Surat is a small city with a big story. It is an old city that has been continually reinventing itself and is uniquely connected to the outside world. It’s perhaps no surprise, therefore, that a Giorgio Armani yarn about the Italian fashion guru’s obsessive practice of approving every last detail to do with his brand, springs up over chai at an export trader’s office.
Shree Vallabh International, three flights up a paan-stained staircase in a textile market where lifts overflow with synthetic textile yardage, isn’t the place you would normally expect chatter about Armani.
The reason Vishal Arora, chief fabric sourcing head of Triburg, a Gurgaon-based textile export firm, is privy to anecdotes that usually come up at fashion weeks is because he has sourced mill-made fabrics for Armani ready-to-wear lines for several years. “Triburg also sources for American brands such as Kenneth Cole, Nordstrom, Calvin Klein and American Eagle Outfitters from Surat,” says Arora, on a business trip to Vallabh International, one of the top 5% companies of Surat where “fashion fabrics” are created for the export market. Ninety-five per cent of the mills sell to the domestic market, the remaining 5% cater to exports.
Founded by Vrajesh Punjabi in 2002, Vallabh International is a swanky space you enter after removing your shoes and placing them in a designated closet outside. Furniture in soft brown leather is flanked by stainless steel art pieces, a modern gym, the latest Apple hardware and a CCTV network. For anyone who visits stores like Zara, H&M, Marks & Spencer or Mango, or keeps up with fashion magazines, the sample room brings on a strong sense of déjà vu. Here, mill-made and digitally printed polyesters, georgettes, satin and crepe, from dull to grainy, soft, shiny or matte, pleated fabrics, sequinned material in gold and powdery shades of Schiffli-embroidered fabric transport you back to your favourite high street showroom. These are materials you may have seen, even bought, as shirts or palazzos, tops or trousers, soft jackets or stoles.
“There is a 360-degree turn in the kind of fashion fabrics we now create compared to a few years back,” says Punjabi. He deals with sourcing representatives of fashion brands and creates textile samples for ready-to-wear collections based on seasonal forecasts. “Surat can compete with China in variety and quality of synthetic textiles, we only lag behind in quantity,” says Punjabi. The spurt in orders has made Vallabh International push up production.
In appearance, Rajiv R. Kapur’s Kaplon Industries in Surat’s Katargam area presents a different picture. The deafening clatter of weaving machines drowns out both thought and comment but the bottom line is the same. There is urgency, rush, continuous design innovation to keep up with the market’s changing demands. “The industry has changed completely in the last four-five years. Since 2011 we are expected to change weaving designs every three-four months,” says Kapur, owner of Kaplon. “Demand for designer wear has trickled down to the masses, fundamentally changing our weaving culture,” he adds.
Set up in 1992, Kaplon Industries caters to both exporters and Indian wholesalers who in turn sell it to big or small garment stores. Kaplon manufactures diaphanous fabrics, cotton silks, synthetic zari weaves, polyester and viscose fabrics and self-printed jacquards.
"Traders can pick a fabric or a sari and tell you which market will favour it, given its colour palette, density of embroidery and material"
Surat, an industrial city on the banks of the Tapti river in south Gujarat, celebrated for its diamond industry, as India’s oldest hub for man-made textiles and as the biggest producer of zari in the world, is now on a fashion high. This is also the headquarters of Garden Vareli, one of India’s better-known textile mills, which hosted fashion shows in Mumbai in the 1980s. Today, in an unusual turnaround, Surat amplifies designer trends in women’s wear for the mass market, dressing up entire regions in India. Polyester bling sold in the bazaars of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is from Surat. Fabrics embroidered with stones, foiled with metallic zari, velvet bordered saris, Anarkali sets made of net and lace and more.
Shiploads of printed polyester go out to Turkey, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and West Asian countries. Consider this: A Pakistani trader ordered a consignment of more than 30,000 polyester dupattas from Binay Agarwal, director of Agarwal Textile Mills. “Rs.30 for one dupatta, just 60 cents in US currency, this economy of budget and quality is impossible for the Pakistan market, so the trader made his own salwar kameezes but ordered dupattas from us,” says Agarwal, displaying a pretty piece, soft in fall.
