The coronavirus outbreak is the most devastating human tragedy in recent memory.
And while we count the significant human loss caused by the global pandemic, another acute crisis is brewing in the shadow lines. Businesses – small and large – across the world are reeling from the impact of indefinite lockdowns, shut down of industries, and halting of manufacturing and logistics.
No sector or domain is immune to this crisis. While tourism and supply chains might seem to have taken the biggest blow, even the e-commerce and fashion retail have been adversely affected. In the Indian context, this translates into ‘no work, no pay’ regime, owing to the contractual nature of many of the country’s informal labour.
In such trying times, when even the big names in fashion e-commerce are forced to restrategise, home-grown sustainable clothing brand Suta is staying true to its roots. Built on the foundation of Indian craftsmanship, the brand is ensuring that the people behind the scenes – the community of weavers and artisans – who have helped Suta become the household name that it is today, are taken care of.
“The pandemic has affected our weavers and craftsmen the most,” sisters-turned-entrepreneurs Sujata and Taniya Biswas, the Co-founders of Suta, tell Makers India. “They are at their homes and don’t have any work for now.”
Although a couple of weavers who have the looms and raw materials with them have continued to work in small scale, most weavers are out of work at the moment. For them, Suta is ready to take full responsibility.
“We are crediting their salary irrespective of work being paused. The payment structure for weavers is as per the job they submit, however, we have made an exception this time and are giving salaries to them,” the sisters explain, adding, “We are ensuring essentials are being delivered to each of their houses so that they do not have to worry about food, at least until the lockdown is lifted.”
Inside the Journey of Suta
The weavers, artisans, and the craftsmen are at the heart of Suta. In fact, the fashion-commerce portal was started on this very note, with the early memories of Sujata and Taniya visiting their native place in West Bengal, interacting with the local weaving communities, and understanding what goes into the creation of the six yards of elegance. Especially the mul cotton saree – better know as Mul Mul in West Bengal – which has now become their signature style.
“During summers vacation, Sujata and I, used to visit our native place,” recalls Taniya. And over these many visits, she remembers how she and her sister got to see a different side of the tradition – a side that’s not all pretty.
Historically, this class of society has been worst affected by the hierarchical system that plagued India for centures, and carried through the British era. Even today, most rural weavers face exploitation at the hands of middlemen, taking up either low paying work or survive on menial wages.
“Their skills are awe-inspiring, but Sujata and I realised that their livelihoods were difficult due to the presence of many mediators who would squeeze their payments and do a lot of returns,” says Taniya.
This realisation, complemented with the creative bent and the zeal for entrepreneurship, gave birth to Suta in 2016. “Su and Ta are the syllables of our names. We were elated when we realised it means thread,” the sisters quip.
Sustainable and Women-Centric
It has been four years since the inception – Suta celebrated its fourth anniversary on April 1– and in this time, the business has grown by leaps and bounds. In FY2017-18, Suta recorded 228 percent sales growth, in FY2018-19 it remained stable at 203 percent, and maintained the consistency in the last fiscal as well, at 188 percent. While sales and revenue have grown consistently, so has the team strength.
What had started out as a two-woman endeavour, is today a well-recognised name in the fashion retail industry, working with more than 1,400 weavers and craftsmen from different corners of India. Even the corporate office in Mumbai has grown to a 35-employee team.
“We work closely with weavers and their families. We try to include as many weavers and craftsmen as possible. We train people and try to improve their skill set, thus increasing inclusion in our Suta family,” says the founding duo.
On a side note, they add, 60 percent of the workforce comprises of women.
This conscious effort to turn the tables on the gender bias in the workforce, and the fact that Suta is also working towards uplifting the living standards of the weavers associated with the brand by eliminating middlemen from the process, is what sets the brand apart from the sea of Instagram-famous businesses today. This is on top of the brand making sarees for everyday fashion, which are easy to wear and easier to carry.
“Suta has made saree regular wear,” the entrepreneurial duo point out. “Sarees should no more be occasional wear and India’s impeccable craftsmanship should be made accessible to one and all, and at a price that isn’t too heavy on the pocket.”
“In this pursuit, sustainability is deeply integrated into each and every process we follow,” they add.
A Business Rooted in Trust
No successful business is built in a day. The story of Suta is no different.
Starting with product photoshoots and then pivoting towards the designing and selling of the clothes, Sujata and Taniya have been through the entire gamut of experiences that every first-time entrepreneur goes through. Even the not-so-pleasant ones.
“During our initial years, we once got cheated by a vendor and we lost quite a bit of money. That made us weary towards dealing with the unknown,” they recall. But like every good story, even theirs has a silver lining.
(Videos by Urmi Chatterjee, Text Edit by Kanishk Singh)