He was called ‘Bin Laden,’ and he responded by creating a brand Punjabis swear by
When the words 'Bin Laden' were thoughtlessly shot at Harinder Singh by some Italian students, what pierced him was not the intended offence, but the offender's ignorance. And he chose to respond not with the fury of a thousand suns, but with the flamboyance of a thousand trinkets that embodied, in the most hip and demiurgic manner possible, what Punjabiyat and Sikhiyat stood for.
A dual identity with a creative core
Forty nine-year-old Harinder Singh was born and raised in Delhi, but is a son of the Punjabi soil. He procured his B.Com (hons) from Delhi University, and with a father in government service and a grandfather who ran his own steel business, how Harinder's life would pan out was anybody's guess.
He did join his grandfather's steel business in Okhla. But given the meandering mind he had, and continued exposure to factories of garment manufacturers and exporters in Okhla, Harinder was back to the drawing board in no time. “Without the knowledge of my elders, I sampled some T-shirts and floated them in the market. I felt that people always bought imported tees as the domestic market didn’t have quality choices–so, I wanted to make the best tees in India in terms of quality, workmanship, and detailing,” says Harinder.
While he was successfully exporting jersey garments to leading brands around the world, he felt that its quality was appreciated–but his creativity, on the other hand, was neither fully evoked nor evinced. “The taxing regimen of a garment exporter was taking its toll on me, so I decided to do something that was closer to my heart,” he explains.
There was one episode and one observation that led to the decision of creating a conceptual brand that revels in all things Punjab. The former was the discrimination world over that Sikhs were the victims of, following the 9-11 attacks in the US, and the latter, a lack of pride in the Punjabi natives of India themselves, in their traditions and heritage. “The day a young fleet of students in the scenic city of Florence in Italy in 2002 pointed out to me and shouted 'Bin Laden!' was when I realised that the Punjabi, and specifically the Sikh, identity was not clear to most people in the world,” recalls Harinder.
A story that started in 2005 but dates back to 1469...
This series of events snowballed into an all-consuming desire to emblazon his culture and heritage.
“This came about as 1469, out of my passion for Punjab,” explains Harinder.
Founded by him and his wife Kirandeep Kaur, 1469's product is, thus, Punjab. The name itself signifies the birth year of Guru Nanak. All their merchandise revolves around Punjab–whether it’s T-shirts with quirky Punjabi slogans, jackets made from pieces of old Phulkari baaghs, stoles in contemporary Phulkari embroidery, or handmade mugs with chaa written in Gurmukhi. “We demand our price for the unique concept and quality that meets global standards. The products range from a keychain, the sangrur bell made in the villages of Punjab priced at Rs 200, to a painting by an artist depicting a typical folk singer playing his Tumbi at Rs 200,000,” explains Harinder. Many of their products subtly impart social messages too.
While Harinder is more involved with the ideation, Kirandeep has been charged with looking over the operations locally and overseas, and implementing Harinder's creative ideas.
They have stuck to the elementary route of creating quality products, selling them, and putting the money back into rotation, and count on word-of-mouth to power this fragile arrangement and keep the sales going.
In 2005, 1469 was launched with one store in Defence Colony, New Delhi, and clocked a turnover of Rs 50 lakh, which climbed to Rs 80 lakh as the word got out. Maintaining that rhythm, they further grew by more than 50 percent to record Rs 1.25 crore in revenues in 2007. Taking a cue from this consistent ascent, the husband-wife duo thought the time was right, in 2008, to launch another store in Chandigarh, also making it their first in Punjab. The header paid off, and by 2010, they gathered the gusto to open three more stores – two in Janpath and one in Amritsar. Come 2011, they consolidated their regional presence with a store in Karnal, which is often a stopover for people travelling to Punjab from Delhi and Haryana.
Their turnovers reflected this stealth, and grew to roughly Rs 2.50 crore.
But the best was yet to come.
A grand salute
In the year 2011, a brand new brand relationship emerged, as Bollywood director Imtiaz Ali took notice of the quirky boutiques that dotted significant locations in Delhi. “During the promotion of their film Rockstar, both Imtiaz Ali and Ranbir Kapoor visited our Chandigarh store and advocated our brand amidst fans with immense grace,” says Harinder.
With this boost, their turnovers nearly doubled by 2013. Seeing that they were indeed succeeding in romanticising what it meant to be a Punjabi, Harinder decided to earmark this phenomenon with one flamboyant salute – in the form of 'Mela Phulkari'- an artistic movement almost. “In our journey with 1469, we discovered the beauty and character of the baaghs that were embroidered as part of their daily chores by the women of Panjab. Over the years this characteristic experiential craft which had an emotional and social connect with the people, dwindled into the commercial embroidery technique of phulkari” explains Harinder.
So, they decided to preserve and proliferate this craft, by collecting and preserving the old pieces they could get hold of, saving their patterns digitally, helping artisans hone their existing technique of making phulkari, and finally, bringing phulkari back, except – the traditional dupatta gave way to stoles, bags, potlis, kites, cushions, the works! When they shared this collection of baaghs with art historian and cultural theorist, Dr. Alka Pande she decided to curate an exhibition on them at the visual arts gallery at IHC – and here we are.
Meanwhile, it didn't take long for the business relationship between Harinder and Imtiaz to blossom into a friendship–he not only stayed loyal to all of their endeavours like Mela Phulkari, but also had actor Ranbir Kapoor sport a 1469 tee with ‘Dramebaaz’ written on it, during the promotion of his film Tamasha. The tee has since been a bestseller. Apart from this, 1469 also export their apparel, and have manufactured for brands like Marks & Spencers, Cortefeil, WE, and Paul Smith & Didi.
International love and rebellious teens
The art, craft, and script of Punjab especially strike a chord with NRIs, who crave for anything that invokes associations with their motherland. It is also becoming somewhat of an alternate style statement for North Indian teens. The golden sale period of 1469 is usually between October and April, when foreign tourists and non-resident Indians visit, and corporate orders for weddings, events and so on have also kept them going.
Having said that, Harinder feels like the second problem statement he had set out to resolve continues to persist. “Even though our foreign clientele keeps coming back for more, we have still not been able to convince the Indian Panjabis about the worth of preserving their traditions and heritage. We are struggling to inculcate pride in them, especially in their mother tongue and culture. But we are not giving up. We will keep gathering new ideas and throwing new products to let them celebrate Panjabiyat,” he says.
With all these new additions to their brand's bouquet, they will now be approaching the Rs 8 crore per annum mark in revenues. They are now looking at a new store launch in Select City Walk Mall in Saket, New Delhi, and may expand to Mumbai in the near future. Before signing off, however, Harinder reveals that he has also set his sights on the internet, and assures us that the e-commerce space will be hearing about 1469 soon.