Kolhapuris, a traditional footwear made by artisans living in rural pockets on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, is set to gain a toehold in Japan, Australia, Belgium and Russia this summer.
ToeHold, a brand of hand-crafted traditional Kolhapuri footwear, made by an all-women group of artisans in Athani, a tiny village on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, has caught the imagination of the fashion-conscious in these countries.
The ToeHold Artisans Collaborative, a group initiative of over 200 families in the village, has bagged a $60,000 (Rs25.8 lakh) order for Kolhapuris from a Russian firm that supplies to hi-fashion footwear chains. The group is also in the process of tying up a similar deal with an Australian fashion house in the next few weeks. Last year it snapped up a $12,000 order from Italian fashion house Luciano Carvari for its Ukraine operations. At $8.5 a pair, profit margins on sale to the Italians is hefty. Meanwhile, the group is expecting a repeat order this year too.
The group has been working with the Central Leather Research Institute for three years now to develop and export the humble Kolhapuri, crafted in trendy styles with embellishments such as Swarovski crystals, colourful beads and intricate embroidery, evocative of India’s rich craft traditions.
While the Indian market treats the Kolhapuri as a fairly middle class product, its international version has been a hot fashion statement, selling in boutiques across New York, London and Sydney with price tags of $50-100 a pair.
According to K. Raghu of Asian Centre for Entrepreneurial Initiatives, a not-for-profit social organization that guides the group, UK’s Office Holdings that runs Poste, a 72-outlet chain store, has been buying men’s footwear from ToeHold for three years now.
So has Catherine Williams, a professor in footwear technology at a university in Brussels. Williams comes to Athani every year and works with the artisans to design a collection of footwear for a few high-end boutiques in Paris, New York and select stores in Belgium.
“When she first came to us, we were not confident whether we could deliver the quality and fine craftsmanship she demanded. She worked with us, helped us gain confidence and now her business is high visibility for us,” says Raghu. Williams has bought a collection of children’s footwear from the Athani artisans at €10 per pair.
Prices vary in different markets. While the Russian order will get the artisans $5-6 a pair, the Australian buyer will pay $6-7 and the Japanese $8-8.5. The group is not very excited by the prospective buyers in the US as they normally try to push prices down.
India’s own retail boom also does not excite the collaborative, as it has found it tough working with some of the big names in the domestic retail space.
“The local retail stores buy on consignment basis and return stock without any explanations. There is also so much churn in the marketplace that almost every year the people we co-ordinate with at various stores hop jobs, leaving us to scramble for our money,” says Raghu. The group currently supplies to two Indian retailers—the Future Group’s aLL (a Little Larger, an outlet for fashion apparels for plus-size individuals), and Loft, a footwear chain of the Hiranandani group.
“It does not make sense for us to compete in the local market because the mass market just wants cheap products at low prices,” points out Raghu.