Ask women across India to recommend a tailor who can stitch that perfect saree blouse and you are most likely to hear them say they are still looking for one. Even after seven years in Bengaluru, my own quest for the tailor who can stitch me a perfectly fitting blouse remains unfulfilled, and I am not alone in wishing this would not be such an ordeal. For my part, I have gone as far as wishing someone would create a 3D printer that would print saree blouses.
Though that may be a far-fetched idea, Roopa and Rachana Reddy have a pretty good alternative. To solve the problem of tailor tussles, long commutes and unpredictable results, they started House of Blouse, a blouse design app-based website that enables women to custom design and order blouses from the comfort of their homes.
Rachana, 30, and Roopa, 44, are distantly related. Rachana, already an established entrepreneur with her niche accessories brand Rachana Reddy Accessories, wanted to do something with mass customisation. Her brainstorming sessions with family had everyone excited about a blouse design app idea which would enable not just customisation but also push women to use their creativity to come up with new designs and see them in real time.
Roopa, who calls herself a maverick and has tried her hand at multiple things, did a fashion design course late in life and joined hands with Rachana in creating her vision.
Having struggled with the hassles of getting blouses made, both women agreed that they themselves would be users of such a service.
From idea to execution
Their addressable market is women in the ages of 24–40 who are, they say, “internet savvy, online shoppers, ethnic wear- and fusion wear aficionados in India and the world over.” Though they target women, men who shop for their wives and girlfriends also make up a large part of their audience. At present, they cater to everyone who has a love for Indian wear and Indian textiles. Going forward, they are planning to appeal to a much larger global audience with customisable western silhouettes.
The duo conceptualised the website and got it built by a tech team. The first and current version was completely custom-built with what they perceived good for a prototype/beta version. House of Blouse went live in May 2015 with an invitation to a select few. Though fully operational from around July 2015, they continued to keep the beta sign as they wanted to fine-tune their entire ‘design to delivery’ process. To ensure this, the duo did extensive paper testing by sending out physical kits to friends and family, simulating their design customisation process on paper and then getting the custom blouses made and sending them out. “It was a process of ironing out glitches and fine-tuning through and through,” they say.
Moving out from the beta phase
It was only in July 2016, after the fine-tuning was done, targets were met, and they started receiving positive feedback from customers both in India and abroad, that they finally decided to remove the beta sign from the website.
“Ours is the only website with a web application called the 'Style Creator' where you can customise and see the variations of the design live on a model. We definitely plan to have a separate app at some point in future but we are, at the moment, focusing on rebuilding our website and making it as mobile-friendly as possible. We are in the process of completely revamping and upgrading the site and technology and we would prefer to disclose details once it is live, early next year,” they say.
Roopa and Rachana are based in Bengaluru, and are appreciative of the support they have received from family and friends. Roopa had an active childhood packed with extra-curricular activities and sports. A college dropout who has always been creatively inclined, it is no wonder that Roopa is the creative head and responsible for design, quality, and development of products, as well as overall creative efforts for marketing and product designs.
Battling with a sickness, moving back abruptly to India from the US and going through a divorce — all three of which happened simultaneously — Roopa is not new to challenges. “Though I would not wish such times on anyone, I think they were the best things that happened to me as I lost all fear after that and began living each day at a time,” she says.
Rachana is the CEO and handles a general overview in all aspects — strategy, managerial, operational, and financial responsibilities. A true- blue Bangalorean, she has loved creating things since childhood. As a top student, she went to get an engineering degree but in the first year realised it was not for her. Much soul-searching found her a goal — a fashion accessories design course from London College of Fashion and this charted her career path and got her to start her own accessories line at 23.
“I think starting a business at a young age and trying to stick my head up through it all and not let the lows (personal and professional) get in the way is the key to succeed. You need the courage and passion to wake up each morning and spring back. It is quite challenging to find a continuous source of strength and inspiration within yourself.”
Their own experiences and personal challenges have only strengthened them to march forward with confidence and make House of Blouse bigger and better.
House of Blouse
The core of their business model is customisation. Customers can craft an original design from scratch or pick a pre-designed style and add a few customisations. “We believe that since every woman is unique, she should be able to create her own style and this is the beauty of our business model. Women enjoy it so much that one of them even called it an Xbox for girls,” says Roopa.
They share that they have seen immense traction and growth by almost 900 percent over the past 12 months. They have about 5,000 registered users and about 35 percent of their customers are international customers.
A mixed bag
The House of Blouse team comprises a mixed bag of people, from tailors to style advisors, each with varied backgrounds interacting together to create the final product. “We share an open workspace and it’s not unusual to find a master or a tailor looking at model shoots of their blouses at the graphic designer’s desk or the graphic designer similarly being interested in the master’s work. Our team is proudly passionate about their work and it is not unusual to see tempers flare and people digging in their heels and defending their unique point of view. This includes everybody from tailor masters, finishers to the founders of the company. We are currently a team of 22 with production mostly being done in-house.”
“A blouse fit is sacrosanct to the Indian woman. We have invested a considerable amount of time and effort in developing our sizing and quality control of the end products. The challenges we see in scaling up are primarily of quality control in the production of custom blouses, and going ahead with other custom-made clothing as well.” They are in the process of developing full proof methods for sizing and quality, which can be used to train production heads when they start outsourcing to units which are not in-house.
However, it has been a big challenge to convince customers to try shopping for a custom blouse online. “In spite of this, we are proud to say that we’ve ensured 90 percent of our customers got their sizing right in their first order and now we have almost 40 percent repeat customers.”
All about women
The response they have received has been overwhelming and keeps them going. As they plan to grow and scale, they are also actively looking to take onboard a CTO.
They plan to remain in the mid-range category and not escalate to the pricing methods of original designer wear. “Our mantra is chic, contemporary, high on style, but affordable for our prêt section. And the starting range for our custom blouses is currently Rs1,500.”
Roopa and Rachana believe women are, and will be, their primary customers, and this customer base is only going to increase in the future. Customisation will be the key for their ambitious business plan.