How these Stanford and NIFT alumni started an ethical, sustainable clothing brand

Tanvi Bikhchandani and Charanya Shekar are the Co-founders of Tamarind Chutney, a sustainable clothing brand that focuses on generating consistent livelihoods for artisans.
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Tanvi Bikhchandani and Charanya Shekar, Co-founders of Tamarind Chutney, an ethnic clothing brand have been friends from nursery school. They often discussed career options as they grew up, and spoke about starting up in the sustainable fashion space. This dream came true many years later.

In between, Tanvi went on to pursue an undergraduate degree in Economics and South Asian Studies at Columbia University and Charanya opted to join the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) to pursue her interest in fashion and textiles.

“During my time at Columbia, I realised how privileged I was to lead the life I had and the opportunities that came my way. I also began noticing the stark contrasts in society and decided to come back to India and work in the development sector,” Tanvi tells HerStory.

On her return, Tanvi joined the Central Square Foundation where she worked in the field of education. However, she also wanted to explore other areas of development, especially livelihood generation for marginalised communities. She interned at Fab India for a while and got interested in the handloom and craft business.

When she joined Stanford Business School for her master’s course, the thought of becoming of an entrepreneur took root in her mind. Tanvi came back convinced about livelihood generation and got talking to Charanya, who at that time was thinking of quitting her job at Bareek, a men’s apparel company.



Getting artisans their due

During her time in the US, Tanvi noticed many Western dresses were made with Indian fabrics like ikat and sold at high prices. But only a fraction of what customers paid for the clothes trickled down to artisans.

“It was not a fair supply chain. I wanted to do something about it and also create contemporary clothing for a younger audience,” she says.

A top from Tamarind Chutney

With a small grant she received from Stanford, the founders went on field trips to Rajasthan to meet small artisans who, despite having a vibrant market for their craft, were not getting enough work.

Ajrakh, kalamkari, pochampalli, ikat and other have become prominent, but only a few artisans have become famous because of the brands working with them. Smaller artisans within these crafts were not getting much market access,” she adds.

A successful pilot

So, in 2019, with fabric sourced from these small and medium-sized artisan communities, Tamarind Chutney piloted their first collection with ajrakh and handwoven fabric from Kutch and Uttar Pradesh. The line comprised tops and dresses in around 10-11 styles. Over the past year, they have expanded to include Maheshwari and Chanderi silk artisans, Bengali weavers. Most recently, they have added Sanganer block printing from Rajasthan to their lineup.

The fabric is sourced from artisans across five states. Charanya designs the apparel and stitching is outsourced to a tailoring unit in Delhi. Some of the accessories are also outsourced to non-profits that work to upskill women.

Sourcing the fabric is not the only aim of Tamarind Chutney. The co-founders have raised a fund to ensure basic livelihood support to artisans during COVID-19. The organisation helps them market products, and directly get in touch with buyers.

Tamarind Chutney’s target audience is millennial women between the ages of 18 and 40 in Tier I and II cities. These are typically women looking to buy from an ethical, sustainable brand, and who would like to have an element of craft in their wardrobe.

The products are sold on its own website, www.tamarindchutney.in, and also listed on other sites like LBB. Prices begin at Rs 650 and go up to Rs 3,500, and the range now includes tops, dresses, masks, hairbands, sarees, pants, and men’s apparel.

“Obviously, COVID-19 has been really bad for small brands. The silver lining is that we had not invested a lot. It has also forced us to become creative with our digital strategy, acquire more customers online, think about SEO, and become even more committed to the issue of artisans’ livelihood,” Tanvi says.

To this end, they have pivoted their range to include rakhis, masks, and home décor for Diwali as people are still spending for occasions and festivals.

Some challenges remain, including working with artisans as this needs planning, upskilling, and meeting timelines.

“Hopefully, once things return to normal, we would want to scale our business model and establish our brand. We are looking at working with 7,000 artisans in the next five years. Our aim is also to nudge the industry to adopt better standards and produce responsibly,” Tanvi says.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)

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