Starting up in a small town is hard, even more so when your sector is not one which offers a huge market. But Swastika Stuti, 27, is an icon of sorts – as the first haute couture designer in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkhand, which is one of the poorest states in the country with close to 40% of the population living below poverty line.
Small towns have rarely featured on the fashion map in India. Although Ranchi has no dearth of boutiques, most of them source clothes from wholesale markets in Delhi and Mumbai and sell them here. (For the ultra-affluent, fashion narratives are shaped by designers from the metros.)
However, influence of pop culture and exposure to the latest trends in fashion have heralded a change in customer behaviour. Swastika says, “Women in the 40-60 age group, who have never worn anything other than demure salwar kameez and sarees, come to me with requests for custom-designed dresses and kaftans and maxis.”
Interestingly, a large part of her clientele today is male, thanks to the gap in availability of custom-designed clothes for men in the city. “Every wedding season, I have more grooms visiting my studio than brides,” says Swastika, who now has two studios in the city.
Having launched her label in 2015, Swastika has become a well-known name in Ranchi. She has mentored aspiring models as well as been a judge at beauty pageants in the city.
Swastika recollects that in the initial days, many people used to turn up at the store out of curiosity. “Seeing the unconventional pictures and décor, people would ask me if I was selling photo frames. Some youngsters would walk in only to click pictures of themselves against the backdrop of the studio.”
Swastika attributes her courage for wanting to foray into an unknown territory to her parents’ non-conservative parenting. “I have never been told by my parents to dress or behave in a particular way. I have always been free to do what I wanted, which is not a norm in families in small towns.”
In fact, Swastika recollects that whenever she visited home during vacations while studying at the School of Fashion Technology in Pune, the atmosphere in Ranchi used to make her feel claustrophobic. “The attitudes are heavily coloured by regressive beliefs, especially towards women, and that reflects in the way people dress up,” she adds.
After finishing college, Swastika had job offers from prominent brands. But concerned that her creativity would be curtailed in a large organisation, she decided to launch her own label.
The Small Town Label
In 2015, Swastika transformed the garage of her parents’ house into a studio to start her own couture brand in Ranchi.
She recalls, “Since I wasn’t sure how the people of Ranchi would take to couture, I didn’t want to take a bank loan or borrow money from my parents. I only had my savings from my freelance assignments that I had bagged during my college days. Initially, I did everything on my own – be it digital marketing or sourcing fabrics or even mopping and sweeping my studio. I hired people to work for me full-time only recently.”
Swastika also exemplifies the spirit of jugaad that is typical of Indian entrepreneurs. “When I had started, I relied heavily on social media to make people aware of my brand. Thanks to the buzz on Facebook and Instagram, I was approached by aspiring models and photographers from the city who wanted to partake in the shoot solely because it would be a new experience for them.”
Growing A Brand in A Small town
Swastika has showcased her designs at three fashion shows in Ranchi and is confident of entering the big league of Lakme Fashion Week soon. She has expanded her clientele beyond Ranchi though foreign nationals working with some NGOS is Jharkhand.
She says, “Some of them have become loyal customers over the years and they have also spread the word among their friends and family members in their home countries. So I keep getting orders from abroad.” Today she has clients in the US, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and France. Her designs are a hit in Ranchi’s expat community as well.
Swastika has also played a pivotal role in helping women from lower income families earn a livelihood. She states, “Many poor women from neighbouring localities would come to the studio looking for work. They wanted me to assign them work which they could do at home because their husbands would never allow them to step out of the house to work. So, as and when they are available, I collaborate with them to do embroidery and tailoring for me.”
Talking about the journey ahead, Swastika says, she wants to make clothes by sourcing fabrics from the tribal weavers of Jharkhand. “The art of weaving is dying because the market is inundated with factory-produced fabrics. I want to use the fabrics woven by tribal weavers of Jharkhand for my next collection. I am already in talks with them.”
The tribal weavers’ repertoire includes khadi, kuchai, ghicha and the luxurious tussar silk. However, weavers face stiff competition from mass-produced imitation fabrics, and struggle with marketing and distribution. Also, there is a high rate of attrition in the weavers’ community belonging to rural Jharkhand, as youngsters are migrating to cities in large numbers in search of jobs. Efforts like Swastika’s aim to bring in more employment opportunities for youths and financial upliftment for economically weaker sections in the State.