Zouk founders (L-R) Pradeep Krishnakumar and Disha Singh; Photo: Swapnil Sakhare for Forbes India
During a college trip to Kutch, Gujarat, in 2015, Disha Singh’s batchmates made a startling comment. “Indian handicrafts are a dying art,” one of them said, when the group came across a range of beautifully handcrafted products by folk women that were languishing without a buyer. Singh wanted to change the perspective. That’s what led to the launch of D2C accessories brand Zouk, christened after the literal meaning of the word Zouk, a vibrant and high energy dance form, and a modification of Souk, a name for a bazaar. In 2016, Singh, along with her husband Pradeep Krishnakumar, started operations from a small factory in Thane, Mumbai, by manufacturing 20 laptop bags. Today, the brand offers a range of products–from bags and footwear to wallets and accessories. So far, the brand was an e-commerce D2C player with a strong online presence. As part of its expansion plans, it brand opened its first flagship store in Navi Mumbai on July 1.
At the centre of it all remains their shared passion for promoting India’s heritage and supporting local artisans. “Our vision for Zouk is to be a platform that showcases the beauty and versatility of Indian artistry, good opportunities for artisans and connecting them with a global audience,” says Singh. According to the Indian Trade Portal, handicrafts is one of the most important sectors in the Indian economy, employing more than seven million people, of which 56 percent are women. The country has 744 handicraft clusters with Surat, Bareilly, Varanasi, Agra, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Chennai, and Mumbai being the major ones. Zouk employs over 600 artisans across India. The company collaborates directly with them to “preserve traditional techniques and empower them economically”. The co-founders claim that Zouk provides fair wages, safe working conditions, and access to a wider market, helping artisans sustain their craft in the long run. “We ensure the products showcase the skills and artistry of Indian artisans, creating a platform for them to receive recognition and appreciation,” says Krishnakumar.
One of its kind
There are multiple brands ranging from FabIndia and Suta Bombay to The Indian Ethnic Co. that work on promoting handicrafts. To stand out in a crowded sector, Zouk focuses on authenticity and quality. Singh adds, “We emphasise contemporary designs that blend traditional aesthetics with modern sensibilities, appealing to customers who seek a fusion of heritage and style.” Last, the duo prides itself on providing customers with a seamless experience–be it for online or offline channels. The company also tries to constantly innovate. For instance, Zouk started by selling bags, moved to wallets, sling bags and finally footwear. Besides, the brand sells 100 percent vegan products, using only faux or artificial leather. As for Zouk’s manufacturing process, it sources its fabric handcrafted from multiple villages of Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, UP and Tamil Nadu, and produces it at a production facility in Mumbai’s Dharavi. With the opening of its offline store, Zouk is opting for a multi-pronged approach. “Our online platform has been particularly successful in terms of reach and accessibility. It allows us to connect with customers across locations and offer a seamless shopping experience,” says Krishnakumar. On the other hand, offline stores help them provide a tactile and immersive experience. “In a country like India, physical stores are not just important to tap into a larger customer base for revenue, but are also important for building awareness and aspirational value. With the first store and many more planned, we are confident Zouk will see tremendous growth happen from here on," says Manish Chowdhary, co-founder at WOW Skin Science, which has also invested in Zouk. In addition to the store, the brand also collaborates with select retail partners such as Ajio, Amazon and Myntra, and participates in exhibitions and pop-up events to widen the customer base.
Aggressive expansion plans
In March 2023, Zouk raised $3 million in a Series A funding round led by Stellaris Venture Partners, with participation from Sharrp Ventures and founders of Sugar Cosmetics among others. According to Tracxn, the company has raised a total of $4.68 million. Rahul Chowdhri, partner at Stellaris Venture Partners, believes the brand has built a distinct identity via its India-inspired products and on-brand social media content. “In Zouk, we found a brand and a team that believed in addressing the fast-changing Indian lifestyle and accessories sector. The founders have also been patient in building the brand the right way, both in terms of product offering and capital efficiency. With bold expansion plans across offline, brand and categories, we are bullish on our investment in Zouk," says Chowdhri. The company claims to have seen a 16x growth as compared to pre-Covid levels, and claims to have 400,000 customers nationwide. Also read: Stellaris Venture Partners' chosen path: Make contrarian bets, but with deep convictionThe founders believe the company has made significant progress, but wants to further streamline its supply chain to ensure greater efficiency and faster delivery. It also wants to invest in the skill development of their artisans. "We aim to enhance customer engagement by incorporating more interactive experiences, both online and offline, to build stronger relationships, and foster a deeper connection with our customers," Singh adds. As part of its expansion plans, the brand wants to tap into the Tier II and III cities. Zouk is also exploring partnerships and distribution channels in the international markets. Says Krishnakumar, “We want to share the beauty of Indian craftsmanship with a global audience and create opportunities for artisans on a global scale.”