June Issue 2003
Interview Shamoon Sultan
“I think I just did the right thing at the right time”
– Shamoon Sultan, CEO, Khaadi
The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. Except in the case of Shamoon Sultan — owner and chief designer of Khaadi creations — as he laughingly admits. Endearingly modest for a young artiste of extraordinary entrepreneurial savvy, Shamoon still is the same lackadaisical, happy-go-lucky textile designer he was while training at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. “When I set up Khaadi, I thought I would be out of business in six months and have to go crawling back to my father, and beg him for a job!” he says. “My teachers never thought I’d come this far and I myself never imagined the concept would take off like it did.” But break the boundaries Shamoon certainly did, singlehandidly, if somewhat unwittingly, by ushering in a “khaadi culture,”of spectacular sartorial spark.
Shamoon capitalised on the advantages fortune favoured him with: his father’s finances and artistic direction from architects Arshad and Shahid Abdulla, his uncles. But this is a man who simply cannot be dismissed by the inconsequential epithet: “lucky” or even someone “in the right place at the right time.” Spotted by Noorjehan Bilgrami while still a student at the Indus Valley, Shamoon’s talent and creative vision propelled his rise from proprietor of a small boutique on Karachi’s elite-street Zamzama, where Khaadi was first set up, to head of one of the most successful textile houses in the country. His creative and business acumen certainly show no signs of abating as Khaadi continues to expand. Shamoon shares Khaadi’s spectacular success story with Newsline…
Q: Khaadi has been a massive success story — today you have three outlets in Karachi, one in Lahore, another one in the pipeline, and there are plans to expand into Islamabad as well. When you came up with the idea of reintroducing handloom fabric into the market, did you ever envisage how profitable it would be?
A: I was a graduate of Indus Valley — the class of 1996. I majored in weaving, and ever since then I have only be involved in handloom weaving. I went on to work with Noorjehan Bilgrami for a year and later with a textile mill for a couple of months before I set up Khaadi on my own.
The whole idea behind Khaadi was pretty unique when I started out. I didn’t see anything similar being offered in the market at the time — now, of course, the idea has taken off tangentially and there are numerous outfits that offer similar products. I think I just did the right thing at the right time. I always believed in the product and I think that is what made the difference.
Q: As a graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, how far did your educational background help towards making a success of the business venture?
A: Obviously, had I not studied at IV, I would not be where I am today. IV is an art school and I was trained as a designer. It is very important to be professionally trained in your field. You cannot just pick up skills along the way. Indus Valley doesn’t teach fashion design — it focuses on textile design, so this is why I chose to venture into this field.
Q: Had you always been inspired in this direction — even before you attended art school?
A: Well, I wouldn’t quite put it like that. It just happened at the right time. My immediate family is not really into art or design, all apart from two of my uncles who are architects — Arshad and Shahid Abdulla. Besides them, there is no one in a similar field. However, my uncles did encourage me quite a bit, so I suppose I owe them a debt of gratitude.
Q: You worked with Noorjehan Bilgrami for just a year before moving on to set up your own business. What gave you the confidence to take such a major step at this early stage?
A: Noorjehan works on a different level from that of Khaadi — she has a very select clientele. When I was working with her, I realised that this was not the direction I wanted to follow. To make anything work, one has to create a market. This is especially important when you are trying to revive a craft, which is what I wanted to do with handloom weaving. As Noorjehan was working out of a very small boutique outfit, it was unfeasible for me to go on working there — the numbers were just not adding up. However, Noorjehan is a perfectionist, and I definitely did learn a lot from her. She saw the potential in me whilst I was in Indus Valley, as she was executive director at that point.
I graduated in 1996, worked with Noorjehan till 1997, and then I did a couple of shows with Shahnaz Siddiq while I was working with different textile mills. I wanted to do some exhibitions to gauge public demand and to see how things worked in practice.
I always felt that it was very important to have separate outlets for my products and that the working area must be clearly defined. I wanted to bring all the weavers in to work at one central location, and this was something that no one was doing at the time. Everybody who was in the business used to operate out of their own homes and designers and weavers also preferred to stick to their own shops. So this is exactly what I did — I allocated a central space for the weavers to work from and this is how it started off.
Q: Did you ever think at the time that you would be responsible for ushering in, what has now become a “khaadi culture”, into Pakistan? What do you think played the biggest part in your success?
