She was once a journalist with a special interest in fashion. Kanak’s ‘Aha!’ moment came when she decided to take Indian artisanship to the world of European design and style. What’s more, it lets her make a difference to the lives of Indian artisans.
As a young journalist, focusing mainly on lifestyle, Kanak was able to indulge her love for fashion. She tracked style trends, interviewed designers and was herself quite a fashionista. Little did she know then that she would go on to create a unique label that would not only take an Indian product to Europe, but would also have a positive impact on the livelihood of Indian artisans.
A nascent concept
Rewind, then, to 2006 when Kanak moved to Amsterdam with her husband Anurag Nautiyal, who was taking up a job there. “After my active life as a journalist I felt a bit lost career-wise. I decided to make the most of my time off by exploring the city,” she says. “Then, my husband insisted I get off my bike and get a job! I began my career in sales with an online education company, had a baby some years later, quit my job to raise her and it was then that Pashm happened.” In fact, Pashm, she says, is her first baby. It’s an apt description for a project she conceptualized and nurtured with all the passion and commitment it takes to give shape to a dream and see it come to life.
During their frequent travels back to India, Kanak and her friend Sindhu Holla, who also lives in Amsterdam, saw huge possibilities in the textile products being created by rural Indian craftspeople. “However, it was a shame to see that the Indian market for handmade wasn’t given the attention it deserved. We believed that there was interest here in Europe, waiting to be explored,” she says.
Creating a label
Pashm was launched in 2013 with the aim to connect Indian artisans to the international fashion industry. “What we wanted to do was fairly simple – find international designers and brands who valued the beauty of handmade, always wanted to work with India but didn’t know where to begin. We wanted to be their reliable production partners and at the same time, ensure that we generated enough work for the craftspeople we were working with, for them to have a steady earning,” Kanak says.
They say the universe rewards pure intent and so it was that Kanak and her partner met Jolijn Fiddelaers, a Dutch textile designer who was already creating products in India. That became the inspiration to launch their own brand, KARIGAR, at Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven. KARIGAR, which means artisan in Hindi, showcases the versatile skills and traditional craft of rural artisans – but by using a modern design translation that would appeal to a larger audience. “People who saw our collection of Home and Fashion textiles during the design week loved the fact that we not only had wonderful, contemporary designs and colours, but also that our story was heart-warming and inspiring,” says Kanak. For her, that is the driving force behind what she does and hopes to achieve in the future. “We were helping and impacting the lives of the talented artisans in India and at the same time giving people the chance to own a unique, handmade product that they could wear proudly, and possibly pass down to the next generation,” she says.
Style with soul
Her search for artisans began in the North of India, primarily because she has a family in Dehradun and could use home as a base to travel into the mountains. “Since working with natural materials is also an important aspect of our business model, we looked for artisans who work with natural fibres such as wool, wild silk, nettle, hemp. If you are from India, you can always rely on your network to help you out – and that was essential for us. Of course, we also did our own research by visiting handloom fairs and looking online for the right partners to co-create with. Jolijn was already working with Lambani craftspeople in south India. That gave us a strong start,” Kanak says.
Despite being far away in Amsterdam, she believed she could use the power of technology to communicate with their artisan teams spread across India “We gave them smart phones, showed them how to use applications like Whatsapp to keep us updated on production. We then used the information they shared during the making of the product with our consumers. Each KARIGAR product comes with a Talking Tag – a hangtag with a QR code that when scanned, shows you pictures and videos of how your product was made, who made it and the technique used,” she says.
Turning passion into a pay cheque
The handmade industry in India is very fragmented, feels Kanak and she’s bursting with ideas on how to change that. “We want to build a network of talented artisans from different parts of India and translate their talent into modern and contemporary designs. We want to be ethical, transparent and tell their talent stories with the help of our design and by using technology.”
Validation for her passion comes from various quarters. “We ran a successful crowd-funding campaign last year and raised €32,000 from consumers worldwide who showed their faith in us. We also work with more than 1,000 artisans across India. All these people believe in what we do and the possibilities that lie ahead. We want to grow our brand internationally, be a preferred choice when someone is looking for handmade, high-quality, designed textiles. We also want to be able to ensure steady work and opportunities for the talented people that we work with,” she says always conscious of her responsibility to the unsung artisans of this country.
Own your dream
Other joys include seeing complete strangers stopping to admire KARIGAR creations. “Then, there are the people back in India who make these beautiful pieces and inspire us to come up with new designs every season. Because of what we do, some of them have smart phones, are learning a new skill or have opportunity to provide their children with higher education. One of our most talented weavers, Parwa, used to work in the farm. Since she started weaving, she’s been able to ensure that her son goes to school. She’s making sure she invests her earning back in the community. Frankly, this is our biggest reward and we want to focus on impacting the lives of our artisans just as they are impacting ours,” says this passionate entrepreneur.
Do it, if you can, she says. In my case, I have an amazing husband who doesn’t mind taking charge if I am out travelling for work or can’t cook a few meals. Find partners who complement your skills, because I do think it’s difficult to run a successful business all by yourself. And, sometimes, you don’t have all the great ideas! But when it gets hard and you feel frustrated, hang in there. Set your own benchmarks and don’t think that you need to ‘fit in’ or follow the road taken. Figure out what makes you different and own it.
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