These women entrepreneurs built an Indian ethnic wear brand to serve the global demand, made Rs 9 Cr revenue in 2 years

Shobitam was founded by Aparna and Ambika Thyagrajan in 2019 to serve the global demand for Indian ethnic wear. Started with a pilot launch on Etsy, the brand has grown 300 percent in the last two years and made Rs 9 crore in revenue.
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Aparna Thyagrajan was just 12-years-old when she first sewed a dress for her sister Ambika on her second birthday from an old saree. Ambika was inspired by her aunt who used to bring a lot of artisanal and hand-painted fabrics and make dresses out of them. 

As Aparna grew up, her love for artisanal products and designs grew deeper. Ambika also picked up interest and the sister duo connected with many artisans and weavers directly to buy sarees for themselves. This was Aparna’s first stint with Indian ethnic fashion.

After getting married in 2002, Aparna moved to Seattle, but what she missed the most was shopping for authentic Indian ethnic wear. 

“Buying Indian ethnic wear in the US was not a very satisfying experience. I always felt short-changed for variety and quality. During one of my visits to India in 2018, I was working with a zardosi artist for sarees that Ambika and I were designing for ourselves for an event. The karigar suggested that we start a boutique and that he would work with us,” Aparna tells SMBStory.

This got Aparna thinking and she realised that just like her, there would be many non-resident Indians (NRIs) across the world struggling to have access to a wide variety of Indian weaves at one place.

During one of the family dinners, Aparna put out the idea of starting an Indian ethnic fashion brand that would cater to the demands emerging from outside India. Their excitement and belief in the idea made Aparna more confident, and she started Shobitam in March 2019 along with her sister Ambika. 

Aparna started by selling 15 sarees, and in just two years, Shobitam is shipping products to over 30 countries. The brand has witnessed over 300 percent annual growth in the last two years, and had an annual turnover of Rs 9 crore in FY 21. It has more than 1,000 products listed on its website, and is featured as one of the top stores on Etsy, Aparna claims.

Serving ethnic fashion globally

Shobitam’s journey began by listing on Etsy, an American ecommerce company focused on handmade and vintage items and craft supplies. 

Aparna says she started with 15 sarees, and within three days of setting up the online shop, she got her first order from France. 

“Our first batch of products sold out much earlier than we expected, and we had people coming in for more. Our early customers referred us to their circles. We have never had to look back ever since,” she recalls. 

Artisanal ethnic fashion market is highly fragmented given many small and medium level sellers selling products through social media, but Aparna says she didn’t want to take that route.

“Creating a group in social media to sell the product is a great idea at a micro level, but that doesn't create a loyal customer base. Often, we have seen people just drop a PP (Price Please) in the comment section of the product pictures and leave. There is a lot of chaos and making oneself visible in the crowd is extremely challenging,” she says. 

Aparna and Ambika wearing Shobitam sarees

Hailing from a tech background, Aparna and Ambika knew that giving a direct experience to customers would be beneficial, and hence they launched Shobitam’s website within a year to enter the D2C market, and since then there has been no looking back. 

Shobitam competes with the likes of Suta, The Indian Ethnic Co, and more but Aparna says what distinguishes the brand is the extensive variety of art form is offers to the customers.

Making an impact 

Sharing a proud moment, Aparna says the current winner of Miss Connecticut has Indian roots and she approached Shobitam for a dress that showcased Indian craftsmanship for an event leading to the Miss America Pageant. 

“This was a big opportunity for us. However, she couldn’t wear any ethnic outfits. But we didn’t let her go. Instead, we made a stylish silk dress using the Banarasi silk saree fabric that she wore to the event,” Aparna tells SMBStory.

This episode further boosted the confidence of Aparna and Ambika on their journey to promote Indian art and handicrafts. 

Shobitam has two offices based out of Seattle in the United States and in Bengaluru, India. Aparna works from Seattle and Ambika coordinates with artisans from across India. 

Empowering artisans

Shobitam is empowering the artisan community across India — from Sozni in Kashmir to Chikankari in Uttar Pradesh, Dabu in Rajasthan, Ikkat in Odisha, Moiran Phee in Manipur, Pen Kalamkari in Kerala, and more -- it has associated with over 340 weavers and artisans across 16 cities in India.  

“Our core aim is to leverage the traditional Indian designs and make them reach across the globe. We want to convey to the world that India has a plethora of art that is still unexplored,” Aparna says. 

Amid the pandemic, when the whole world came to a standstill, Aparna says Shobitam never stopped working and each artisan associated with the brand was working. 

“We also launched a programme called ‘Shobitam Gig’ where 50 percent of all the business proceeds were donated in the form of dry rations to around 600 weavers,” she says. 

Easing the customers’ needs

The customer’s journey of purchasing any ethnic wear, especially sarees, is not that simple as it involves multiple steps, says Aparna. According to Statista, the market size of women's ethnic wear across India in the financial year 2020 was approximately $17 billion and was estimated to reach more than $24 billion dollars by 2025.

Shobitam's sarees range

“The absence of the quintessential Indian style tailoring network globally multiplies the challenge. The arduous task of stitching blouses and looking for matching ethnic wear for the family often complicates the purchase, causing delays and customer dissatisfaction for the global Indian diaspora. Shobitam addresses the pain points at each level with fashion tech driven solutions,” Aparna tells SMBStory.

Apart from assisting customers in the saree selection process, Aparna says, the brand takes custom orders for blouse stitching and has brought in categories like XL sarees for plus size women, vegan silks for customer choice, and is also providing several value-added one-stop services across the ethnic wear segment.

The way ahead

Aparna attributes Shobitam’s rapid growth to its ecommerce-driven digital-first approach

from day one. Leveraging technology to scale and laser focus on the best selection are two main ingredients Aparna says are behind the growth of Shobitam, and she wants to continue growing the business by integrating tech in the consumer buying experience.  

The brand is also planning to expand its product lines and further strengthen its vision to empower the handlooms and arts of India. 

Edited by Megha Reddy