Akshay Narvekar: The cuffs and collar man7 min read . Updated: 15 Dec 2018, 12:44 AM IST
The founder of Bombay Shirt Company tells Mint about setting up a fashion brand one stitch at a time, and how he wants to be a democratic brand
Akshay Narvekar was nearing his 30th birthday when he walked into his parents’ room and told them he was quitting his job and going independent. It was a big deal because his parents, both doctors, had always been keen that Narvekar follow a conventional career path.
Their reaction, or rather the lack of anything dramatic, augured well for Narvekar who had, over the course of an evening or two with friends, decided that he wanted to stitch together e-commerce, fashion and novelty into one company. “I waited for 25 years for this response (from his parents)," exclaims Narvekar, laughing.
The Bombay Shirt Company (BSC), which was set up in 2012 as an online custom-made men’s shirt brand, today has 12 stores in eight cities, including Dubai and New York. Their latest, at Kemp’s Corner in Mumbai, is also accompanied by their rare entry into old-fashioned advertising. A hoarding, coincidentally not far from the new store, does not show a model or a collection of shirts, but only a close-up drawing of a button.
“The hoarding is to say that this is our market, we have arrived—without being too pompous but confident of where we stand," adds Narvekar, 36.
It takes me longer than usual to get dressed for the meeting with Narvekar at The Willingdon Sports Club in Mumbai for lunch because I wonder if he will judge my choice of shirt. He assuages my anxiety with his own casual grey shirt and dark pants. He says he is a minimalist, usually wearing similar grey-black-blue shades and tones, mostly preferring long-sleeved round-neck T-shirts instead. His only weakness is watches—he’s sporting a refurbished 1967 Omega with a leather strap, which he gifted himself.
Narvekar always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and was interested in apparel and fashion. After he completed his undergraduate studies in economics and political science from the University of Michigan, Narvekar worked in BCBG Max Azria in California for a few years dealing with post-merger integration and internal consulting.
He then did his management from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, because he eventually wanted to come back to India, before joining private equity firm Everstone Capital.
A few years later, and after a brief stint at a friend’s design label, he decided “to take a punt" which would become BSC.
For someone who always liked designing his own clothes—he would buy fabric, look for buttons and get them stitched—he wondered if there was a less cumbersome way of doing it. An online search with friends produced nothing, which is when he walked up to his parents with an idea for BSC.
With an initial funding of ₹ 7 lakh put together with a silent partner, Toronto-based Simon Jacob, Narvekar got the website going in 2012, cobbled together some tailors and the business was on. They raised some more funds, about ₹ 50 lakh, from family and friends, and took the business to a level where investors could get interested. Narvekar realized Amit Patni, former director of the Patni Group, had bought some shirts from the portal, so he decided to write to him.
An additional funding of ₹ 2 crore that came in 2014 and a providential sighting of a Facebook post changed the company’s fortunes. Though initially not interested in stores, the space Narvekar saw on Facebook (available for rent in Kala Ghoda) got him interested.
“I realized that brick-and-mortar is the way to go because that store (Kala Ghoda) has done exceptionally well in the four years we have had it. It exposed people to the brand and taught us to make better shirts through real life experience," he says.
Additional investments (₹5-6 crore) in 2016 and this April will help take BSC to 20 stores—of which 12 would be theirs and the rest franchises. Their current staff strength is of about 100 people, including a lean corporate team, employees in stores and in distribution.
Currently on a break from his regular evenings of football or basketball because of a back strain, Narvekar orders a mismatched meal of Tom Yum soup and a dosa—the slim, tall, former golf regular with a fashionable stubble does not have a regimented diet or schedule.
If he could change something from the past, he believes the shirts they made initially were not up to the mark. “In retrospect," he says, between spoonfuls of soup, “I should have spent two years doing the R&D. We didn’t have the machinery to churn out high-quality shirts. We were doing a lot by hand, very mom-and-pop. But people knew about us."
The risotto I am eating fuels my next question about body shapes. Narvekar’s observation is that about 80% of their customers are working out, based on their styling and sizing. “In the past, we made (shirts with) larger shoulders for our foreign clients but now even our Indian clients are becoming bulkier on top and thinner at the waist," says Narvekar, who himself prefers a loose shirt rather than a fitted one.
Their business today is about 35:65, online versus offline—the number gets skewed as they open more stores—which Narvekar would like to bring to 50:50. They upgraded their website recently, but initial feedback seems to indicate more work is needed.
His product might be a “rich to luxury" brand but the process of choosing a shirt from the BSC website can be like playing a video game, as I move about different collar or cuff designs on prints and colours, watching the whole thing come together. The shirt I “design" for fun is far from wearable, but the collar I use (just for its name) is called “Evil Pundit"—based on a style previously made famous by Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Evil from the Austin Powers films.
“We mixed the two (names) and we were tickled by it. So we thought let’s give these names that are quirky and relatable," grins Narvekar.
As the New York store completed one year in end-November, a question continues to stir him up sometimes: What happens next in his cash-positive business. Their processes are now in place, a lot of it done through vendors and partners. The company has a strong returns policy, which is needed for an online business where trial and error is bound to cause collateral damage.
“If the algorithm didn’t work, we would fix the shirt, though it’s 94% accurate. If you want to touch and feel, you should go to the store. Purely from a marketing and acquisition cost perspective, online acquisitions costs are high. It helps having stores to bring down costs—it’s a lot more sustainable than a thousand Facebook ads," he says.
“We haven’t paid enough attention to customers I feel, but we are setting up a team that will focus on them. We want to be a democratic brand and treat everyone the same, whether you spend ₹ 2,000 or ₹ 10,000 or ₹ 10 lakh."
He believes there is a reason some companies focus on online and others on offline because they are two separate businesses. “Manufacturing is not fully but quasi-controlled by us. As we scale up, there will be lots more franchises, which is again quasi-controlled by us. So what are we actually doing here? One, we are marketing and creating demand; two, training and quality control; and three, building a tech platform—not just the website, but it’s all automated.
“Everything else is a by-product," he says.
Next up is Super Pant, which is the trouser version of the BSC, but a different brand sold through the same channels.
As I accidentally drop the “tailoring" word in the conversation, Narvekar specifies: “We are not tailors—we don’t take your fabric and stitch it. It’s the whole experience of the website, selecting from our fabrics, our stitching, delivery, etc. That’s a brand experience, not a service."
Last book he abandoned
I met a friend who said it was the greatest book he had read and I couldn’t get past the first chapter of ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck’ (by Mark Manson).
Favourite kind of evening
I like sitting at home—I am a bit of loner—with a book (mostly non-fiction and autobiographies).
I think I was a little immature when I went for undergrad studies to the US. I wasn’t ready for it and didn’t make more of it. I was more depressed and sad about being away from home. I wish I could have those four years back.