This article is a part of the CitySparks series sponsored by Verisign
This story is set against the backdrop of a beautiful tapestry that showcases the warps of heritage Indian designs drawn through the wefts of contemporary style. A young graduate of the National Institute of Design, who had worked as a costume designer for films and theatre, decided that her calling lay elsewhere. Archana Shah gave up her career and stepped out on her own to create an appreciation for hand-crafted textiles in the urban market. Her vision was simple. She wanted to work with artisans, not just to preserve a dying art, but to also showcase their craft in a modern, fast-changing world and flourish with them through a commercially successful business venture.
With her eye on the prize, she breathed life into Bandhej, one of India’s first ‘designer’ labels to feature handmade textiles. The first store opened in Ahmedabad in 1985, selling a range of home linens – such as bed covers, tablecloths and napkins. It would be another two years before the brand forayed into fashioning traditional Indian textiles into elegant, avant-garde clothing.
What made Bandhej unique was that their fabrics were, and still are, designed at their studio in Ahmedabad. The textiles are then produced by around 800-900 artisans from all over the country, but mostly in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. “Some of the sarees we create take 6-8 months of labour,” explains Archana, “Not only do you appreciate it as a unique, beautiful piece, you also appreciate the kind of man-hours that go into producing it.”
Archana was one of the earliest women-entrepreneurs, one who didn’t think of the risks that came with running one’s own enterprise. “I thrived on the excitement, the novelty, and the joy the work gave me,” she says. And that hasn’t changed after three decades.
Archana has kept things fresh, relevant and new. She’s modelled industry best practices and yet set herself apart by being different. In the mid-’90s, to reach out to a larger customer base, Bandhej released a catalogue featuring their products and describing their craft centres, which became very popular in over 100 cities and towns. They printed 50,000 copies every season, and even today, customers remember them well. “It was a costly thing to do, but it was a great training ground in sales and brand building,” says Archana.
The magic carpet ride goes virtual
As the retail landscape evolved, going online was the next logical step with Bandhej.com. “It was the buzz around the .com that made us realise we needed a web presence too,” Archana explains, outlining how they went about trying to ensure their presence online was a meaningful one. A few years later, she realised that e-commerce was here to stay. She saw a growing number of specialised businesses going online and benefitting, especially in regions where they had no retail presence.
So Archana revamped and re-launched the site with ecommerce giving customers the option to buy Bandhej products. The site features products from each of their signature styles in sarees, cholis, kurtas, tunics, dresses, dupattas and more. This helps generate an increasing interest in the brand and in spreading awareness. The site has also played a key role in increasing the footfall at their stores. “One has influenced the other. Customers have found their way to the stores after discovering Bandhej online and vice versa,” Archana explains. Today, the site complements their brick-and-mortar stores in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Pune and Kochi.
This trend is encouraging and Archana plans to grow Bandhej’s online offerings in the coming months to include their entire range. Her big lesson learned on this digital platform was to look at different ways to visually present the company’s products.
“I don’t think the retail experience of actually touching a product will go away. Both will complement each other,” Archana believes. She’s committed to retaining the personal touch and nurtures a loyal Bandhej community by connecting directly with customers on Facebook and Twitter. This in turn directs more traffic to the online store.
She believes there’s a great future for the online retail experience, especially for those businesses that have already built trust and relationships with walk-in clients: “Online medium is great, and it has a huge future.”
Bandhej continues to create their unique brand online through .com. Have you started doing that yet? Go Big, Go .com!
Register your .com at www.gobigwith.com