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.
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