A few years ago, mother-daughter duo Hetal Desai and Lekhinee Desai went to a handloom exhibition to spend a day shopping. They were determined not to come back home empty-handed, so along with a 50-metre long fabric with ajrakh print, and they brought back an exciting business idea.
The fabric was given to a neighbourhood tailor, who stitched it into various Kurtis. Lekhinee soon created a Facebook page where she posted pictures of the outfits and distributed the link among a few friends.
What started as a small project from their family home, The Indian Ethnic Co. now has three offices that ship products globally and contributes to the livelihoods of about 1,000 artisans. In a span of just four years, the clothing brand is soaring high.
What makes The Indian Ethnic Co. different from other brands? Its unique dance marketing strategy. Lekhinee and her team’s dance videos, through which they promote their products, have taken the internet by storm.
Based in Mumbai, the sustainable fashion brand offers handcrafted apparel and lifestyle products created by rural artisans from across India. When you buy one product from them, you help support the livelihood of at least five artisans and craftsmen alike in the process.
The brand believes in celebrating natural beauty and real women, and hence always showcases their products through women encompassing all body types. They also believe that this makes their clothing more wearable, relatable to women of all sizes, and their brand more likeable.
As of 2021, the brand has an annual turnover of close to a million USD, with three full-fledged offices in Mumbai and a staff comprising 25 people, working with over 100 master artisans of Indian handicrafts.
To know more about the fashion brand, NRI Vision spoke to Lekhinee Desai, who is a professional Odissi dancer and holds an MBA, Marketing from NMIMS (Mumbai).
- Tell us about how The Indian Ethnic Co. was formed.
“Think not about your frustrations but your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed at, but with what is still possible for you to do.”
My Mother, Hetal Dessai, the co-founder, the one-woman army behind this brand, has always lived by this mantra, and so here is our story.
At 55 and after having spent 27 years of her life selflessly discharging her duties towards her daughters (aged 18 & 24) and family and seeing herself play a part in their success indeed felt fulfilling. She felt our lives would take their own course, and it suddenly felt that her life needed a larger purpose to look forward to. Even though she had no formal education in fashion, she had an astute sense of design aesthetics and a natural design sensibility of silhouettes and fabrics. She hence had a flourishing fashion designing practice, back in her hay days which she gave up without any qualms to work for a brighter future for us. Over the years, she fulfilled her passion for designing by creating unique dresses for us, which everyone always appreciated. She never liked anything ready-made in the market. It was always widespread, couldn’t be customised to her preferences, and she wanted were always very expensive.
I urged my mother to get back to what she does best -make the most beautiful clothes.
With me starting to pursue my MBA and my sister medicine, my mom was left with a lot of free time, considering she was a homemaker. We thought it would be a great idea and hobby for my mom to kickstart a mini fashion brand that would help her spend her time constructively through the latter part of her life. Handicrafts and handlooms have always been our passion, and we have only worn handcrafted products all our life. This brand was an outcome of that passion.
- What is the inspiration behind unique dance marketing?
Before I started walking, I started dancing. Dance has been my passion and my hobby. I am a trained classical Odissi dancer with over 20+ years of training in Odissi. I am also professionally trained in jazz, ballet and contemporary. I have also acted in several ads, movies, series and plays. I worked as an assistant choreographer in the movie Ram Leela where I trained the lead actors and the dance troupe for two songs.
My younger sister, Twaraa, who is the face of our brand, apart from being a student of Medicine, is also a professionally trained Odissi, Jazz, Ballet and Contemporary dancer. Hence, dance is something that we both share a love and passion for.
My dad always believed that we should use the format of dancing to launch every new collection because it is unique and entertaining, but our brand is about real women. Also, not every brand has real people working for them. They always hire models, and one cannot expect models to always dance like trained dancers. And real women are not all models. They are multifaceted; they work, manage their home, pursue their dreams and passion. Since our brand has always been about showcasing our collection through real women in all body shapes and sizes, showcasing this aspect was just a natural outcome that.
Not all models can dance, and not all brands can ask their models to dance. Brands can either hire dancers or models, but a combination of both is tough to find.
But our brand uses real women; in our case, it was my sister, me and my friends, and we can dance and model in a relatable manner. So why not use our talents to relate to our audience even more?
However, back then, we were a tiny brand operating from our bedroom. We did not have space with proper background, resources, or know how to shoot videos. Also, video as a format on Instagram was not that popular back in 2016 when Instagram shopping had just about begun.
Fast forward to lockdown 2020, Tiktok was banned, and Instagram launched reels to make use of the TikTok ban and videos as a format, in general, were doing much better than static photos. This also came when we moved out of our home into two offices and studio space. We were to launch a category of sarees that we had never sold on our website before. We were known for our kurtas and fabrics. Hence, we wanted to do something that would help us break the clutter, establish in the market that we also sell beautiful sarees and do all this in a highly unique and relatable manner.
