It’s often said that if instead of utilitarian items, India focused on design-oriented Make in India products — centred around its traditional crafts — it could beat all other countries in exports of indigenous items. The steep upward arc of a 12 per cent increase in the year-on-year net profits of Ahujasons, the master shawl maker, strongly affirms this argument.
The beginnings of Ahujasons were spartan. The company began as Ahuja Tailors & Drapers in 1950 in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, a bustling market filled with shops catering to middle-class families. The shop stocked unbranded as well as branded suit lengths and serviced middle-class clients. The most high-end item on the rack was Raymond’s double barrel trouser line. The business soon became insufficient to sustain three families — that of founder Daulat Ram Ahuja and his two brothers. They began to actively look for alternatives. The Ahujas noticed that the adjacent shop sold blankets and shawls and had a better business as it did not have to shell out additional money on tailoring, labour, and materials. Soon, Ahuja Tailors & Drapers also started stocking and selling blankets and shawls.
But with two neighbouring shops selling identical items, there was tough competition and no clear winner. This went on for some time till Daulat Ram Ahuja’s eldest son Kulbhushan joined the Indian Wool Secretariat to get a diploma in wool weaving and testing. He learnt that selling the highest-quality material to top clients alone could lift the business from the bottom. Kulbhushan planned to move out of the slow coach of economical range and aimed to hop on the ‘luxury’ express.
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Making inroads into Kashmir
After a lot of thought, Kulbhushan chalked out a formula that capitalised on his established strength — woollen textiles — but with a luxury edge of Kashmiri pashmina work. In 1991, even though Jammu and Kashmir was in the grip of militancy, Kulbhushan toured across the state in search of the best pashmina weavers and master craftspeople. In 1992, on one such visit to a remote village, Kulbhushan was abducted by militants. Through a self-negotiated ransom deal, he managed to secure an early release for himself. As a part of the terms of release, he continued to pay small amounts of ‘ransom’ to the militants for three years. Kulbhushan decided to use this period as an opportunity to visit the various pashmina hubs scattered across the remote regions of the state.
With each visit, he understood the craft and its craftspeople better. He realised that irrespective of how carefully he worked out the details of shipments, almost 10 per cent of every consignment was lost in pilferage of stock. He soon devised a new formula whereby craftspeople were given an additional 1.5 per cent commission for full protection and delivery of goods. This turned out to be a masterstroke. Workers prioritised deliveries for the Ahujas and provided full protection to the finished stocks. In the 10 years that followed, the Ahujas made thumping profits and deep inroads into the luxury designer shawl business.
Kulbhushan and his family began to carefully study the choices of their customers. The rich and uber-rich, the neo-wealthy and old wealthy — everyone had different choices of design and colour patterns. Ahujasons created a stable of freelance designers to accordingly create different winter offerings for each segment. This is when they finetuned their four most popular designs — the gulabdar of bold motifs in French knots, the aabdar that features rich embroidery on the entire surface of the shawl, the papier-mâché design that mimics traditional Kashmiri wood curios made with Parsi embroidery work, and lastly the kalamkari.
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Knowing where the market was
Kulbhushan and his team of market watchers observed that once children grow up, seasoned and mature women like to begin afresh by experimenting with their personal style and accessories. Accordingly, they chose Sharmila Tagore as their brand mascot, and the accomplished actor’s inherent poise and grace exhibited the brand’s growing repertoire of high-end antique pieces and collector items.
Keen to tap the high spending power of the Indian males and to persuade them to enlarge their wardrobe repertoire, Ahujasons’ advertising team co-opted Saif Ali Khan. They began to display pictures of the actor draped in a designer men’s shawl over his western suits, kurta pyjamas, and Nehru jackets.
By the late ’90s, Ahujasons saw speedy growth. But the situation in Kashmir was still fragile, and disturbances in the region led to disruptions in the supply. In a new mission to induct fresh talent, Kulbhushan, with his wife Anju, began to visit various textile hubs in Kashmir villages. The couple would spend time talking to women, persuading them to take up embroidery as a profession. Anju Ahuja would explain to the women how home-based embroidery work could be more lucrative than an office-based job. It could also align well with different phases of life like motherhood. This large-scale induction of a new talent pool of women from various districts of Kashmir led to a fresh boom in the Ahujasons’ supply chain. Following this new bumper supply and the success of their store in Tokyo, Kulbhushan Ahuja’s 3 sons — Puneet, Bhuvan, and Karan — are planning to open new stores outside India in various diaspora hubs such as Dubai and London.
“Today, I can say with confidence that there is no external competition to us in the shawl segment. People use different accessories to express their station in life. Earlier, it used to be a branded purse or a ring for women; a good belt or branded shoes for men. But we have managed to change that by showing that a good shawl completes a person,” says Kulbhushan.
For a country that has an almost 10-month-long warm season and just a sliver of winter, Ahujasons shawls have indeed beaten logic to emerge as ubiquitous fashion statements.
This article is a part of a series called BusinessHistories exploring iconic businesses in India that have endured tough times and changing markets. Read all articles here.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)