Lockdown Economy India in Pashmina Wears with Siddharth Saigal

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Deepti Sharma

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Siddharth Saigal, the owner of Wrap Studios, a retailer of high-quality hand-loomed Pashmina Wears. We spoke about the Indian heritage product, charkha pashmina, and the importance behind sustaining the age-old practice of making pashmina products. We also spoke about the need of the hour to promote, support and empower small skilled artists, artisans and weavers through this tough period, as well as creating personal connections with customers to build loyalty and trust with the brand and the products they invest in. A stark fall in tourism due to the pandemic resulted in a major drop in the consumerism of heritage products, which adversely affected their ability to sustain their business and support their artisans. Moreover, the experience of buying a pashmina product is in the feel of the fabric which cannot be adequately portrayed and brought to justice through pictures/social media, which was another major barrier for them. Promotion through social media, e-commerce and email marketing are some avenues they’ve identified to increase business as well as getting corporate and bulk orders.

We’d like to start off with knowing what you do as a business and its basic model.

Siddharth: We’re into the making of an Indian heritage product- the Charkha Pashmina. Basically, we utilise a particular fabric — woven by skilled weavers of Kashmir — and then we innovate upon it by combining it with other byproducts like various weaving textures, painting and embroidery techniques, to enhance the product for the end consumer. It’s an integration of multiple states of India with one product called Pashmina. We try to promote the Indian artists & artisans with the help of the ones around the globe. So, we try to go hand in hand with the concept of integration of the weaving and technology sector, in order to make a better product for the end consumer.

Just like any fabric, Pashmina can be converted into a variety of clothing articles. We make lots of shawls, mufflers, throws and garments out of it. It’s always our endeavour to put in as much versatility in the Pashmina as we can for our clients. There is no limit to how innovative one can be with this product.

How did your business come about?

Siddharth: It’s a fourth-generation business. From my forefathers to my father, everyone was already into the business of making and trading Pashminas since 1940. But when we migrated from Kashmir in 1988, my father again started from scratch — trading and exporting this beautiful fabric. Then I joined my business after completing graduation with an objective of taking the business to another level by creating a vision of a small but quality brand. When it comes to Pashmina, there’s a lot of adulteration on the global platform. So, I was passionate about educating my consumer with a quality product.

The authenticity and identification of Pashmina pose a big challenge till now for people around the globe, they tend to get confused between Cashmere & Pashmina. While I’d love to elaborate on the difference between the two, it’s a lengthy procedure and deserves a separate video-focused completely on that. The main mission is about promoting and empowering the skilful artisans from our country.

Wonderful, and the fact that this business has been going on through years and generations is really great. 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year, so how did the lockdown and the pandemic affect your business?

Siddharth: More than my business, I was concerned about how skilful art would sustain. If we didn’t support these artisans, they could’ve switched from skilled work to some regular jobs. For me, the bigger challenge was to support them during the crisis and keep their art intact, so they don’t forget the beautiful procedure they have been doing for generations. Like I said we’ve artisans, weavers and embroiderers who’ve been working with our family and making this beautiful product for four generations now. Since Pashmina is a cottage industry art like a lot of other skills — block printing, hand embroidery, etc — which are passed down the generations, so I was more concerned about the threat posed to skilled communities of our country. This product is not an essential commodity; it’s something which people love to support because they think it’ll enhance their personality or maybe so as to give back to society. Sustaining this product was a big challenge given that it’s not a necessity, but fortunately, we had some wonderful people out there who supported us through thick & thin. We really appreciate all the support but it’s very challenging and I alone can’t satisfy the whole artisan community. So the more we stand up right now, the better it’d be for them.

Like you said it’s really important to retain the art and especially support the artisans. If you’d like to tell a bit more about how you tried to stimulate the business; attract or retain the customers and the key challenges you faced.

Siddharth: First of all the tourism all over the globe declined due to covid 19, a lot of people aren’t travelling now and consumerism has gone down. When people buy Pashmina, they like to hand-feel it; try it on themselves and then buy it. While one can be attracted to the design visually, but not the feel of the product and that’s what we vouch for. The whole idea is that the same design can be copied on an inferior fabric and the photography can be so good as to really attract a customer, but that doesn’t necessarily justify the feel of the product. These days everyone recommends putting up the products on social media — Facebook, Instagram, etc — so people buy it. In our case, I feel that it’s a good way of marketing but not the only way because unless the consumers don’t have a chance to feel the product, they don’t feel confident about it.

