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Set amidst the lush greenery and antiquated charm of Colaba, Mumbai, Stefano Funari’s beautiful house also moonlights as the office of ‘I was a Sari’. I was a Sari, as the name almost gives away, is a brand which crafts contemporary lifestyle products from used saris.
In 2011, Stefano, originally from Italy, left a high profile corporate job in Switzerland in a quest to move to a social space; something that had been on his mind for about 20 years. He found CORP in Mumbai, a community-based organisation, as the perfect place where he could implement his business acumen to help structure and scale business, and make a difference. While working on women empowerment projects as part of CORP, Stefano realised that he needed something that would create a recurring income for these women. But the lack of quality, efficiency and productivity in these communities, for understandable reasons, always put his plans back on the burner.
He eventually figured that the idea had to be something truly sustainable and enterprising. Through a chance encounter with a shopkeeper at Chor Bazaar in Mumbai, he stumbled upon bundles and bundles of old saris, and felt an idea taking a recognisable shape in his head. “Then I decided to create a brand and build a story around it. Establishing a brand is a lifelong exercise but we had to start somewhere to justify the premium. And we needed to charge a premium to compensate for all the disadvantages we would have. Because at the end of the day, you need to be competitive to survive in the market and there must be a value attached to what you are selling,” says Stefano.
Of course, he also realised that design will have to play a big and defining element in the venture. Soon after, at a dinner party with some friends in Italy, he pitched the idea – carefully selecting and upcycling saris to create products with a contemporary look and feel – to a friend who led Fashion in Process, a multidisciplinary research collective within the Design Department at Politecnico di Milano. Few months later, I was a Sari got a team of young professional designers to collaborate with. This was in 2013.
It hasn’t all been an easy ride however. “At a certain point, we were only producing small quantities, and the project wasn’t really going anywhere. Then by sheer coincidence, we found ourselves in a situation where we had to produce 1000 pieces. I committed to the delivery but I knew we were nowhere even close. This is the time when I thought that ‘you either kill the project or you make something out of it’. It’s been a tough call, but we made it,” says Stefano.
There were four NGOs involved in the beginning because Stefano saw this as an open source idea. Along the way though, to tighten the reigns a bit, they ended up working only with CORP and only recently with one other NGO. However, Stefano says that they are going back to some of the NGOs as the brand is scaling up and they need to add more women in the production team. The project currently supports 50 women, and is planning to add about 30-40 more by the financial year end.
In 2016, they also decided to incorporate a private limited company as they needed a full-fledged company to be able to export the products. Thus ‘2nd Innings Handicrafts Pvt. Ltd.’ was born. This is a zero dividend private company where 100% of the profits are reinvested in the company. ‘I was a Sari’ now operates under this company.
Europe is the main market for the brand right now, and Stefano sees a lot of potential in the US, the UK and India. Interestingly, so far India wasn’t a huge market for I was a Sari but being present in places like Artisans (Kala Ghoda) and Lakme Fashion Week have opened the Indian market quite a bit. “A place like Artisans is a great fit for us as it attracts discerning middle and upper class Indians and tourists who are interested in high quality and well-designed artisanal products,” says Stefano.
‘I was a Sari’ is currently working on building a proper online presence so people can buy from them directly. They are also looking to expand its retail footprint in markets like the US and the UK (where the sales are small right now) and India. Meanwhile, they are also working on a new line of products, the ideas for which came in early this year with a second collaboration with Fashion in Process.
“We want to create furniture pieces and an entire collection of home décor items, among other things. These are all in the prototype stage right now,” says Stefano. He also adds that they are looking to inject fresh talent into the team, especially in the sales and marketing division. He is also open to collaborating with different partners who can bring in capital or synergies, while consistently maintaining the core ethos of the brand.
Lastly, Stefano says, “I don’t own ‘I was a sari’. I have always felt that I am just managing it. In my vision, I will consider this journey successful the moment I am able to handover the brand to ideally a local team of professionals who can take it to the next level. I want to give back the ownership to the artisans who are working for the brand. I want to move to a point where whoever is working, at any level of the project, should be working for herself or himself, and there is a strong leadership to oversee everything. If this happens, then many scenarios will open up.”
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