Beach babes in Jamaica, Spain or other parts of Europe flaunting their perfectly toned and tanned legs will likely not know this, but their hand-embroidered Brazilian bikinis have been designed and manufactured by an electronics and telecommunications engineer based in Pune in western India.
However, Minal Joshi, 30, is not thinking bikinis right now. Late last year, she launched Uzazi Fashion Pvt. Ltd, a range of fashion apparel for pregnant women. She says she cannot understand why hundreds of thousands of expecting mothers in urban India are reconciled to wearing ungainly clothes that do little for their expanding girth, and even less for their morale. Uzazi has launched a range of garments for pregnant women—work clothes, party wear, even gym clothes.
“It is fashionable to show off your pregnancy bump,” says the mother of two whose bright idea for maternity wear came from the fact that she had to go through her first pregnancy in unflattering nightgown-style garments—the only kind of clothes available in the country for pregnant women. “I hated going to work in sacks, so I decided to fashion clothes for myself that made me feel good about my generous figure, and also lent me support where I need it,” says Joshi.
The clothes caught the attention of friends and neighbours in the middle-class Maharashtrian locality where the family lived. Before she knew it, she was gifting her maternity clothes to friends for their baby showers.
A brainstorming session with husband Xitij, also an engineer, and countless visits to shops and malls all over the country soon convinced her that maternity wear could become a profitable business for one simple reason: There were no national brands.
Uzazi, which translates into bright and evident joy, is perhaps the only indigenous brand of maternity wear currently available.
The label works around the theory that pregnancy is something to be flaunted, not hidden under voluminous salwar kameezes.
And so, Joshi, with help from a few designers, launched clothes for pregnant women that mirror what they would otherwise wear: trousers, skirts, jeans, capris, gym clothes, even party wear, including a midnight-blue party gown with a plunging neckline that is a particular favourite with customers.
Uzazi has a flagship store in Pune’s upmarket M.G. Road, and stores in Mumbai and Pune. It is also available in other multi-brand stores and chains, it is in the final stages of tying up with two chains, but everything will be settled around the Diwali festive season). “Women are coming into the store and asking us to make styles which they have fantasized about, or seen on thinner women,” says Joshi.
She isn’t the only one eyeing the market. Last year, Shopper’s Stop Ltd entered into an alliance with Mothercare to launch a range of apparel and merchandise for mothers and children. And at least two popular designers showcased an entire range of maternity wear on the catwalk at fashion shows in New Delhi in 2006.
Maternity fashion is a multi-billion-dollar business in the West where designers, retailers and discount chains cater to the tastes of pregnant women who want to follow pregnancy fashion trends set by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears and Catherine Zeta Jones.
Over the next few months, Joshi plans to roll out 10 stores across major metros—a combination of exclusive brand stores, shop-in-shops at malls and multi-brand shops. Four stores are already up in Pune and Mumbai, and the rest will open in Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad by Diwali.
“Real estate has suddenly become a constraint to growth and we were keen to put up our own stores,” says Joshi.
Meanwhile, the couple are on the verge of tying up with at least two chains in the Gulf to supply them maternity wear, and expect the plans to go on-steam two months from now. The company is already in talks with a US-based veneture capital firm. “We hope to take turnover to Rs2.5 crore in the first year itself,” says Joshi.
“We started with 60 styles and now have over a 100 and, each week, we have a fresh idea, with a number of them actually based on customer feedback,” adds Joshi, who operates out of a tiny facility in the bylanes of Shukrawar Peth, a thickly-populated part of old Pune. “My engineering background makes it easy for me to visualize and construct garments that are just right for the peculiar body shape of pregnant women,” she says.
A teenaged Minal met future husband Xitij while in engineering college. She says he helped her become confident enough to be an entrepreneur. Her foray into entrepreneurship came during her stint at the local gym as instructor when she discovered there were no locally-made leotards to be had. So, she started getting them manufactured at a T-shirt manufacturing unit and selling them to her students.
Two years down the line when the manufacturing unit could no longer meet her demands, she decided to enter the business on her own.
“My father said that he would help me out if needed, but made it clear that I had to find my own banker, chartered accountant and make my own business plan,” says Joshi.
With a Rs5 lakh loan from a bank, Joshi jumped into the business, initially manufacturing leotards for a local sports goods retailer who sold it under its own brand.
On a visit to Mumbai’s famed Fashion Street, she chanced upon the Tonga leotard, with its characteristic high-cut legs, worn by women in the Western world. She bought the only two pieces of the garment left in the store and carefully went over the details of fabric, tailoring and design details. “At Rs30 a piece, it was great learning,” says Joshi.
She used the resources at her brother-in-law’s disposal, a garment production veteran in Mumbai, to get a list of suppliers who could sell her the right material for this.
A.V. Clothing Co., her company that started manufacturing leotards, soon diversified into swimwear and launched its brand Fiesta Clara, in 1998. Dunlop placed an order with the company for sports wear. And the company also started making speed and ice-skating costumes, and yoga, wrestling and gymnastic suits.
“Spending Rs2000 for an imported swimming costume for every day practice is not possible for most families, and Fiesta Clara was perfect since it cost only Rs400 and was designed with the Indian figure in mind,” says Mridula Gramopadhyay, a former national-level swimmer and waterpolo player.
Joshi has a tie-up up withlocal swimming pools where coaches now recommend itto students.
The company’s export business took off after it was spotted by Turkish retail brand Collezione on the net. Last year it supplied 2000 hand-embroidered Brazilian bikinis to their stores.
International purchase houses are regular visitors at the company’s tiny office, and bikini orders this year are poised to cross 6000 every month. Italian brand Mona Lisa is currently in talks with the company, but with limited manufacturing capacities Minal knows it is only a matter of time before she runs out ofcapacity. A.V.Clothing is building a new facility that will double capacity.
“When India’s Komal Nahar wore my costume at the World Championships for rhythmic gymnastics at Baku in 2005 and the Asian event at China earlier, my heart filled with pride. My kids love pointing out my figure and ice-skating costumes to their grandparents and friends when they are worn by the team at national and international events, and that compensates for every hardship,” says Joshi.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com