Towards the end of 2020, a reel of a group of friends draped in ajrakh sarees dancing to Kangna Re from the movie Paheli garnered over a million views. One of them was Lekhinee Desai, co-founder of the sustainable fashion brand The Indian Ethnic Co. Their shoppable dance reels are now an Instagram sensation and have helped the brand achieve a turnover of over 10 crores. Desai talks about the ‘real women’ in these reels, co-founding the brand with her mother, and dance marketing. By Adila Matra
T+L India: We have all seen the pretty sarees that make an appearance in your dance reels. Tell us about the inception of Indian Ethnic Co.
Lekhinee Desai: The Indian Ethnic Co., based in Mumbai, is a sustainable fashion brand offering handcrafted apparel and lifestyle products created by rural artisans from across India. When you buy a product from us, you help support the livelihood of at least five artisans and craftsmen alike in the process.
My mother, Hetal Dessai is the co-founder and one-woman army behind this brand. At 55 and after having spent 27 years of her life selflessly discharging her duties towards her daughters and family, she saw herself play a part in the brand’s success. Although she had no formal education in fashion, she had an astute sense for design aesthetics and a natural design sensibility of silhouettes and fabrics, and hence had a flourishing fashion designing practice back in her hay days which she gave up without any qualms to work for a brighter future for us, her daughters. Over the years, she fulfilled her passion for designing by creating unique dresses for us, which were always appreciated by everyone. She never liked anything that was available readymade in the market. It was always very common, couldn’t be customised to her preferences, and the ones that she liked were always very expensive. I nudged my mother that she must get back to what she does best–making the most beautiful clothes.
Social media shopping was just gaining steam back in 2016 and we thought that it would turn out to be a cheap experiment to sell through social media. Moreover, we thought that even if the initial sample garments we make to sell on our page do not sell, my sister and I could wear them! So we started our Instagram and Facebook accounts, ordered a small batch of fabric from a master ajrakh artisan in Kutch with an investment of only INR 50,000, made some kurtas, clicked the photos on our phone, made my sister model them, uploaded on Instagram and Facebook, and the rest is history! The garments were sold out in a few days! It felt like magic. We were officially Bedroom-preneurs.
For the first two years, we continued selling only through social media since I was pursuing my MBA. We officially launched our website and registered our brand only in 2018.
Fast forward to 2022, we have an inventory of 50,000 meters of fabric, a turnover crossing Rs 10 crores, three full-fledged offices in Mumbai, and a staff of 25 working with over 100 master artisans of Indian handicrafts. I also left my job with ITC and now, I manage this brand full time along with my mom.
T+L India: How did the idea of making dance reels come about? Who are the pretty ladies in these reels?
Lekhinee Desai: Before I started walking, I started dancing. Dance has been my passion and my hobby. I am a trained classical Odissi dancer with over 20+ years in training in Odissi. I am also professionally trained in jazz, ballet, and contemporary. I have also acted in several ads, movies, series, and plays. I also happened to work as an assistant choreographer in the movie Ram Leela where I trained the lead actors and the dance troupe for two songs.
My younger sister, Twaraa, who is the face of our brand , apart from being a student of medicine, is also a professionally trained Odissi, jazz, ballet, and contemporary dancer. Hence, dance is something that we both share the love and passion for.
My dad always believed that we should use the format of dancing to launch every new collection because not only is it unique and entertaining, also because our brand is about real women. Not every brand has real people working for them. They always hire models, and one cannot expect models to dance like trained dancers. And real women are not all models. They are multifaceted– they work, manage their home, and pursue their dreams and passion. Since our brand has always been about showcasing our collection through real women in all body shapes and sizes, this aspect was just a natural outcome of that.
So it is my sister, friends, and I who you see in the reels. The 30-second reel format was just perfect for our brand, because it was not too long, so as to look like a dance group doing a professional dance performance, but at the same time it was enough time to showcase our products.
And when we launched our first reel, it went viral overnight and our sarees were all sold out!
T+L India: How have reels helped in marketing?
