The handloom segment has been trying to make its mark for long in retail by selling through offline channels. However, handloom within the e-commerce segment did not have a hold as compared to the other segments of fashion. But, with small businesses trying to bring in handloom and handmade collections, the prospect of handmade is slowly improving. Will online retail prove fruitful for this sector in due course?

A list of new brands is using handmade techniques to boost their USP and production. These new-age brands then depend on online platforms, digital channels to sell their products. In fact, since the pandemic, a lot of weavers with support from some of their loyal customers, have been able to create their digital footprint to sell their stocks. But, is it all one-off, and does e-commerce for handmade and handloom seem like a bleak opportunity?

Ramesh MenonFounderSave The Loom, when talking about the realities of this sector mentions, “Handloom sector was already in perils and the pandemic only worsened the plight of weavers across the country. The numbers of active weavers have dwindled for various reasons in spite of all schemes, subsidies and policies by the Central and State governments. The pandemic also disturbed the raw material supply chain and has pushed costs. In the public space, there has been an increased conversation on handloom and sustainable livelihood and processes and that we hope should revive an increased demand for handmade. Handmade has to be placed in a luxury space and market, and that is how it needs to be perceived for better future of the craft.”

Making handloom online ready

“Except for the yarn that gets processed in a mill, handloom is entirely hand touched and produced with no use of energy or causing minimum carbon footprint. It’s laborious but the weavers do not get liveable wages by practicing it. A good 92% of weavers in this country make less than Rs. 5000 a month. That’s the greatest irony. So, beginning from low wages there are many challenges, and the sector claiming to be the second-largest employer in this country has to reinvent the wheel. Handmade is precious and should fetch the right value for the product, dignity, and social stature for the weaver as well at the same time,” Ramesh Menon adds.

He says that handloom isn’t fit to be on the e-commerce platform in the current format. “There has to be a new algorithm that is not based on the ‘was /is’ price of discounting which all e-commerce platforms use as a template. Handmade if rightly made and produced in its woven form will have less deadstock, is timeless, and has defined costs, and restrictive margins. Any discounting or mispricing by market demands will only be harmful to its sustenance. We need to tell stories handmade for the consumer to learn, understand and value what goes behind the entire process. Handmade will always be in limited quantities, hence right value and online platforms to retail have to be invented. We are still in the process of understanding the mechanism to find a perfect model for e-commerce,” he adds.

Sandhya SathishFounder of Saanshihandloom however disagrees and says, “Online retail has proved to be a boon for the handloom sector. Earlier the weavers used to supply their garments to big offline shops and the shops would only pay them once they sold the clothes. So, the weaver’s money would be stuck for days with these stores. Moreover, the customer had little choice when it came to selecting the product they wanted to buy. There was no scope for customization. However, now with social media and the online space opening up for retail, the concept of buying handloom has received a new-age touch. People can buy what they want by asking for customization. Additionally, when you sell directly from the weavers, then the cost you pay to them is more prompt and does not involve a middle man.”

The customer is ready to spend

When asked about the customer for handloom and whether they have evolved or not, Ramesh Menon mentions, “It’s a myth that customers always demands cheaper products. Our experience has been that if you tell the right back story, the consumer is always willing to spend the extra buck or pay the right value. Soon after the 2018 floods in Kerala, we worked with 20 leading national designers and offered them Khadi from the revived looms to work upon, as part of a project called Colors of Resilience. The products were priced from Rs. 3,500 to Rs 35,000, and we were happily surprised by the reception we got from a global audience”.

Sandhya too agrees that the customer today is very aware of what they are buying and serving this customer through the digital channels becomes very seamless and easy. She says, “These platforms are giving the weavers and brands alike or organizations dealing with weavers more prominence. A simple video today can help the customer see where their garment is getting weaved, how painstakingly the weavers are putting every piece together to bring a creation to life. Before this, we would just inform the customer that the weaving is delayed owing to weather issues or some other labor problem. However, now the idea is more transparent and we just have to put a story or communicate the plights or thoughts about the weaver or the process, and we are sure that the consumer is aware of the process. This makes it more transparent.”

As a passing thought about the sector, Ramesh Menon signs off by saying, “It’s like any other sector or industry. There will be layers. Handloom is on the top of the pyramid, and then there will be spinoffs. There will be always a top-end consumer who has an understanding of handmade, its values, and affordability as well. You do not go to Chanel or Dior and talk about it being expensive or catering to a niche market, or there are even more renowned handmade brands that are more premium than them and cater to a discerning consumer base. We need to get this right – is mass affordability the question of ensuring the skilled artisans find a better life and social equity more important? Handmade in India should command the highest premium and should be seen, trusted, and experienced for its finesse, quality and craftsmanship as there is no parallel, and no machine-producing country can ever compete. We should take pride and advantage of the fact that 95% of handmade textiles in the world are handwoven in India. All it needs is placing handmade as the ultimate luxury. Each piece with a distinct identity and sense of making.”