Reimagining Brand Khadi: Here are measures being used to expand footprint

L to R: Raymond has a special line of clothes made from KVIC branded khadi, while Peter England has a joint label for its young urban customers
While national pride and an all-Indian identity are a part of its legacy, the government-owned Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) wants Brand Khadi to stand for a lot more. It is building a new narrative around sustainable fashion, cracking down on misuse of its label and overhauling its design sensibilities, all in an effort to stitch together a contemporary avatar of the age-old khadi brand. 

Its image change is being driven by a change in positioning, a hard look at its trademark protection mechanisms and through a differentiated retail strategy. KVIC's Chairman V K Saxena says, “Khadi as a brand has penetrated the rural and semi-urban markets, the focus now is to take it close to customers, especially millennials in urban markets.” At present KVIC has around 8,059 stores and most of them are located outside metros.

For urban consumers KVIC has signed up with retail chain Globus for an exclusive space within its stores, with Raymond for a regular supply of its fabric and collaborated with the Aditya Birla Group for its Peter England label. It is also working with designers and fashion schools to create a more youthful look for ready-to-wear khadi. For young non-urban consumers, it has sewn up a patchwork of partnerships with schools and local municipalities, hoping to create a mass demand for the fabric. 

In the urban context, Saxena says that there is an understanding that sentiment (patriotic) alone will not work. But the brand must also keep to its core values and be true to the original purpose of nation-building he explains. To that end KVIC is working with modern retail on the one hand and with schools and municipalities, on the other, hoping to straddle both the premium and budget markets.

Sustainable fashion

Saxena says KVIC wants to speak the language of livelihood and environment sustainability. This connects with the current generation and helps build a strong premium label in India and abroad. KVIC has launched a social media campaign around its network of artisans and weavers and how buying khadi could help the indigenous weaver community. The pitch is also around conservation; KVIC ads claim that a metre of khadi needs just 3-5 liters of water, as against 56 by mill-produced fabric. 

Amit Kumar, chief operating officer, Globus says that khadi also stands for comfort. His store has set up Khadi Corners in a few locations and they are looking to expand. “It is soft, handmade, colourful, fashionable and fits well with the millennial sensibilities,” he adds. Kumar says that the brand has been on a transformational journey for the past few years and the ready-to-wear line is no longer just kurta-pyjamas. Even price is not an issue, but he points out two big challenges: consistency in non-fabric and apparel offerings and scale. Since KVIC works with a network of weavers and designers, inconsistencies in quality are inevitable. Also unlike large fashion and textile houses, it is not always quick to respond to market demand. These factors could slow down the brand.

KVIC is working on these issues and also transforming into a more contemporary fashion label it says. It has signed up with the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) for design development and training. And Saxena says that reputed designers such as Ritu Beri and other institutes (SNDT, Pearl Academy) are also involved in this initiative. His efforts seem to be paying off as from 2004 to 2014, the average growth of sales of khadi was 6.5 per cent, but from 2015-2018, it has surged by 133 per cent according to the Commission.

KVIC has also come down heavily on designer brands using the khadi name without its permission. According to reports, it has petitioned the Bombay High Court against Fabindia for “illegally” using its trademark “charkha” and selling apparel with the “khadi” tag. KVIC also asked around 200 entities not to use terms like ‘handwoven, handspun and woven’ in handlooms without its prior permission. 

The new found aggression must be seen in the light of KVIC’s global ambitions say experts. KVIC is keen to build an international footprint and there is a need to protect the label and its Indian origins. Saxena says KVIC is hopeful about signing up B2B agreements with at least 40 countries and has registered a GI (geographical indicator) tag in the UK, Germany and Russia.

Expanded footprint

Availability was an issue with KVIC khadi products in the past. That is being addressed through Khadi India outlets at airports, retail tie-ups and brand associations Saxena points out. KVIC stores are in airports at Visakhapatnam, Varanasi, Lucknow, Ahmedabad and Ranchi. Soon Khadi India outlets will be at railway stations too says Saxena.

Globus KVIC Khadi Korners are in Noida, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Chennai, while Varanasi is next. Alliances with Cotton Bazaar, Cotton World and Apna Bazaar in Mumbai have been inked too, says Saxena. 

KVIC also has a tie-up with Arvind Mills (they have committed to purchase around one million metres of khadi denim every year) and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Limited (ABFRL) for development of a product line ‘Khadi by Peter England’. Saxena says that KVIC is open to signing up with more franchisees and is also working on an e-commerce platform. 

Outbrain