Determined to be independent and move away from the shadow of her husband, a known name in the apparel export industry, Chandrika Thatai embarked on a journey of creativity 14 years ago. Today her company, Fashion Accessories, manufacturing and exporting home products mainly to the US is touching Rs. 100 crores with a signature that is very personal and handcrafted. In an exclusive interaction with Team Apparel Online, Chandrika shares her journey and the challenges that face the home textile industry today…
Born and brought up in a family of doctors, Chandrika jokingly says that she was the black sheep of the family as she did not pursue medicine like her three sisters, but was always inclined towards creativity and innovative ideas. After completing her post-graduation, followed by marriage to Anoop Thatai, Joint MD, Orient Craft, she started travelling to mills around the country, learning and sharpening her interest in fabrics, weaves and textures. On the advice of Anoop, who supported her craving to do something on her own, she joined a textile course at NIFT to be technically equipped to handle fabrics, and the journey took wings with her first bag, which was a hot selling item at Pepe London, “This really motivated me to explore further my sense of creativity,” says Chandrika.
The real turning point came when Donna Karan introduced the home line and a designer friend working with the label requested Chandrika to make some innovative pillows for the brand. As they say, there was no looking back and from a small set-up to three large factories in Gurgaon, Fashion Accessories is now totally into home products like top of the bed, bed linen, cushions, drapes, duvets, throws, shams, etc. The company is now working with US retailers like Macy’s and Williams Sonoma besides Donna Karan. “What really sets us apart is our quality and on time delivery record,” says Chandrika. In fact, many home product manufacturers do have the creative edge, but lose out on ‘final product’, as they are concentrating on innovation without looking deeply into the manufacturing aspect, feels Chandrika.
Taking inspiration from the apparel segment, with Anoop helping out, the factories are designed and run similar to a garment export factory with emphasis on quality assurance and monitoring. The design team is responsible only for developing new ideas, the follow-up and execution of the concept is in the hands of trained merchandisers, who coordinate with the buyers to seal the final product to be manufactured. “We designers tend to become impractical and do not take into consideration the execution of the design, but the merchandisers iron out the difficult concepts and make the production friendly,” reasons Chandrika. The system has worked well for the company and Chandrika proudly says that the company is today known for quality products, which add to their high-end appeal.
Though there is a lot of emphasis on systems, automation is not something that Chandrika is too upbeat about. “Our core strength is the handcrafted feel and using too many machines only dilutes the effect. Also, we have to work out why we need the automation and what value it will give us. In apparel, turnaround is faster and many areas can be aided with automation, but in home textiles the pace is more relaxed and the value comes from one’s hand,” argues Chandrika. This however, does not mean that the company is not looking at technology to service its buyers. In fact they are the only vendors in India to be nominated for drapes by Williams Sonama and for that they bought the first drape cutting machine in the country for the perfect length. “Yet, sometimes there is a request from some buyers for single cutting and we are competent to handle both requirements,” says Chandrika. Even in the case of digital printing, the company is using the technology only for quick turnaround, as, according to Chandrika, the effect is very picture perfect and that is not the handwriting they believe in.
Having started with very small quantities, the company is geared to handle both small orders and bulk volumes, which generally come from ‘core items’. “We are a very flexible manufacturing setup and the size of the order is not a deterrent,” says Chandrika. She also points out that unlike apparel, where there are standard size charts, in home the size, shape and contour of the product differs from order to order, so standardising lines is very difficult.
On the design front, the real challenge today, according to Chandrika, is the balance between price and creativity. “I have just returned from a trip to the US after attending the New York Market Week and I was happy to see shoppers back in the stores, but it was also obvious that now they are buying differently. They want value for money and freshness, and they are more cautious about what they are spending on,” says Chandrika. Making four collections a year, she is always on the lookout for inspiration, which may come from anywhere, be it a painting, an interesting textile, a quirky item on the street… almost anything. “Not all home retailers make four collections in a year and most of them do two collections for spring/summer and autumn/winter, but the buyers I work for are doing spring, summer, holidays and fall with variation in colour schemes, concepts and themes,” informs Chandrika.
With a strong design sense and deep understanding of buyer’s sensibility, fashion accessories saw 60% growth last year, despite most companies working with the US reporting otherwise. “We have been able to offer our buyers just what they want because of personal involvement in understanding their needs and responding to changing dynamics,” says Chandrika, who supervises the design department herself and participates in buyer meetings even today.
Happily positioned, Chandrika admits that the next level of growth will come only from going in for huge quantity production items like sheetings and towels, but she wants to move ahead slowly and first consolidate her standing and give back to society. “I strongly believe in women empowerment and have adopted a village in Punjab, where we send items like quilts for handwork to be done by the village women so they can earn some extra money. Now I want to take this forward and touch many more communities to support women,” she concludes.