Tea is just another beverage for most, but not for Sreejith Sreekumar, the CEO of Giacca and Abito Sartorial Fashion (G&A).
“Even when I was growing up in Kollam, a cup of hot tea would perk me up. Everyone used to be amused by this. But for me, tea was more than a cuppa, it was an experience that lifted up my spirits,” says the founder of the Kochi-based menswear startup that has grown into a multi-crore apparel business.
Sreejith ventured into the fashion sector at the age of 22 after obtaining a degree from the Bangalore National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in 2008 and learned the ropes of the game after working with two top menswear companies in India, Aravind Lifestyle Brands and Raymond Apparel.
The firm now hopes to spread that experience through its “T the Brand” shop at the Lulu Mall in Trivandrum, the startup’s first exclusive outlet. “My idea is to create a unique retail experience and we even plan a tea bar, where customers can sip tea and browse merchandise,” says Sreejith. “Even if you leave without buying anything, you will get a feeling of a time well spent.”
His company is also set to open its first foreign outlet in Auckland, New Zealand to sell T the Brand vests and casualwear named “Bare Brown”.
Sreejith ventured into the fashion sector at the age of 22 after obtaining a degree from the Bangalore National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in 2008 and learned the ropes of the game after working with two top menswear companies in India, Raymonds and Aravind Mills.
Then he obtained a master’s degree in menswear from the prestigious Instituto Marangoni in Milan, Italy which opened his eyes to the world of high fashion as it was a course established in collaboration with Ermenegildo Zegna, a renowned Italian brand in luxury menswear.
“Top designers from Zegna were at hand to help us at every stage and it was a tremendous experience. I was the only Indian student and it taught me the entire process, from design to retail. All the 15 graduates took up jobs in fashion houses like Gucci, Ralph Lauren and Zegna, but I decided to return to India. That was a shock to them, but I loved the challenges that India offered.”
Sreejith says in India differences in physique, customer preferences and habits vary from state to state and it is fun to develop clothes for such a market. It provides surprising lessons even for an experienced hand like Sreejith. He says he was surprised to find out that purple-coloured vests were one of the best-selling items of his startup even in Kerala. “It is challenging and fun, if you have the passion for it,” he adds quickly.
The startup idea emerged when Sreejith realised that big fashion houses in India were often hampered by the lack of flexibility due to their corporate structure. The frustration that Sreejith experienced working within the rigid corporate structures of big fashion houses in India, along with the politics and competition, led him to take the leap and start his own venture.
“When my son was born in 2018, I thought it would be a good idea to begin a business that would give me flexible working hours to spend quality time with my family,” he said.
He shifted from Bangalore and returned to Kollam, much to the joy of his parents, but little did they know that their son had left his high-paying job to venture out on his own.
“I didn’t tell them initially and they were surprised to see their high-earning son moving boxes all by himself,” he recalled with a laugh. Soon they figured out what was going on, but instead of chastising him, his lawyer father and mother, who is a retired teacher, also started helping out with the administrative side of the trade.
“The founding team was made up of my parents and wife and I shelled out 30 lakh rupees to set the ball rolling. The four-member team remained the same throughout the initial phase and till our sales started hitting 1 crore rupees,” Sreejith says with obvious pride.
G&A started by selling its T the Brand vests and suits through the Kochi unit of the renowned clothing shop chain, Jayalakshmi. Sreejith says in the shop which sells various brands, G&A products started moving faster than others as their quality was comparable to the premium brands while priced lower. Soon Jayalakshmi started placing the brand at its other outlets while other multi-brand chains like Seematti and Kalyan Textiles also offered space for T the Brand products.
Sreejith says his decade-old career in the textile field helped open the doors while his experience helped to locate factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia to produce the apparel. Still, he says it was the quality of the products that helped the company gain ground. Another advantage was the local storage the company had, as it enabled timely resupply when the stock of G&A vests and coats was sold out which other big names found it difficult.
At a time when startups look to the internet to sell their products, G&A cuts a different path and focuses on brick and mortar outlets to push their products. The CEO says the experience of looking and feeling the apparel is still irreplaceable and online sales of garments are fuelled solely by discounted prices.
Sreejith says he is not worried he is going against the trend of fast fashion espoused by online entities like Shein and young users who flock to such platforms. “Even GenZ customers want to hang out together and our aim is to provide such a place for them when they are out to buy clothes. Currently, most brands do not provide such an experience. That is what we plan to do,” he says.
