Entrepreneurs / #ForbesEntrepreneurs

October 29, 2018,   2:00 PM

The Rebirth Of Indian Handloom Craftsmanship

Nayera Yasser

Cairo-based fashion, culture and lifestyle journalist that believes in the underrated potential of regional craftsmanship and inspiring individuals who aim to create a better tomorrow. FULL BIO

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Standing behind the camera, directing an extended crew towards a bigger picture, he suddenly found himself amid of an expedition to rediscover his mother's universe. As a proud member of the film and music industry, he was instantly capable of connecting the dots between his area of expertise and hand-loom weaving while working on a specialized documentary.

With a family specialized in textile, Surya Giri was no stranger to the industry ahead of his film. Nonetheless, it was this particular moment in time that opened his eyes to an undiscovered opportunity.

"It was a massive, lightbulb moment for me and I was shocked of how incredibly potent and powerful not only our weavers and their artisanal work; but, also their stories, the quality, and how long and laborious each process can be." Surya Giri added, "In the age of AI and deep learning, the great irony is that the machine cannot do this; the machine cannot feel and emote through textile - yet."

Surya and his mother Bindu Giri have always been inspired by authentic craftsmanship. Short of a third partner, the two musketeers found themselves fighting for the survival and revival of Indian handloom, an industry that was hit hard by the advent of luxury fashion apparel business in India. So was born SGBG, an apparel brand that sells handwoven garments.

"I grew up around the world, and never really had a particular ‘home',” says Surya with a passionate twinkle in his eyes.

“Working alongside my mother in India has become a project of roots, discovery, young entrepreneurship, and an attempt to build a global brand that hopefully has strong potential for change across all levels of the funnel – from grassroots producers to consumers to other brands & manufacturers that will follow suit."

A brainchild of the Indian mother-son duo, SGBG partners with local weavers to produce its luxury ready-to-wear brand. Today it has found global appeal with clients placing online orders from around the world while the department stores in Dubai, New York, and Tokyo have been stocking up the SGBG collection – their work resonating with those who perceive culture as an invitation for diversity.

At the heart of their 800 sq ft design studio in Chennai, the conceptualization, draping, toiles, and details come from Surya. Meanwhile, Bindu is often more focused on the finessing, execution, and production given her expertise.

Bindu, who has degrees in business and apparel design from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and LaSalle School of Art, a private arts institution in Singapore, respectively; first fell in love with handlooms several decades ago when she was exposed at a very young age to local craftsmanship. The dedicated designer has invested her life in creating and selling garments that include saris and ethnic wear to an international audience between Singapore, the US, the UK, and India – winning few national awards along the way.

Motivated by the fact that 60% of handloom weavers are women, who support their extended families – Bindu decided to work to support, renovate and market the craft of those heroines.

"For decades, post-British rule, Indian hand-loom weavers and craftsmen have struggled to stay afloat due to the lack of awareness and heavy industrialization. Mass-manufacturing and the adoption of power-looms resulted in the death of numerous art forms and practices - which until today - produce unparalleled quality, character, and finish." Bringing the Indian craft to the fore is something that the enterprising mother and son duo is working towards. Surya added "We want to challenge certain assumptions and show that India has more to offer on the global level, via today’s vernacular. Indian embroidery has a rich history, and our craftspeople have immense skill."

Local craftsmanship is an underinvested area, held back by outdated methodologies and regressive mindsets. SGBG designed a successful model that used the traditional handloom to produce modern products that appeal to the fashionable today. Keeping communication at its heart, the founders built an elaborate structure that starts with a local manager for each genre of weave then branches out to 45 weavers and their descendants.

Completely funded by the Giris, the bootstrapped brand initiated the first weaving experiments during the second half of 2016 with top master weavers and their communities. Cognizant of the fact that the craft of weaving is quite rare, the entrepreneurs began investing in future generations.

"We want to bring back the art of weaving for a modern market so part of this is the training of young aspiring fashion designers as well as craftsmen and women. So far everyone has embraced the idea of bringing together the traditional craft and giving it a modern key," said Surya.

It is also a model that is beneficial to the weaving community. According to Surya, their weavers are paid higher than the local standards. Meanwhile, their health and sanitary conditions are considered a top priority. On the other hand, SGBG also takes further measurements to ensure the welfare of their families – including offering modern and specialized education to their children. But it is still a work in progress.

"We both ideate together and spend a great deal of time working through the initial concept." Surya added, "Meanwhile, we are blessed to have an incredible atelier team that has been with mum for years."

The brand's AW18 collection included 21 designs – varying between shirts, dresses, voluminous dhoti pants and their iconic unisex bomber jackets. As for the fabrics, the collection depended on hand-made techniques such as their well-known hand-pin tucked crepe.

"Our signature fabrics take eight months to weave; meanwhile, most pieces take upwards of 100 hours of work. Embroidery is the most difficult, as it requires incredible precision & a single incorrect stitch can destroy the entire piece," described Surya – who tackles each finished item as a renowned piece of art.

As for their next move, the founders plan to build on their first anniversary with a presentation in September during London Fashion Week as well as a second participation in Paris Fashion week to showcase their latest artistic venture. Meanwhile, they also have a Middle-East pop-up store planned for 2019.

"We are building textural sculptures — each takes around 250+ hours to hand-weave, hand-embroider and assemble. We want to tell stories through textile and texture. Building earnest and more powerful visuals," concluded Surya excitedly.

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