc. understand how to work with Textiles, but I don’t think they still know how to design western clothing. They know how to design Indian clothing.

Ready-to-wear clothing is a very large industry, getting larger due to the entry of India and China into the equation. Both countries are also changing their style of clothing to some extent. Thus, the market is in the hundreds of Billions.

Then, to position a brand, you have to segment the market. In this case, we’re probably talking about a multi-billion dollar segment, still, in the upper-middle-end of the clothing business, where volumes and margin are both good.

And yes, most large fashion brands establish themselves in clothing and then move onto home furnishings.

Sramana Mitra Tuesday, May 13, 2008 at 8:22 AM PT

Late again! 🙁
This idea did strike a few of us a while back. Thanks for showing the big picture. I am convinced of the market potential. It will be great to see if someone can really make it this big.

Arpit Agarwal Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 7:59 PM PT

Wanna know more abt Vision India 2020

Abhijeet Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:08 AM PT

An interesting article covering Fabindia:

https://specials.rediff.com/money/2008/jun/18sl1.htm

Santanu Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 11:05 PM PT

Hi Santanu,

Fab India is an excellent case study of innovation in this sector. Their products are also quite good. The artisan franchise model is a very interesting experiment. Overall, Micro Franchise is a very good model for rural development.

Sramana Mitra Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 8:01 AM PT

was impressed by the work you are doing by marrying indian workmanship with western cuts. I am doing the same in my small personal capacity. would love to interact with you and be a part of this project. Also wanted to tell you that in my various trips overseas, I was happy to see Manish Arora alongside the many italian designers at Harrods in London. Another brand which had a special area in the Debenhams store was Anokhi of Jaipur. Made me feel proud and disappointed because I didnt not come across any other designer at any of the many popular malls in the US. would love to associate myself with what you are doing.

Varsha Talera Friday, June 27, 2008 at 9:39 AM PT

If I’m not mistaken, Sri Lanka has many manufacturing facilities that grind out Western fashions. I don’t know the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they sell more finished clothing to the West than all of India. Indian infrastructure to the countryside (where work would be done) is awful and probably a major factor holding back expansion.

I am familiar with the shop in Bangalore the first commenter cites (on Commercial Street). I agree, there are many interesting items in the store, but workmanship is inferior in many cases. And when it is not inferior it is touristy. Once I got home I never re-opened the package because there are few places to wear the fancy stuff.

newyorkdude Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 8:31 AM PT

[…] members of this community had developed good craftsmanship with bamboo and cane products. However, as we experienced in Urja, they lacked in design and quality […]

Vision India 2020: Oishi - Sramana Mitra on Strategy Sunday, July 27, 2008 at 10:59 AM PT

[…] segments of the running series can be accessed at MIT India, Urja, Lucid, Darjeeling, Renaissance, Gangotri, Maya Ray, Elixar, Bioscope, Thakur, AdiShakti, Framed […]

The Indian Economy Blog » Entrepreneurship Vision India 2020 Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 10:21 PM PT

Hi, just visited your blog first time, and found it quite interesting. Nice post indeed. Thanks for sharing it to all.
Regards
Praveen singh
Lucknow Chikan

Lucknow Chikan Monday, March 29, 2010 at 2:25 AM PT

Sramana,

Sramana,

I liked reading about Urja…more power to you and your team.

A few years ago, I tried to work with handicrafts and artisans of rural India on the lines of your core hypothesis but we could not do well due to various reasons. Number one reason was that artisans could not prepare..identical pieces (say an idol or figurine) and number two was cost of shipment due to weight.

Would be interested to read/learn more about Urja.

Ani Agnihotri

Ani Agnihotri Tuesday, May 18, 2010 at 9:31 AM PT