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Celebrating with linen

Somnath Dasgupta
The Financial Express
31 August 2005

Rishra looks like the most unlikely location for a textile factory churning out high fashion stuff that is put on the ramp by ace designer Rohit Bal and others. Once a hub of industrial activity, Rishra is today a dead town, mostly. The old approach road to Jaya Shree Textiles factory, plumb next to Rishra railway station, gets lost in a huge ditch that has claimed a Tata truck. The truck's driver tells us to climb the embankment of mud created by passing vehicles; our driver flatly refuses to do so and we have to back up and take a cycle track as a detour to the factory.

Once inside, it is a different world. Well laid out roads, a gleaming office block and a huge factory, interspersed with greenery and overlaid in efficiency. I ask Abhey Nair, senior vice-president, "How do you commute through this road?

"Nair laughs, "Oh no, there is a new road, Kona Expressway. Now it hardly takes 45 minutes to reach Kolkata's night life if we take the second Hooghly bridge." Call it sentiment. The Jaya Shree Textiles factory, a division of Mumbai-based Indian Rayon of the Aditya Birla group, was set up shortly after Independence to fill an import gap (Believe it or not, linen is still the best material to make water canteens and portable tanks for the military). The Birlas stayed on even as the town decayed.Or call it sense.

Linen likes humidity — a humid atmosphere helps in the processing of linen fibre into yarn and then to fabric. And there's no shortage of humidity here in Bengal. Then, the flax for the yarn has to be imported from Belgium, and Kolkata port is nearby."We have got a logistical advantage here — we are near the port, and raw material has to come by ship from Belgium. Also, linen spinning and processing need good humidity, which we have here," Nair explains.

Nair waxes eloquent about the virtues of linen apparel in a hot climate. "It is best for high humidity areas, sinc e it absorbs moisture better than cotton. Plus, it has anti-bacterial properties that protect the skin. In fact earlier linen thread was used for stitching up wounds," says Nair.

Linen is very durable and skin-friendly

At present, Jaya Shree has linen spinning and fabric manufacturing facility, a wool-combing unit using wool from Australia, a worsted spinning unit and synthetic spinning.

In a conference room at the office block, I confront JC Soni, president of Jaya Shree Textiles, and his point man, Nair, both dressed in linen suits. So how did they get into high fashion?

"We began with yarn manufacture, then we added worsted spinning, synthetic spinning. Linen fabric addition is the latest one — three or four years for domestic market, 10 years for export market," says Soni. At present, the linen business, including yarn and fabric, accounts for 25 per cent of Jaya Shree's business."In linen spinning, we are the only manufacturer in India. As far as linen fabric is considered, we are the pioneers, the first mover," says Soni proudly.There are some other manufacturers who purchase the yarn from Jaya Shree. Their main focus is on readymade garments (RMG). For apparel purposes, Jaya Shree is the pioneer.

As Nair puts it, "All the big brands in garments are buying from us. Plus, we have around 500 retail stores."

Retail A few years ago, when Jaya Shree figured that the explosion in branded apparel would surely attract foreign suppliers of linen fabric for the upmarket lines, it decided to foray into the domestic market with its wide of range of fabrics. Apart from selling the virtues of linen to the top garments brands, it also began a retail spread."We started with 150 stores, then moved up to 300 in one year and now we have more than 500," says Nair. The retailers are in A, B, C class of cities. Basically these are shop-in-shop concepts. Jaya Shree also has two Linen Studios, one in Delhi and one in Bangalore.

Linen fibres are natural and eco-friendly

Having painstakingly created an awareness about the premium virtues of linen in apparel, Jaya Shree is today the root of a supply chain that ends on the catwalks, in pret lines and stores across the country. Soni and Nair are not worried about imports, especially those from big brother China. Nor are they worried about competition at home.

As Soni explains: "Linen fibre, as a percentage of total fibre around the world, is less than one per cent. When fibre is one per cent, you can imagine how small yarn and fabric are. That is the reason that not many producers are there in linen."Jaya Shree's current presence on the catwalk is radically different from its birth as a factory making linen for industrial uses (it still makes the stuff)."In India, when we started the factory, we focused on industrial uses. Linen in apparel came to India quite late. It is expensive; very difficult to maintain. But those who love linen cannot wear anything else. It is very comfortable," says Soni.

As a fabric, linen is very costly to produce so you get to see it only in the upper end. "The technology is very costly. A cotton fabric manufacturing will cost only 1/3 of a plant with similar capacity in linen fabric. A synthetic plant will cost 1/4th of the linen plant cost," says Soni.Nair, who has been pushing Linen for years hastens to add: "Linen is not a commodity — it is for special people, those who like comfort.

"The very virtues that make linen ideal for apparel in a hot and humid country like India also work in its favour in industrial uses.Soni is proud of the fact that the defence forces use linen fab-ric to make "water bags" and water-storage tanks that can be folded up and carried to remote locations.

"Every Indian jawan is using a water bottle called chhagal made of linen produced by Jaya Shree Textiles," says Nair. Linen is used to make 5000-litre storage tanks that can be used in deserts and hill areas.

Linen is woven using computer aided design systems

As Nair explains, the water bottles are made of 100 per cent linen, without any coating. "When linen fabric comes into contact with water, the fibres expand and there is no leakage. Linen also has some anti bacterial property. Just as an earthern pot, water can't go out but the water is kept cool.

