[Aatmanirbhar Bharat] This woman entrepreneur is popularising Indian handcrafted designer products in the home decor space
Keerthi Tummala was a rebel in her small town of Tanuku in Andhra Pradesh for choosing to pursue fashion. Upon expressing her wish to study fashion and textile design in Milan, her family members thought it was safer to spend the money on her wedding than fund her education.
“In 2004, choosing a career in fashion was unthinkable in my town. If you were not opting for engineering or medicine, you were off the charts. But my mother's support pulled me through and I moved to Milan in 2005,” Keerthi recalls.
A graduate from Instituto Europeo di Design, she bagged several design internships in Italy before moving to Delhi in 2010. Back in India, she continued to work with major design firms like Ralph Lauren, where she forecast trends and developed seasonal collections, and travelled around the world to discover fabric innovations and for research.
In the early 2010s, global brands including Ralph Lauren were beginning to eye traditional Indian hanidcarfts – sourcing unique prints from Jaipur and linens from India that went on to feature on many furniture and home decor items. “Although I was working in the textile industry, it also exposed me to the home decor space during that time,” she says.
Making in India for the world
Keerthi was nurturing her passion for interior design by helping her friends and family design their homes. “Through these small projects, I saw that Indian retailers of home decor products were heavily dependent on imports from Italy and other Southeast Asian countries like China, Vietnam, and Japan,” she says.
Manufacturers in India were exporting only to big global brands and did not care for retailers who owned just one or two shops. On the other hand, domestic retailers were not only reluctant to design the products but also averse to placing orders for bigger quantities. Hence, the easier way out for them to order from other countries who sold readymade home decor items at any quantity the retailers want.
Keerthi saw the opportunity to design products as well as cater to Indian and global retailers by working as a wholesale distributor as well. This became the genesis for Sage Living in 2018.
After travelling to over 11 countries to study their market appeal, the entrepreneur decided to play on India's strengths by developing handcrafted designer products.
However, the road to starting up was not one without difficulties. Dealing with manufacturers was the initial challenge. She explains, “They treat you with respect while representing the big buying agencies. It is a different ball game altogether when you are an individual with a business plan. The factories do not welcome you, especially when you are a woman visiting the manufacturing facilities.”
After reaching out to 150 manufacturing units, Keerthi managed to get 38 on board in one-and-half years.
Tapping into affordable luxury
Based in Hyderabad, Sage Living specialises in furniture, lighting, and mirror that caters to upper middle-class populations around the world.
While Keerthi started her entrepreneurial journey with an initial investment of Rs 3 crore in 2018, the brand was launched officially in March 2020.
The B2B wholesaler prioritises its R&D process and constructing prototypes before supplying to manufacturers where it must place at least 30 to 50 quantities of a design. Along with an 18-member team at its studio, Sage Living has also worked with around 300 freelance artisans.
Available in the US and Indian market at the moment, Keerthi says one must be mindful of various regional architecture, geography, and culture while designing.
“This varies even within India. For instance, households in Mumbai are smaller and it would be better to make small size furniture to fit the space and not a 42-inch coffee table. One must think of all aspects where the catalogue consists of a mix of everything for retailers across India and globally,” she says, adding that the products are priced between Rs 15,500 and and Rs 8 lakh.
With bold visions for the brand, Keerthi hopes to be present in about 50 countries and clock revenues worth Rs 100 crore by 2025.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan