Indian industry may have been slow to respond to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's slogan, Make in India, Make for the World, but there's one company registered in Silicon Valley, California that has been following the maxim to the T. EastEssence has been making Islamic clothing in India and selling to the world for the last seven years.
Ironically, EastEssence, which is a manufacturer and online retailer of Islamic clothing - abayas, jilbabs, burqas, thobes, dishdashas, hijabs etc - was founded by a Hindu from Kashmir. With customers in 68 countries across the globe and sales of $40 million (nearly Rs.255 crore) last year, EastEssence claims to be the 'Largest Islamic Clothing Company Online'. All its merchandise is made in India, in a factory in Noida bordering New Delhi, and another Meerut, where all the hand-embroidery is done.
For Sunil Kilam, the company's 38-year-old founder, the decision to "make in India" made hard commercial sense - the low wages of labour in India, compared to the US, allows him to offer his buyers great value for money. Prices on EastEssence are all in the range of $20-50, and do not exceed $110 even for the fancy designs. In India, where EastEssence launched this Ramzaan season its own store on Snapdeal, prices are capped at Rs.5,000.
Already, EastEssence has begun getting orders from places like Kashmir. "There is no organised player in this category in India. All you have are the mom-and-pop stores in places like Chandni Chowk," says Kilam, who sees a huge potential in EastEssence's range of stylish clothes in a variety of colours, prints, embroideries and fabrics - a big change from the mostly-black, shapeless garments available.
It is the same all over the globe. Though Muslims constitute a large chunk of the world's population and are a significant market - globally, they spent $266 billion just on clothes in 2013 according to the State of the Global Islamic Economic 2014-15, which will increase to $484 billion by 2019 - there are very few global fashion or designer brands like, say, GAP or Louis Vuitton, catering specifically to their needs and complaint with their religious taboos. Even Muslim-dominated West Asia and countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, do not have brands that transcend national boundaries.
The opportunity in the market was evident to Kilam when he started EastEssence in 2007, along with his wife Krupa, a graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. Kilam studied at India's premier National Institute of Fashion Technology. And he's been proved right. EastEssence is the market leader in the US, UK, Australia and Canada and business, he says, has been quadrupling every year. If EastEssence catches on in India, with its 30 crore Muslim population, growth could be even more rapid. Kilam is also planning a foray into Southeast Asia and UAE, where he will take part in the Dubai Fashion Week next year. "We are running out of factory space. This is the ninth space we have shifted to," says Kilam, referring to the 1,000 square metre, three-storied structure, "and already this is falling short."
Managing a transnational business, with the office in the US and factories in India, is no easy matter. Kilam has family and friends to look after the Indian end, but spends several months a year in India to oversee operations. Also, India is not an easy place to do business. Besides corruption and red-tape, which continue to be rampant says Kilam, infrastructure continues to be a problem. The power, that seemed to go off every few minutes as we sat and chatted in Kilam's office, bears out just how little India supports those who earn precious foreign-exchange for it.
Kilam has another grouse that he would especially like aired through the media: "The government allows duty drawbacks to exporters who use goods that attract customs or excise duties, so that they can claim the taxes they've paid. But this concession is not extended, for some reason, to online retailers. We've appealed to the government many times, but without success."
Whatever the shortcomings of the Indian manufacturing scene, Kilam doesn't hold a candle for the Chinese model either. " Around two years ago, I imported a laser cutting machine from China. At $50,000, it was expensive.
But it stopped working in two months. We got in touch with the manufacturer, who sent a technician, but even he couldn't do anything," says Kilam. The machine is now kept, covered in black cloth, in the attic, occupying precious floor space that could have been used to put in a few machines. "We can't even sell it for junk. Just taking it out will cost a few lakhs -- we will have to get a crane, take off the roof and haul it out!" So much for Make in China!