An astute strategist, Agarwal observed changing trends and began getting polyester fabrics woven with machine-made lace borders before dyeing and printing. What’s termed as Pakistani or Middle East fashion in India is actually made in Surat, he explains. It is also not odd to find a “Pathan” businessman from Afghanistan who has made Surat his home for many weeks closely monitoring the manufacture of a consignment for his country.
Inside Agarwal’s mill, polyester yardage is being printed with just a vertical print along the centre. “It’s a panel for kaftans for the Middle East market,” explains Agarwal. He adds that in 2011-12, there was a 10% growth in trade. He is being conservative. Sattu N. Rathi of VSK Synthetics Pvt. Ltd, a mill in Surat’s Kadodara area, admits to 20% growth in the last two years. Here, we also find funky fabric in jungle prints.
Numbers make Surat’s story exceptional. According to The Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SGCCI), the city has 600,000 power looms and 400 textile mills which manufacture 8,400 million metres of fabric every year, or 40% of the total man-made fabric in India. Nineteen per cent of all textiles in the country come from Surat. The industry employs 1.3 million workers. The Union textile ministry’s Outcome Budget 2012-13 pegged the growth of textile exports from Surat from $21.22 billion (Rs.1.14 trillion now) in 2008-09 and $22.41 billion in 2009-10 to $26.83 billion in 2010-11.
Projected to maintain double-digit growth (10.1%) till 2016, the last global economic slowdown notwithstanding, Surat was rated as a “boom town” by The Next Urban Frontier: Twenty Cities To Watch, a study co-authored by Rajesh Shukla of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and Roopa Purushothaman of Future Capital Research.
"There’s a huge demand for foiled polyester fabrics in West Asia"
What’s more, there are over 60,000 wholesale textile shops in Surat, spread in about 12 large and 60-odd small and medium markets. Everywhere you look there is cloth. Yardage of polyester fabrics in rainbow colours as well as grey (common usage for unprinted, undyed woven textile, mostly white or cream-coloured) overpowers the sights in the city. You don’t just see cloth, you can even smell it. “It’s an addictive smell,” remarks Punjabi, laughing. He can’t sleep at night unless he has smelt cloth in the day.
Despite the negative reports of the last two years, when about 40 of the 400 mills were reportedly shut down in Surat owing to a shortage of skilled labour and increasing production costs, there has been a spurt in prosperity. There was “insufficient labour because of MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) schemes, which reduced migration from rural areas to cities for work; increasing prices of coal, electricity, natural gas, chemical dyes and inflating dollar rates did offer immense challenges,” says Agarwal. But the skilled labour rendered unemployed by the shutting down of mills was rapidly sucked in by the flourishing mills. Among the unskilled, most of the migrant labourers returned to their villages, while the locals strained to get absorbed as loaders and lifters in the textile markets.
There are challenges. Rathi points to rising capital costs. Setting up a new factory five years back required an investment of Rs.4 crore; today, he says, Rs.12 crore would be the minimum amount required. “The 10% subsidy doesn’t effectively allow lowering of capital costs.” Punjabi laments that despite burgeoning exports to major countries, Surat is poorly connected by air. Only recently did a direct flight begin to operate between Delhi and Surat.
“Yet lower margins and higher volumes sustained our production. We can’t compete yet with China in terms of volume but our polyesters are one of the finest in the world,” says Agarwal. In Surat, you can buy saris for Rs.30 per piece to Rs.2,000, depending on quality, print, foiling or embroidery. Unstitched fabrics range from Rs.30 per metre to Rs.300 and more. These are wholesale prices.