The 30-second reel format was just perfect for our brand because it was not too long, but at the same time, there was enough time to showcase our products, highlight them with dance in an engaging way. It all just worked out perfectly for us. We were at the right place, at the right time, with the right product and right idea. And when we launched our first reel, it went viral overnight. Our sarees were all sold out!
- How did you develop a voice and identity on social media?
Social Media shopping was gaining steam back in 2016, and we thought it would be a cheap experiment to sell through the medium as it would not call for any heavy upfront investment. Moreover, we believed that even if the initial sample garments we make do not sell, my sister and I could wear them anyway. It was a kind of no-risk experiment!
So we started our Instagram and Facebook pages, got a small 50-meter batch of Ajrakh fabrics from the master ajrakh artisan in Kachchh with an investment of only Rs 50K. Then we made some kurtas, clicked the photos on our phone, made my sister model them, uploaded them on Instagram and Facebook, and the rest is history! The garments all sold out in a matter of a few days! It felt like magic. Instagram and Facebook provided us with a platform to reach out to customers worldwide, without a website just by sitting in our bedroom. We were officially BEDROOM-PRENEURS.
For a business that was conceptualised and run out of a 400 sq feet living room in Mumbai, with no prior business experience, we had never imagined that our creations had the power to dress 3,000 people living in 450+ cities & 19 countries, just in a matter of one year.
On May 21, 2018, our website was launched and clocked an annual turnover of 1cr in less than a year, with operations being managed from just one living room and two women. They say “scarcity is the mother of inventions”!
Being bootstrapped and funding the business from our savings in the initial four years, we did not spend any money in taking the help of professionals with either our product photography, which we managed from my our IphoneX, or with modelling, which my sister and I did, or with website creation, digital marketing, sales and logistics, which were all managed with the finances that were looked after by my father.
We have been rated as 4.5+/5 across 250 customer reviews on our website.
- How much practice does it take to choreograph the dances?
Our first video was literally choreographed and shot in 15 mins amid our saree photoshoot. We just happened to squeeze in a dance jam session because, as mentioned, we believe in showcasing our products on and through real women, so I had invited my childhood dance buddies for our saree photoshoot. We were surprised that our first video had already hit one million views organically with much less effort.
We did the same thing for the next photoshoot too, just squeezed in some dance videos during our photoshoot by shooting it on our phone on a tripod, and again all of them went viral. It is then we thought that we need to have an organised method for this.
Now, we usually meet four to five days before the shoot to decide and research the songs. The song is also of utmost importance; we never chose popular/current trending songs as that musicality does not match our brand’s aesthetics. The contemporary songs lack the feel, rhythm and musicality with their hard beats, funky notes and autotune voices. Good music and the overall feel of the song that matches our brand, our dance, which is a mix of classical and Bollywood, and has an overall positive, graceful vibe to it, is what we look out for. Hence it is a no brainer that AR Rahman is our favourite.
We usually shoot close to three to four reels a day so that we can create a bank that can last us for a week or 10 days. We have now hired a professional videographer that helps bring in the gimmicks to the video with saree changes and some other fun elements.
- What is your message/advice for people struggling to set up their own business?
There are specific points I would like to highlight:
A) Go Digital and spend on the right set of digital advertisements.
- If you are starting up, start digital-first — It is inexpensive, allows you to test your product, find your audience and fine-tune your product for scale before you go all out. Even if you fail, it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
- There are only so many people you can reach organically. If you want growth and scale, start investing in the right set of paid digital ads, it helps pace up growth. I feel many great small businesses that have so much revenue potential have stayed stagnant over the years because paid ads are either viewed negatively or are a risk they are not ready to take.
B) Actions speak louder than words. The key to “starting up” is starting now!
Planning is essential, but doing the work is even more critical. A lot of entrepreneurs get bogged down in the planning phase and end up not taking the leap. Take the leap, test the waters and go and try what you want to try. You will figure out the hows and the whys on the way.
C) Be different.
Take inspiration but do not copy because that won’t give you any leverage. The industry has a mix of strong, established players and many other small and medium players offering similar products. You will need to plan what you will do differently to make your brand unforgettable — it could be anything, your product, your offering, marketing strategy or branding. It will be challenging to command a price point and survive if you have no variation.
6) What are your plans for the future?
We plan to expand the width and the depth of the products. We ultimately aim to become a lifestyle brand that offers everything a consumer needs.
The idea now is to create a library of sorts for all products handcrafted in India. At present, we have a range of fabrics, but now we want it to be a one-stop shop like an encyclopedia store, where all kinds of crafts and materials are available, and anyone can come and shop from The Indian Ethnic Co.
India has so many crafts to showcase, and there are different kinds of artisans who are doing such great stuff. So, we want the entire portfolio of everything handcrafted that anyone can think of to be on our website.
We also plan to venture into Kidswear, Menswear and Home Decor soon.