Lekhinee Desai: Facebook and Instagram combined, our videos on an average always cross two million views. Plus, we have the shopping feature enabled on our reels wherein we can tag the products we are wearing so that people can instantly click and shop those products. Our sarees have been a complete sell out every time we launch a new collection through dance. We got so many people writing, talking, sharing about us which had never happened before. People really started to take notice of our brand after the reels and we got tremendous recognition and recall value because of that.
This format of dance marketing not only got us immense social media followers, we literally tripled our followers and became 600k+ on Instagram and Facebook
combined, but now saree as a category is selling as much as kurtas, which is our primary offering.
T+L India: Tell us a bit about the products of Indian Ethnic Co. Do you promote sustainable fashion?
Lekhinee Desai: Sustainability is the key principle and cornerstone of our products and the brand.
Being Indian handicraft connoisseurs ourselves, we have always worn Indian handloom and handcrafted clothes all our life. The Indian craft sector is so vast, varied, rich, and vivid that it has the capability to create a cultural tsunami. With our unique design aesthetics and the beauty of traditional Indian crafts, we knew it would make beautiful poetry that people would like to sing and dance to.
Personally also, we are averse to fast fashion. We thought it was beautiful how the process of making Indian handcrafted products was truly sustainable. The product being 100 per cent handcrafted provided employment and livelihood to a large number of people living in villages and helped alleviate poverty. It ensured that the craftspeople do not leave their skill in search of alternate income opportunities. Compared to fast fashion brands, a slow fashion brand like ours employs more people per product made. Handicrafts also employ sustainable manufacturing processes that make products without disrupting the environment. With our clothing, we are trying to communicate the idea of sustainable and slow fashion to the savvy generation that is heavily influenced by fast fashion.
When we founded The Indian Ethnic Co., we just had one goal–to make Indian fashion responsible and sustainable. When we say ‘truly handcrafted’, we mean that the fabric is handwoven, the dye is hand made with organic and vegetative ingredients, the print is hand blocked and the final product is hand tailored. This is sustainable fashion- fashion that not only makes you feel good and look good but also sustains the livelihood of millions of artisans and craftsman.
T+L India: What was your favourite collection and why?
Lekhinee Desai: My favourite collection is the ‘Myriad Colors of Bandhani’ that we are just about to launch. I love it because it’s so full of life, colours, and opulent fabrics. It has done justice to the intricate craft of the bandhani/bandhej. This collection is a labour of love and has taken a year to produce collectively. Each piece from this collection is a one of a kind, limited edition, heirloom piece that takes at least 4-6 months to produce individually.
T+L India: Tell us a bit about the signature pieces of Indian Ethnic Co that see a lot of demand?
Lekhinee Desai: Our signature pieces are a reflection of my mom’s and my outlook, which echoes the outlook of so many modern Indian women. They are modern in their thought, approach, outlook yet so very rooted in tradition in so many ways, hence it was important that our clothing was a reflection of that identity.
T+L India: Are you solely an online brand? How do customers shop for Indian Ethnic Co products?
Lekhinee Desai: Yes. We are currently online only. Customers can shop for our products directly from our website. We ship all over the world and pan India.
T+L India: We know that all the products are handcrafted. Where are the artisans from? Do you travel a lot for ideas and interaction?
Lekhinee Desai: We work with master artisans skilled in their craft across India. For eg: our Ajrakh Hand Block Printed Fabrics are handcrafted in Ajrakhpur; Sanganeri Hand Block Prints come from Sanganer, Rajasthan; Kalamkari Hand Block Prints happen at Pedana in Andhra—the list is long. Working with handcrafted products involves a lot of traveling to local villages. It not only helps us find, identify new craft clusters but also enables us to develop a community around our existing artisans to involve them in other allied manufacturing activities, like employing the artisan’s wives and kids to make patchwork bedsheets, pouches, etc from leftover fabrics.
T+L India: Which destinations do you think are ideal for artistic inspiration?
Lekhinee Desai: I think any place where flora and fauna abound is where ideas grow the best. Nature is our best inspiration for the vivid colour combinations of flowers, the shapes of flowers and leaves. Our collections always have a lot of floral motifs and earthy colour combinations that we have picked up from our travel escapades.
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