“Would you believe me if I said that all through my growing up years my mother designed most of my outfits? I never had to buy anything readymade from a store,” says Lekhinee Desai, co-founder of The Indian Ethnic Co. based in Mumbai.
Armed with a keen sense of design and aesthetics and no formal training in fashion, 58-year-old Hetal Desai has been designing clothes for her daughters, Lekhinee and Twaraa for almost three decades now.
With an investment of Rs 50,000 and working out of one part of a bedroom in their Mumbai flat to an annual turnover of over Rs 15 crores, The Indian Ethnic Co. celebrates Indian weavers and artisans across the country.
Speaking to The Better India, Lekhinee says, “I remember mom and me going for various exhibitions together. She always had such a keen eye for good textiles. She picked these beautiful materials and designed different outfits for me. Seeing all the clothes I wore, neighbours and family members started approaching her to design for them as well.”
A Passion Project
In 2016 when the mother-daughter duo began working together, it was just a passion project. “I knew she had it in her. With me and my sister both in college, I realised my mom had some time on hand. It seemed like the most opportune time to start something for her to keep busy,” says Lekhinee.
“Even today, when my sister and I look at our old photographs, the first thing that catches our attention is our outfits. We were always so well turned out. All kudos to our mother for that. We would always manage to grab everyone’s attention and come home with praises for the clothes we were wearing,” she says.
There was a brief period before both Lekhinee and Hetal were born when Hetal did manage a design unit with a few tailors. She even had clients like Kavitha Krishnamurthy, a noted musician in Bollywood, but chose to give it up to be able to bring up her two daughters. However, in 2016, with both Lekhinee and Twaraa in college, Hetal finally found the time to return to her passion.
With the arrival of her two daughters, Hetal’s passion took a backseat. “I did not want that creativity in mom to just wither away,” says Lekhinee, who was instrumental in getting the business up and running.
“When both the girls went off to college I felt that life had come full circle. It was my time to explore and pursue what I had pushed aside,” says Hetal.
Social Media: A Game Changer
Mother-daughter duo visited various exhibitions in the city to check out some of the fabrics being used. In one such exhibition, they picked up some Ajrakh material and Hetal made a few silhouettes with that. “If you go back to our social media handles and look through some of the older pictures you will see how raw we were,” says Lekhinee.
The Facebook page was created one evening and Lekhinee says, “We clicked some pictures and uploaded them. Those pictures probably did not have our faces. They are all cut out. It was all one big experiment.” With no sense of how to market themselves, Lekhinee says that their first order from Goa was a huge boost to their confidence.
“The first few kurtas were made to our sizes. That is Lekhinee, Twaraa and my size. In case we did not get any orders we told ourselves we would wear them and feel good,” adds Hetal. The Goa order was followed by another from Kerala and that in a sense got the business going. “The most exciting part for us was sitting in Mumbai, clicking pictures, uploading it on the internet and getting orders from places like Goa and Kerala,” says Hetal.
Lekhinee says that while fuelling her mother’s passion was one reason they started the business, the other was to make fashion responsible and truly sustainable. “Through the business, we also wanted to help artisans and craftspeople earn a good livelihood. Today, we have over 25 employees, three offices in Mumbai and are also associated with over 100 artisans,” says Lekhinee.
The duo has managed to dress over 3,000 people living in over 450 cities and 19 countries so far.
Their sarees start from Rs 1,699 while their kurtas start at Rs 1,880.
Anusha who has been a customer of The Indian Ethnic Co. for a few years now says, “The emphasis on good quality and reliability are the two main reasons I keep shopping with them. Besides this, they have a wide range of choices in fabric and stitched clothing. I am a researcher by profession and I bring that research into everything I buy as well. Having said that, I vouch for the products of this brand.”
While Saraswathi Ranganathan, a professional Veena player based in Chicago, says, “I was drawn in by the quality of their sarees and the fact that the brand supports so many Indian artisans. The sarees are lightweight and drape so beautifully. Even their customer service is spot on and always pushes me to come back and order again.”
The brand has now managed to reach customers from across the globe, which includes Japan, China, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the USA, the UK and more. Lekhinee says that a lot of this has been possible only because of social media. “I learnt how to place advertisements on Facebook and leveraged everything social media-centric. We did not want to invest heavily in getting a brand to manage our social media. We have always been bootstrapped and that was one reason why I learnt everything I could,” she adds.
For Lekhinee and Twaraa who grew up wearing the clothes designed by their mother, modelling for the clothes came naturally. “We have been risk-averse since we started. Both Twaraa and I have modelled most of the clothes that mom designs. When I model, Twaraa clicks the pictures and vice versa,” she says.
For the longest time, they used an iPhone 10 in portrait mode and Lekhinee says that the images always turned out good. “It has been a learning experience for us at every stage. Getting the website made was also a big boost for the business. From making 20 lakh/ year we jumped to make Rs 1 crore/year in just a few months of launching the website,” says Lekhinee.
One of the things that the brand is famous for on Instagram is the dance reels, showcasing the Indian weaves. Speaking about how that stated, Lekhinee says, “Just before we launched our sarees we were looking to do something different. It was my father who suggested we combine our love for dancing and the weaves to do something different.” This turned out to be a huge hit and a great way to showcase the fabrics as well. The first reel that garnered over a million views was shot in five minutes. “In fact, our collection was sold out even before we could announce our launch,” she adds.
Hetal, while not knowing the ‘ABCD’ of digital marketing or managing a social media page, has been a quick learner.
She makes a list of all her questions and ensures that Lekhinee explains how everything functions. “I need to be able to run this on my own, independently,” asserts Hetal.
In conclusion, Hetal says, “It feels surreal. We get one life and I am so happy to feel like I have finally achieved something, made my mark, and that too at 58! Better late than never, right?”
To check out their beautiful products, click here.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)