A: The fabric that we produced when I did the exhibitions with Shahnaz is not up to my standards today. I wouldn’t put it in the shops now — it was really quite bad. At the time, our biggest problem was that we didn’t have anyone to look up to. There was no quality control, no one that we could take the lead from or learn from. So everything we did was learned on the job. There was a lot of trial and error involved. Even compared to when Khaadi started out, I think we have improved tremendously in terms of the quality of our designs and fabrics. In this business it is very important that we keep on innovating and creating new things. This is the secret of our success, the day we stop doing that, we die!
Q: As a young student with no money to your name, how did you manage to finance Khaadi?
A:I was lucky, I got the money from my father. He is a very well established businessman.
Q: Teachers at IV remember you as a “rather disinterested and disorganised student!” Is that because you were more interested in the business side of your craft rather than the craft itself?
A: No, not at all. That was me as a person, the happy-go-lucky side of me is still very much in existence! But towards my third year, I really got into what I was doing and buckled down to some serious work. I did exceptionally well in my thesis — as I mentioned before, this was how I landed my job with Mrs Bilgrami. All these things helped me to build up my career. But had I not have been deeply passionate about handloom weaving, I would never have ventured into this.
A:I didn’t know that there would be a market at all when I started out. To be honest I never thought at the time that it would take off like it did. To branch out with five outlets is something that I thought I’d maybe manage in 35 years — not five! I thought I would be out of business in six months and have to go back to my father to beg him to get me a job! I think I worked hard and it just happened for me.
Everything fell into place, but it was not easygoing in the initial years. I started off with capital of only three million rupees, and one million of that went towards setting up the first shop in Zamzama. I didn’t have to pay for the premises, as my family owned the land, so that was an advantage that I capitalised on. Things were difficult only because of our limited experience in technique — we were learning on the job. For example, we didn’t know how to put booties (motifs) into the fabric. We had to experiment with other mediums such as silk as well. We made a lot of mistakes, lost a lot of money. That is something that the later entrants into the market did not have to face, because they learned from us.
Q: How long did it take for Khaadi to break even?
A: I have never taken a single penny out of this business to date. Everything was always ploughed back into the business. I don’t plan to take anything out for the next five years either. I want the business to grow — to expand three to four times.
Q: But isn’t there a limit to how far you can expand working with just one medium?
A: We are diversifying into household products like bedlinen etc. Also, the more people come in, the more it has helped us. Khaadi is the original product, and other people and manufacturers are trying to be like us.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that it has inspired so many spin-offs? Given that your designs have been copied to cater to the 300-rupee market in direct competition with you, do you feel at all threatened that your demand may erode?
A: I feel it is a huge compliment, whether people try to fake us or compete with us. It is flattering, as only big names get copied. This is why it is helping us. People will go to other places and check out the competition, but as we are the “originals” they will come back to us. Initially, I was scared about the ramifications of our new designs being copied and sold in the market just two weeks later, but, all in all, it has turned out to be good for the business, not bad.
Q: Khaadi started out with a commitment to natural dyes but since then has employed a varied colour palette. Do you plan to also introduce more fabrics, perhaps experimenting with synthetic mixes?
A:Initially I started off with only natural dyes. But when I started manufacturing for the market, I realised that I was catering to a huge demand and many customers wanted more colours. My basic focus was not to produce cloth with natural dyes — it was only the production of handloom weaving. If I start manufacturing only with natural dyes, the number of looms I operate will fall by about 80 per cent. My idea was to work with handloom weavers, and in order to do that, I had to work with an expanded colour palette. As far as synthetic materials are concerned, the Khaadi policy has always been to work with only cottons and silks.
Q: Where did you get your inspiration — India?
A: I have been to India a couple of times, and that is only because of my university trip. It really opened my eyes to how much one could experiment with this medium and what wonders they have produced. When I went back there, it was after a period of three years, after the first two Khaadi outlets had already opened up. Then, because of the visa restrictions, travel was made more difficult, or else I would have visited more often — at least once a year. It’s always a great experience.
If I had to judge the quality of their craftsmen and compare them to ours, I would definitely say that our handloom weavers are superior. Of course in terms of quantity and the range of products they offer, we cannot compete as India caters to a much larger market. So it will take us time to catch up. But it is very encouraging to see that a lot of people are now taking an interest in this field. When I was in India, I was there just to learn and analyse the craft, and I feel that we are capable of producing much better quality fabric in Pakistan. But obviously, India has a lot of textile companies working with handloom weavers and a much larger market.