If tourism starts again sooner, it’ll be a big boost for many small vendors like us.

I understand buying a Pashmina product is more about the experiential and the exchange value of it.

Siddharth: As I’m a graphic designer, I enhance my designing skills on this beautiful fabric. I love to explain to my clientele and consumers the reason behind taking down a particular design on the fabric. Till the time they don’t have the story behind that, they also don’t feel convinced with it. Obviously, all these things can now be portrayed on the website, but still, I feel that retail therapy is very crucial in the current times of eCommerce.

How are your customers and competitors faring during these times?

Siddharth: I believe myself to be my own competition and don’t really prefer looking to the others. Whatever is satisfying for my soul and work, I consider that as competition. We’re taking on the days ahead with new innovations; I’d love to give all the credit to my back end team because without them nothing could’ve been possible. We were innovating together even through the lockdown- deliberating on how we could give happiness to people through our product and trying to give as many tokens of love and support as we could to our clients. Our clients have supported us through generations in our retail business, so we wanted to give back and be there for people; so they don’t forget us and feel supportive towards the business in the future.

That’s a great outlook on running a business- being one’s own competition and actually supporting customers through all of it. Would you like to tell us about how your business is doing right now and any plans that you’ve for the coming months?

Siddharth: Right now it’s not going as great as the previous years, but I’d say that we haven’t given up and are taking each day as it comes. It also depends on how the market evolves, because we’re completely relying on retail customers as yet. I need to make a strategy for getting customers through Facebook or Instagram and posting better content. And then I need to work on my e-commerce because currently, that’s the only way to communicate out there, there’s just no other way. Probably sending e-letters and small gifts like the way I already did; conveying wishes on the festivals through our postcards, so that we’re not forgotten- these are few of the many small things that we can do when we come to think of it.

Asking after the customers’ wellbeing and that of their families is very important to keep the relationship intact. There’s no end to marketing, one can spend lots of money on it — whether it’s PR or advertising — but the best way today is to reach out to the social groups who are supporting the community. That’s what I’m here for, to plead for the help that we need. We’ve been loving our clients, and we just expect love in and support for the small businesses in return, so that we can continue to provide this quality product in coming years.

See we never know, maybe some corporates listened to us through this; if our message reaches them, probably they’d like to extend support to our weavers by taking corporate gifts. There are many things that can work out. People who have corporate structure need to come out in support of small businesses like us and in turn, we need to support the cottage industry through this channel.

You just mentioned that digital marketing is something you’d want to get into and would appreciate some help in. Could you name 2 or 3 other areas that you feel you require the most help with or you need to work on the most?

Siddharth: I just need help from the perspective of continuing this art. Any corporate would love to consume our product for the various events they have in their structure and we can customise accordingly. This will help us keep up the quality work. At the end of the day, we’ve been fortunate to have clients like KPMG and American Express. They’ve been playing their part in supporting us through these tough times. I’m really grateful to them as well. So, we need more corporations to step in and support the small businesses and that’s the way we can sustain at the moment. Till the time travelling doesn’t resume, we don’t have any other options other than the local markets.

We hope this interview will contribute towards your digital presence and enhance your visibility. Anything else you’d like to say to the viewers.

Siddharth: I’d love to sum it up saying that we need to stand up for each other as Indians and as humans. My humble request is: whether it’s my business or any other small business, please go out there and support in your own way be it small or big. It’s the intention that counts.

About the Guest

Wrap Studio established in 2004 is a contemporary design label built on the fundamental belief that the artists and artisans they work with are integral partners in their business.

Their line of stoles, shawls and outwear incorporates the work of highly skilled traditional weavers and talented artists with an eye for the unusual.

Their artisans and artists excel in skills such as textiles and wovens, HD digital printing /graphic designing, hand embroideries and hand paintings.

Their products include charkha pashminas and cashmere accessories, silk and cotton jackets, silk kaftans as well as silk and wool blended accessories.

https://www.instagram.com/studiowrap/

https://www.facebook.com/WRAPSTUDIO

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.