India: Evolving the Middle Path

By Madhur Tankha – The Hindu

Fashion and religion are not often spoken in the same breath but EastEssence.Com is trying to bridge this gap with a line of Islamic clothing that aspires to be modest and magnetic at the same time

To a layman it might seem that there is no correlation between outfits and religious beliefs but the two diametrically opposites can be intertwined. For a designer or label or online portal the way out is to evolve a middle path – one where the sacrosanct faith is not touched but at the same time the garment is chic, contemporary and stylish.

Realising that a gulf existed between availability of Islamic clothing line and the youth eager to procure

 Sunny Kilam in New Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Sunny Kilam in New Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

trendy colourful garments which are within the parameters of their faith, Sunny Kilam, director of East Essence. com, introduced Islamic clothing line in multiple American cities in 2007. Garments were supplied to online buyers within the comfort of their homes.

Now, Sunny, a first generation Indian operating from the U.S. whose business card reads affordable modest clothing, plans to introduce Islamic clothing line – abayas, jilbabs, haj and namaz items and pathan suits in the Indian market in a big way. He has taken a few early steps and plans to introduce these items in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai.

“We are starting our operation here because Indians, essentially Delhiites and Hyderabadis were going to our U.S. websites and placing orders. So we thought instead of shipping them to India why not introduce them locally. We are not going to change the design patterns or colours or what is sold in other countries.” Fortunately, India is home to educated, Internet-savvy youngsters, who are updated about fashion worldwide. “So, we are catering to the youth, who want to stay in touch with their roots but at the same time look contemporary and updated,” says Sunny, whose wife is a designer and CEO of the company.

To tap into the market of over 30 crore Muslims in India, the online company conducted an extensive market survey which pointed out that the Muslim families rely either on local tailor or friends, families visiting West Asia for their outfits.

Though Sunny has been able to reach out to a large number of Muslims living in different parts of the world, his out-of-the-box idea to change conservative Muslim clothing into stylish garment which did not transgress Islamic beliefs was not easy. It was met with some resistance from a section of the local community. But fleeting doubts, genuine apprehensions were all laid to rest when Sunny convened a meeting with the community leaders. “We believe in a healthy dialogue. Misplaced apprehensions were dispelled. When I clarified that we believe in covering up according to the holy book (Glorious Quran) there was no more questioning. Since then this is the line we have been following. We believe in creating outfits which have modesty, adherence to Islamic traditions and yet are stylish and modern.”

At the time this online portal became operational, big design labels like Calvin Klein and Armani were also introducing outfits designed for the Muslim community in stores in Dubai and West Asian countries.

“But these big labels were focusing on the elite – the Sheikhs, the rich families of Dubai. Whereas we were targeting individuals owning dresses within their stipulated budgets. We believe in leveraging the economies of scale.”

“When we introduced this concept of having outfits for women in a wide array of colours, designs with sophisticated looks the idea was to make the local Muslims living in the U.S. blend with the local population as well as adhere to their religious beliefs. The outfits were made for Muslim women working in multinational corporations or those who wanted to wear them as evening wear. We also started the practice of a return policy where if the customer is not satisfied with our product then she/ he can return. Clothes are fully refundable.”

The same policy of returning an outfit will be followed in India. Already, the portal has tied up with Snapdeal and Amazon to supply to Indian customers. And now plans to be on sites which have higher proliferation.

Rather than going in for bulk production – the outfits are a mix of machine made and hand woven.

“When there is more embroidery obviously it is handmade. But we do a mix of machine and hand made,” says Sunny, whose manufacturing units are in Noida and Meerut and embroiders have been hand picked from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Kashmir.

Each dress is available in multiple colours, including red, purple, beige and brown. Abaya, a robe like dress worn in West Asia and Africa which bears a close resemblance to burqa, has been stitched in such a way that it looks classy and aesthetic. With dazzling colour combinations and innovative designs, it looks like a modern outfit and goes as an evening wear. Abaya is available in 600 designs and would not be altered so as to make it akin to burqa. Pathan suits will be available in 70 to 80 designs. Salwar kameez and tunics are having Indian motifs but Abaya features designs which are a pastiche of West Asian and European motifs. The large team comprises designers hailing from Palestine, Jordan and other countries of the Arab world.

When it comes to revealing attire like swimsuits, Sunny has borrowed a leaf from the fashion trend of 1950s and 1960s. “I have reincarnated suits from that bygone era to suit the customers. Those days, swimsuits made women cover neck downwards to ankle.

To remain in touch with the community, the company is undertaking social initiatives like scholarships, working for the girl child. A school project will be completed in Sudan to provide technical knowledge to the locals as a means of getting livelihood opportunities. After eight years, East Essence.Com has predominantly Muslim customers from over six dozen nations – including Europe, the United States, Australia and South East Asia. “80 per cent of our customers are Muslims and our presence is in 68 countries. We have a huge presence in Australia and Singapore. We have our eyes set in capturing the markets of West Asian countries,” says Sunny.

Apart from Snapdeal, these garments are being sold in and buyers can avail them in Indian currency.