In April 2017, I switched from real estate services to luxury retail. It was a natural transition, since the work basics of brand building are sector agnostic and I have always been following luxury, fashion and lifestyle through industry publications. I had two additional options – one being a leading hospitality group while the other being an established sports franchise – but Eské offered the necessary challenge of building an organisation up from scratch. How does one really enter a (perceived-to-be) saturated consumer market, with existing category leaders, at a negligible (MVP) budget, when the product being sold is not an essential? I had to figure that out.
SK Exports is one of India’s largest leather manufacturing and export houses, and has been associated with top luxury brands across Europe. It was a natural move for the promoters to launch a retail brand in house, since the manufacturing ability was flawless, and could withstand the initial slow retail demand. Before I joined, the brand had been around for 5 years with 10 boutiques spread across north India and a scratchy online presence. My task was to reposition, reinforce and create brand infrastructure.
The potential in the brand was promising. With creative teams in Europe led by Pieter Ary Bakker, our designs were contemporary and with the right blend to suit Indian sensibilities. The quality was comparable to brands in the next tier. Pricing was accessible – however, it was also prohibitive to the price conscious and brand conscious Indian consumer. It was a relief to know that we had a great product and a great story. Now we had to figure out how that had to be told in order to convince the customer that the price was worth it.
On interacting with teams and understanding how we worked, I understood that the overhaul had to be extensive – across functions, across current platforms, across teams. There were two key approaches – 1) to change the way our operations function (supply chain, inventory management, training and auditing of boutiques, human resource management, documentation of processes, customer policies, eCommerce relationships and eCommerce policies), and 2) to change the way the brand exists (reviewing our website, brand properties, brand positioning, creation of brand story and redefining our target audience).
Young businesses tend to drift away from their intended purpose by reacting to market dynamics instead of being proactive and leading the narrative, and I was tasked to realign.
We had considered a Day Zero situation, thus freeing ourselves from the baggage of previous activities and efforts. This allowed us to start with a clean slate. Me and my team looked at the following entwined factors individually and built a platform on which the brand can continue to create its identity even after we step out of the organisation.
While the scope of my project was massive, spread over 16 months and led to high impact across the business – I would be focusing on only three projects I’m particularly proud of.
CULT – a brand publication
Our strategy was to make the brand relevant to a customer’s existing storyline and existing desires. To fit in, the brand would represent, acknowledge and celebrate characteristics that a working man and a working woman strive for. And thus, in parallel, build Eské up as the original Indian house of leather.
To spearhead this story, we conceptualised a brand publication titled CULT, which would create and distribute brand content. This would include brand’s heritage, documented expertise in leather manufacturing, overview of proprietary techniques and an understanding of how leather bags and accessories have evolved over the years. This content would serve as the leading narrative for leather handbag industry in India, and a fodder for the brand itself to recycle, reformat and repurpose content for online and offline applications. Our Instagram underwent a step change once CULT was launched.
The plan also included developing CULT as a marquee fashion and lifestyle publication that would be an authority on everything leather handbags and accessories – thus providing access to influencers and designers – ensuring the brand is relevant to the target audience.
We also had to understand our products better. We developed ‘Sonnets’ as a personification exercise. Each handbag was to be imagined as a woman and written about, thus lending a much needed context. We imagined glorious and powerful women across cities, and they had their names, their own careers, their choice of wardrobe and perfume. We focused on the time of the day, emotions and how the woman experienced her life with the handbag by her side. This gave every handbag its own storyline. Thus, an oil well for us to mine into.
For every marketing content required in the future related to that particular series of a handbag, we simply had to check the Sonnet and borrow its elements – backdrop of Milan, mention of a Chanel perfume, perhaps pairing it with a certain lookbook. It also helped customers connect to our products, since we had already connected our products to something they already knew and loved – thus building a subtle subconscious bridge. This proved to be an invaluable project.
This was done in collaboration with Aditi Dubey (RUAS), Aditi Soni (design intern) and the marketing team at Eské. As a parallel project to reinforce the Indian roots of our ‘colonial’ brand (since it sourced origins from France and India) – we conceptualised the ‘Inroads Collection’.
This would blend Indian artisanship in fabric weaving and embroidery with contemporary European designs in pure leather handbags. Produced in limited edition and sold only through certain predetermined sources would have made this a celebrated event. We stopped this project just before reaching the production stage, since it was time for me and my team to step out of the organisation and pursue our personal goals. I’d love to see this being developed, however.
My priority was to conduct thorough housekeeping, and build a platform for the future teams to build on. This meant writing the brand vision (so we know the road), brand constitution (so there is material to refer to and to source from), envisioning and creating brand infrastructure (ensuring relationships, tools and platforms are ready to be utilised) and implement stage 1 of all projects (so stage 2 is pure replication at a larger scale).
Perhaps the one thing that I learnt here was frugality – how to get the best and build the best out of minimal resources around – in terms of finances and talent. I’m thankful to my team and sector colleagues for offering a memorable and a rewarding ride – had a lot to learn from all.