For the Ministry of Textiles, the industry in all practicality is equated with the handloom segment, and other players in the supply chain are a small component of the industry. This may sound very harsh, but the way successive Governments and Ministers have gone all-out to allocate funds and support handloom, without even bothering to get into the nuances of what the industry actually is all about, is very disappointing for the organized sector. Why is the handloom industry so important…? Does it have the potential to support the supply chain and become a value proposition in the Indian retail market, and also leverage its value in the international market? These are some questions that need honest answers.
No one can deny that even after years of support from the Government, nothing has really changed in the handloom sector, except for a few cluster projects that are struggling to keep the weavers in the trade. The primary reason for the situation is that no viable business model has been developed in the market to give the weavers the real value for their expertise. Handloom weavers still struggle to make a living and there is no brand value attached to products made from handloom, which can propel the sector forward. Even the end-consumer, except for some high-end connoisseurs, both in the domestic and international markets, do not appreciate handloom as an art form and are not willing to pay a ‘price’ that justifies the skill and time that goes into creating these fabrics.
Handloom industry is the largest cottage industry in the country with 23.77 lakh looms. The major handloom export centres are Karur, Panipat, Varanasi and Kannur where handloom products like bed linen, table linen, kitchen linen, toilet linen, floor coverings, embroidered textile materials, curtains etc. are produced for export markets.
About a year ago, the PM initiated the ‘India Handloom Brand (IHB)’ logo with a vision to “brand handloom products” for distinction and protection in the sea of much cheaper powerloom fabrics that hold the market in an iron grip. Many are asking how different is this from the Handloom Mark, launched under the Handloom Mark Scheme in 2006 by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “to brand handloom products and secure a premium position for them in the domestic and international market”, which failed miserably in achieving its goal. The only obvious modification, which the ministry insists is important, is that unlike the Handloom Mark given to a producer or a trading company, the IHB is a mandatory stamp for “each product”, creating a value tag as a branding tool.
Not many, even experts of the trade, can always make out the difference between powerloom and handloom fabrics and for years powerloom fabrics have been palmed off as handloom in the garment export segment. Many exporters who claim to be working in handloom fabrics are actually using powerloom fabrics, and if there is any segment which is in reality investing in handloom fabric for exports it is the home segment where much of the value of the product is coming from fabrics, unlike garments which has many more elements to play with, including silhouettes and value additions. Not surprisingly, in the last year, since its inception, the office of the Development Commissioner of Handlooms claims that only 366 handloom producers and enterprises have been given IHB registration for 59 product categories and almost 60% of samples sent for registration were rejected as fake!
From India, the total export of handloom stood at US $ 360.02 million for the FY 2015-16. During the same period, export of fabrics stood at US $ 35.34 million; floor coverings stood at US $ 125.27 million; clothing accessories stood at US $ 25.54 million; and made-ups stood at US $ 173.88 million.
The real challenge is to create awareness among the weavers for their creative and market potential, and skill them to be businessmen not craftsmen. No doubt marketing is the biggest challenge. In 2015, The Varanasi Weavers and Artisans Society (VWAS), was established with an aim to connect weavers with the market through exhibitions and events across India, but the going has not been easy. Although Varanasi is at the centre of attention, and designers consider it as the ‘Shahrukh Khan’ of handloom, it is still a hub that continues to be, by and large unorganized and struggling for value. One can imagine the plight of lesser-known and focused weaver hubs.
According to many designers who are trying to revive the handloom of different clusters, the marketing efforts can only be successful once the weaver and the supply chain are strong. “Just going out there and making commitments on deliveries, without ensuring that the product can be delivered commercially, on time and in quantities desired, is suicidal as it only tarnishes the image and pushes the effort to promote handlooms back by many steps,” says a passionate Manish Tripathi, a young designer closely associated with the IHB project working with Maheshwari Craftsmen. His vision is to create a viable supply chain, minus the middlemen so that weavers can get a share in the profit.
Alok Kumar, Development Commissioner of handlooms: “We are working with State Governments (since handloom is a state subject) in handloom-focused states initially to scale up the fundamental notion of quality-consciousness at Weavers’ Service Centres (WSCs).”
Manish and other designers like him believe that the only way to go forward is to create consortiums and take full responsibility to train and empower the weavers so that the ROI becomes interesting for buyers – for both domestic brands and international retailers/designers. Another young designer who has become synonymous with handloom and is also associated with the IHB project, Rahul Mishra says, “I want to generate employment across villages to ensure that ‘karigars’ can work from their homes, enjoy home food and see their kids grow. My dream is to employ over one million people in the largest crafts revival and sustenance effort ever initiated.”
While the chances of handloom being a part of mainstream exported garments is still remote, from the standpoint of the luxury fashion sector, handlooms, could play a big role in forging the global luxury industry ahead. As of now, top international brands in Europe and America, such as Chanel, Dries Van Noten, Lanvin, Naeem Khan, Valentino and Elie Saab, are already dipping into this vast reservoir of craft. Veteran Indian designer, Neeru Kumar is among the first to have successfully created an export venture on handloom fabrics, converting them into ready-to-wear garments for stores in Japan and the US. She is very clear on the direction. “The only way to keep handlooms differentiated from powerloom products and coveted across the world is by textural and design distinction,” says Neeru.
Sunil Sethi, President, Fashion Design Council of India: “My aim is to create awareness and shift perceptions to turn this love for handmade into a movement, and innovation is the key.”
One of the biggest plus points going in favour of handlooms today is the fact that they are truly sustainable and environment-friendly. This very point has pushed Ketan Jansari, Owner of Hangerloop, a 2004 GMT pass-out from NIFT, Gandhinagar to experiment with handlooms for mass production products. He is working closely with the Government of Gujarat to create viable clusters where fabrics can be procured in relatively good quantities for customers who are now looking at sustainable fashion. “We want to give modern silhouettes to handloom and directly connect them to the younger generation, who do not associate with such fabrics, except at weddings or festivals. Handlooms cannot survive on traditional strength and there has to be a makeover to attract a new generation of customers,” argues Ketan.
Jacob Kutty, Country Manager – Operational Region S.Asia, Middle East & SAARC at CITEVE: India Exports is possible, if they can streamline their dyeing and printing into one or two units in south or east regions or rather one in each region, with RSL norms under control and with proper international certifications. It is a question of organizing themselves to meet certification norms which is actually easy if taken up as a task.
On similar lines, Gaurav Jai Gupta of Akaaro, another new-age designer who has created waves for his approach to designing and is practical and pragmatic when it comes to handloom, says, “I feel like we are in a time warp when it comes to design. We need to step away from the Gandhian ideologies of handloom and incorporate technology to match our skill set with international design standards while increasing the wages of the weavers.”