He also has refused to be tempted by the lucrative market of women’s clothes. “It is a huge market but we do not know the sector that well. So we are sticking to what we know best: menswear. We want to play on our strengths.”
It is not easy to dismiss his model as G&A sales back up his claims. After achieving a turnover of 80 lakh rupees in the 2021 financial year, it jumped to 5 crore rupees in the subsequent one and reached 12 crore rupees in the last financial year. By 2030, the firm will touch 1,000 crore turnover, predicts the startup founder.
“T the Brand has carved out a name for itself in the vest and suit sector in Kerala and our products are now being sold in over 100 shops across the state plus a growing market in other parts of India. Now we are getting feelers from different states about opening franchise sales units,” says Sreejith.
He feels the company, which now employs 25 people, has done all the groundwork needed for exponential growth and till now financed by the funds they were able to raise.
“We are not looking for investors who are looking to scale up and exit. We aim to build up the brand and share the spoils with our dedicated team through an employee stock ownership plan. So diluting the equity is not on the cards,” he says. “Moreover, we are not looking to raise huge amounts as our expansion plan does not require huge capital.”
G&A has already launched ethnic wear as well as accessories and future plans include made-to-order suits for high-networth individuals and an expansion into UAE.
The startup has threaded a fascinating narrative in the few years of its existence and it will be interesting to watch what Sreejith brews up next.
AI debate continues to divide tech experts
Experts who developed technologies that power artificial intelligence (AI) research have joined the debate about the future impact of these programs. The first was Geoffrey Hinton whose pioneering work led to neural network models that programs like ChatGPT use. Hinton, who left Google recently, told a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that humanity could face survival threats when smart things outsmart us, but added: “I think it may keep us around for a while to keep the power stations running.” Thank god for that, eh?
But a scientist who shared the 2018 Turing prize with Hinton was a little more cautious. Yoshua Bengio says though he too realises the magnitude of disruptions that AI is going to cause, but the University of Montreal professor added that simply saying we are doomed is not going to help. Instead, he urges governments to be aware of the dangers of such unrestrained research. Adrian Gomes, whose 2017 paper set the path for transformer techniques that power AI research, also rejects the notion of extinction-level events. He says such claims are harmful pragmatic policy efforts that are trying to do something good.
Vizhinjam port and a Singapore signal
The upcoming Vizhinjam deep sea port in Trivandrum has been touted as a game-changer for the region's economy, with projections of increased trade, investment, and employment. As the port gets ready to welcome the first ship, we are curious to know how startups in Trivandrum are planning to leverage its advantages. In other port cities like Singapore, startups like Greywing have developed AI chatbots to streamline port communication and reduce operational costs for shipping companies. For example, SeaGPT, Greywing's chatbot, provides fleet managers with up-to-date information on port procedures, immigration, and travel arrangements, accessible via email or the company's platform. We wonder what creative ideas and solutions young entrepreneurs here have in mind.
An idea that is floating right around us
Water hyacinths are a persistent issue in Kerala rivers, as they can damage the ecosystem and obstruct the flow of water. But a recent Bloomberg report says that these weeds can also be used in an innovative way to grow vegetables like a hydroponic model as some villagers in Bangladesh do. The weeds are processed to form a floating bed on which people in flood-prone areas grow various vegetables, including tomatoes, pumpkins, potatoes, beans, eggplants, and cucumbers. According to a 2020 article in the Journal of Agriculture, Food and Environment, such practices can help ensure food security and provide a livelihood for people. We think of that every time we see water hyacinth-filled Aakulam Lake, right next to the Technopark in Kazhakuttom.
Like doctors, hospital robots also become targets
Irate relatives of patients attacking hospital doctors is a growing scourge not just in Kerala, but elsewhere too. This has gone to another level in China, where many hospitals have employed robots to replace receptionists. Incidents of such machines being targeted by angry customers are rising. The latest incident was reported from a hospital in Jiangsu province. In a video that surfaced on social media, a woman is seen repeatedly battering a robot with a bat. A report on What'sOnWeibo website detailed incidents of medical staff being attacked and how the authorities are taking steps to arrest this trend. Who will intervene to protect these vulnerable robots from being attacked?