Q: Have Khaadi designs been influenced by Indian designs?
A:Our strategy from day one has been to take this ethnic medium and use it in a contemporary way. We did not want our product to look ethnic. The booties may be inspired by the Indian motifs, but we also feature a lot of African-style designs. If you look at our colours, part of the palette is influenced by Indian designs, but a large part of it is not. I do not believe in full ethnicity.
Q: The Khaadi designs have been largely uniform over the years — will we see come changes in the future?
A:Every year we will keep on improving. There are certain restrictions involved in handloom weaving which lend it that air of uniformity. For the first three years our main strength has been in colours — we explored the palette extensively. From now onwards, I feel we will be concentrating more on design. This phase has already started, and will be more evident in the next three months or so. We are also trying to focus more on the silks.
Q: Coming down to economics — a stitched outfit of comparable fabric quality in India is priced about one-third less than it is here. Why is there such a substantial price differential between the countries?
A: There are two or three different reasons for this price differential. One: the cotton yarn is relatively less inexpensive in India than it is in Pakistan. Two: the revival of handloom weaving took place a long time ago in India. When I started out, all the weavers were working somewhere else. We worked with the Banarasi weavers and all of them prefer to work closer to their homes. When I asked them to work for me, their general income level was approximately 4500 rupees. Travelling about 40 km to work everday was an unfeasible proposition for them. The work would also be much more laborious. So we had to entice them with a much higher level of income. In fact the weaving charges we pay in Pakistan are probably a lot higher than they are in India. Three: the Indian market is multi-layered. Khaadi has outlets, for example, in Park Towers and Zamzama, where the monthly rent is over 200,000 a month and therefore our overheads are a lot higher.
If you look at the prices of all handloom brands, they are very expensive. But Indian handloom weavers also cater to a middle income and lower income market.
Q: So the price of the product could be brought down substantially?
A:I can bring the price down. There are shortcuts — and then, I could also decrease the quality, work with a looser weave and cut down on overheads. The main cost lies in the overheads. When you work from a composite unit, like we do, overheads are bound to be higher.
Q: Wouldn’t it be better then, to keep the overheads low?
A: Well, for starters, it is easier to control quality under one roof, and it is a much easier proposition given the scale on which we are working. Khaadi employs over 300 handlooms and we are looking to increase production further, so it would be a great hassle to have them dispersed over the city.
Q: Judging by the profit margin, do you aspire to go even one step further and take Khaadi international?
A: Initially, my plan was to just focus on Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. We plan to open up a second outlet in Lahore and also branch out into a bigger outlet in Zamzama. This will open its doors by the end of this year, InshaAllah. So this is the plan upto 2004. In 2005, I will start thinking in international terms — maybe expanding into Dubai. This is not a very clear-cut plan now, however.
Q: I believe your wife works with you. Has she provided much of the inspiration behind Khaadi?
A: : Yes, she was also from Indus Valley, two years junior to me. She was the first person to start working for me a year after Khaadi was set up. Now we have six designers and they all are from Indus Valley. I find it easier to work with people who understand your language and have been trained along the same lines. I couldn’t have done it without my parents support and I also owe a lot to my teacher, Mrs Ismail.
Q: Do you think you have been very, very lucky?
A: I firmly believe that one should never just follow the rat race. Once you start doing that, you will be a nobody. Also, never copy. There are so many things that you can do with handloom. Everybody that comes into this business should not just look to follow in our footsteps, they should try to carve out a niche of their own. Use the same technique, but try to be different, perhaps focusing on a different market segment. It is possible for Khaddar to be offered to a different clientele, and this is the direction that the newcomers should go into.
Hard work, dedication, commitment and honesty are the keys to success. I get a high when I come to work every day. That is the way it should be. Sundays are often the hardest day in the week for me. Work should be a hobby, a time-out — a passion.
Q: Five years from now, where do you see yourself?
A: Judging by the past, there has been a new outlet every year! It becomes easier to expand when you’re in the market longer. You have more resources to hire the right people — professionals — in comparison to when you are a novice and have a limited budget. Building a good team is essential, no one can do it on their own and you have to trust your team and delegate authority. As you continue to do this, it becomes easier.