"Thicker varieties of linen fabric go into seat covers and drapery, while some are used as, well, table linen.In home textiles, Nair is not worried about competition from silk in any of these lines. "Linen is a little less expensive, but life-wise it is much more. Linen has a rougher, more natural look. Cotton is 'cleaner', more even. Nowadays, most of the movie stars are wearing linen.

The strategy How did Jaya Shree hit the domestic market? Did it take on the retail end first or fashion first, I ask Nair."Simultaneously. We went to the retail to eliminate the middleman. So we created the retail. Once we created the retail, the brand came," says Nair. "Before this, we were already dealing in fabrics and also the largest exporter of synthetic fabrics. Half our total turnover comes from exports".

Linen Club fabrics are made using Italian finishing technology

So, for Jaya Shree, it is not as if it suddenly decided to make fabric for garments. "Earlier, we were exporting everything, now it is in the domestic market," says Nair, a veteran in the linen business. Soni points out that Jaya Shree's production has been going up by 30 per cent every year for the three or so years that it has been in the domestic market for apparel fabric.But wouldn't it have been better to earn dollars from exports rather than waste energy creating a market at home? "It is good market! We can make good rupees from here! Now all the foreign brands are coming to India and we are in India. Why should we leave this market?" retorts Soni.

Branding For Jaya Shree, the domestic foray was not just about pushing linen fabric for apparel into the retail pipe. The company realised that it had to create an awareness about the stuff. And what better way than to begin at the ramp? It roped in Rohit Bal and launched a high-profile campaign.

"Everybody is now getting into the fashion bandwagon. We can claim that we have popularised linen in India. Once the linen fabric has got required popularity, RMG manufacturers are approaching us for more fabric. Now, it is the momentum," says Soni. "Now all the top brands of garments are with us, against just a few brands a few years ago. Apart from the national brands like Madura Garments, Raymonds and Color Plus, even the regional brands like Turtle are with us," says Nair.

I ask him, what is the premium for a linen shirt over, say, a cotton shirt?These are different things. Usually, linen is at the top end, but sometimes cotton is more expensive, Soni replies.The fashion move, backed by high-end imported technology at the factory has paid off in export markets as well. Now some of the world's top RMG brands are its clients. Names like Marks & Spencer, Paul Smith.Soni explains that the Linen Club brand of fabric does not have any mass awareness in markets like the US and Europe, because those countries do not have shops selling fabric. Everybody buys RMG. The awareness is with the makers of RMG, the big brands.

Future As a producer, Jaya Shree as one plant is larger than any European manufacturer. China has larger facilities, but they blend linen with other fibres.Soni asserts: "Our quality is comparable to the best in Europe."

Linen absorbs moisture better than cotton

Jaya Shree has another advantage. European manufacturers make linen for eight months of the year. For four months there is no sale, because they wear linen only in summer. But in India, linen is made 12 months a year."The point where we differentiate ourselves from say Chinese manufacturers is our thrust on quality, our design skills, our finishes and our use of Western European fibre, Italian knowhow and Swiss processing knowhow," says Soni. Jaya Shree's strength is knowledge, continuous upgradation of technology. "We have spent on around Rs 25 crore on this unit over the last two years. Only this unit makes linen," says Nair.

Chinese manufacturers, by and large, blend it with fibres from their own country, with cotton, with viscose. Jaya Shree uses only western European fibre, which is the best in the world."Then, we are focusing more and more on design. It is a fashion item, and the customer requires excitement. We are using hand-painted fabrics, prints, various colours and finishes. We are also meeting quality requirements of the top brands," says Nair.

Export sales fabric goes as a raw material, not branded, since there are no retail sellers of fabric abroad in the US and Europe, only in West Asia.Is there any negative connotation in Indian linen? No, no, says Soni. "The only thing in global market is locational equity. When they come to India to buy linen, they want it cheap. When they go to China, they want it cheaper still." "We are European fibre, European machinery, but fabric made in India. The expectation is that if it is made in India, it should be cheaper, because apparently labour is cheaper here. Whether it is manufactured with the same machinery, same technology, they want it cheaper."

Research Soni says Jaya Shree has a very high level of R&D facilities. He explains that, in textiles, there are three types of R&D. One is basic R&D, to have different fibres and different technologies. Another R&D is for different uses. The third is to give a different look to the fabric. Generally, in textiles, they concentrate on the second and third types of R&D. "For that, we have very sophisticated lab, with CAD and everything," says Soni

Linen has a natural sheen and extraordinary texture

The water canteens were a British invention, and were imported. The Rishra factory was set up as an import substitute of imported linen. So now it makes a whole range of other items — fabric for water bottles, women's wear, painting canvas, awnings, covers for field guns like the Bofors howitzers. Plastic sheets can't be used for gun covers. Tarpaulins, which are made of cotton, can rot if they stay wet. Linen does not rot. Then loose covers for car seats — rich to people use linen covers. Then linen is used for table settings, handkerchiefs. "I bought a Burberry's linen kerchief, for 55 pounds a piece," says Nair. The future can only get better. "One confusion that people generally have is that they compare linen with cotton, or with silk. But linen is linen.

You can't compare linen with anything — neither in terms of price, nor in terms of usage, nor in terms of appearance, nor in terms of comfort. It's not a replacement of cotton," says Nair. "Continuous development has taken us through wool combing, worsted spinning and so on. It was a gradual development," he says.

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