Surat’s growth story is not just one of increasing demand for synthetic textiles across the world, with cotton becoming expensive. Research and development in every sector, from spinning, weaving, dyeing, processing and printing to export development, has sharpened cost competitiveness and improved quality. The Gujarat Pollution Control Board ensures pollution in the industrial areas is kept under check. There has been no power outage for seven years, as every mill owner hastens to point out. Labour is still cheap. New machinery in weaving units now also helps manufacture cotton, silk and blends of cotton and polyester.
Accounts of conventional progress due to thrift and hard work fork out into endearing tales of passion and vision.
Punjabi’s is a case in point. In 2002, he had serious differences with senior family members over modernization. “I left my family business and restarted on my own as I envisioned developing fashion fabrics for the export markets,”says 44-year-old Punjabi. Given the rising demand, he expects to double production in the next two years.
Mahesh S. Jariwala, chairman and managing director of Sumilon Polyester Ltd, narrates a father-son story. He had barely cleared class X when he joined the family’s zari business. But soon he felt the need to radically challenge the way they worked. He sent his older son to study polymer engineering in the US and the younger one to study marketing and finance in the UK. “My sons have begun making Sumilon relevant internationally,” he says.
Sumilon is today the world’s single largest manufacturer of synthetic zaris under one brand. Today, the demand for precious zari has fallen but that of metallic zari has increased. Busting notions that zari is only used as embellishment for women’s garments, Jignesh Jariwala, the younger son, talks about the new, zari-woven denims they have made for Arvind Mills Ltd. They also create yarns that resist oxidization, fashionable fluorescent threads, viscose and poly blends in more than 400 zari colours, including antique and matte shades.
Surat’s relationship with the fashion industry is indeed peculiar. Here, people are more familiar with the word Zara than Manish Malhotra. Yet you can find thousands of imitations of Suneet Varma, Sabyasachi and Manish Malhotra in the textile markets—even white net saris with gold sequins and red velvet borders straight out of a Manish Malhotra film. Poor copies of Sabyasachi—crepe saris with machine-embroidered gara borders—are sold for Rs.1,200-2,000. Refreshingly, there is not a single Bollywood poster in any textile market nor is there a hoarding with film stars wearing Surti textiles anywhere. All the Surti saris or SKD sets (market parlance for salwar-kurta-dupatta) in brochures and on hoardings show local models.
Fashion has impaled the market from a business point of view without influencing it in a cosmetic way. Arun Agarwal, proprietor of Vishal Prints, a wholesale sari shop, says Surat is the capital of designer imitation, yet can’t come up with a single fashion designer’s name. At Anmol Fabrics in the Adarsh Textile Market, which never used net, the store manager admits that their mainstay now is Anarkali suits in net. Another trader shows black and silver sequinned fabric, another fashion trickle-down.
The explosion of embroidery as the most wanted embellishment has brought about the biggest turnaround in Surat. “There were 1,000 embroidery units in Surat till 2003, now there are 80,000, making the city the biggest centre of machine embroidery in the country,” confirms Mahendra Patel of Dolphin Embro India Pvt. Ltd, which sets up embroidery units. Girdharilal Kherajani, who owns Ekta Embroideries in Surat’s Pandesara area, says the embroidery market has peaked in the last five years. “Traders were clueless earlier but today we know exactly what sells in which region. Heavy embroidery is an assured sell-out,” he adds .
The cultural features of different regions become transparent here; traders can pick up a piece of fabric or a sari and tell you which market will favour it, given its colour palette, density of embroidery and material. Or, even cost. It’s a fascinating way to study India.
Designers are the big value addition. Every mill owner, trader or weaver has hired either consulting or in-house designers for feedback and forecasts who reinvent textiles with a “Surti” touch. Surat echoes fashion trends with its own business sensibility.
To suggest that the amplification of fashion is only a trickle-down from the fashion industry to the mass market is to misread the phenomenon. Surat is a unique case study where fashion influence is a two-way process: the textile industry’s produce includes the selective choices of the masses. So some trends are picked up, modified, readapted and circulated again. Others are created right there—what can uniquely be termed the great fashion trickle up.