dans la forteresse

Behind the scene of a scarf shop in India

Here is a little story about beginning of Shabkar, then known as La Magie du Foulard.  Its my own  personal journey in a world driven by a passion for discoveries, research and a love of scarves. 

Where it all started

My business plan was born deep within the Himalayas, in Nepal. I was there for a short pilgrimage trek, but that month of 2015 the snow and the extreme cold kept me imprisoned inside my room for a whole week. I was alone and cold. I was daydreaming a lot, and kept thinking about that day a few years ago when I brought back from India a bag full of scarves and how happy this made all my friends to choose what they liked the As most. One morning I woke up with the idea of doing a living off this; sharing some of my exotic adventures through scarf parties. I didn’t want to invest so much time into others business (I was then a webmaster), and would specialize in handcrafted scarves and those coming from small-scale workshop

 

Jomson

It all started in Jomson, Nepal

As soon as I returned to India the following month I bought hundreds of scarves, to sock my new direct sales business. I was then planning to start it after my return to Canada, in fall 2015. Unfortunately, I had bought so many fake silk and fake cashmere that i realize this idea was not such a great one and could cost me a lot in the long run. I had to find a way to become wiser and more experienced in the chaotic indian business world ruled by misinformation. This is when the idea of getting a local shop rose in my mind.

 

Me in Jaisalmer fortress

Me, in Jaisalmer fort 

A field anthropologist disguised as a shop owner

I had a nice stock to display and a good Indian friend who was experienced enough in textile sales in Jaisalmer who was more than happy to become a shopkeeper. All I needed was a space. We found one spot available with a year lease, in the heart of the fort. From the very first day of its opening, on July 1rst, I knew that although it will be a great opportunity for my own personal learning, it will be a financial loss and not as helpful for either my business or my friend working there. 

Jaisalmer walls

 

The invisible shop

My partner was requested to sell under the name of my business and reminding to customers that this is a satellite store of a Canadian company and refer them to my website. He was fine with this, but all had to be done secretly. He didn’t want the neighbors to know I was the actual owner. Most of the shops in the fort are owned by rich Brahman families who controls the economic space and social settings. It seems it was better for my shop (or my friend) that they not the fact this was owned by a foreigner. So no external signs were allowed, no advertising, nothing on the walls close or far away that would help lead the customers there. Everything was hidden, even myself, who could not visit the shop; after all, my partner had to look like the owner, not a simple employee.

 

The shop

 

An ugly hole in the wall

The space was a hole in the wall. I didn’t know it was that bad while signing the lease as I could not visit it before. I based my decision on my partner who is more experienced than me in doing business in such environments. But if I had seen it, I would have never rented it. It was the size of a wardrobe, with no windows and the walls were unfinished, with stinky pipes poking out of them. I was quite far away from my exotic dream shop that could efficiently promote my new business.

 

inside the shop

 

At the end of the backstreet, in Jaisalmer, the end of India

The area in the fort was not a good one, but the city Jaisalmer was not either. This place attracts two kinds of travelers; the rich tourist in the tour group who buys in special chic shops, and the rough backpacker, who doesn’t buy at all or very cheaply. Most people come in and out of the fort, for a quick visit. On top of that, the walls are already covered in goods for sale from the hundreds of shops scattered all over the place.

 

with happy customers

With happy customers (I must protect his identity

The partner

My partner still was successful in making a few good sales, thanks to his social skills and the fact he is a great salesman. Unfortunately, he was also the cause of many of the difficulties I had with the shop. As a Muslim, he was part of a lower cast in a Rajasthan where Brahmans and Rajputs (warrior cast) dominates everything. All the structure plays against him, in both his personal and working life. It is unfortunate because he was talented enough to be my contact and shipper when I am working from Canada. But everything in his environment that hinders him will, by extension, hinder the growth of my own company. And this, I will not let it happen.

 

business card

A long list on the back of the business card, but I sold only wool, silk and modal

Foreign import agent sounds much better

In December 2016 I decided to let go of the shop, after 6 months of activity. It was the only solution to avoid losing more money. There was no compromise possible; I had to either invest more into it while operating it in secret. Or let go. Which I did and gave everything to my partner as a compensation. My status as a shop owner in India was quite useless for all my business contacts anyway, who despised the whole idea. Indeed, the sugar mama stereotype is quite popular in India, where older women get sucked out of their money by young romantic and ambitious Indians. But no one would listen to my claims that this was not the case here, as I chose him for his skills and personality, and the friendship I had with him had nothing to do with this business. It was just better to say I was into foreign imports in the textile industry, and not even mention this shop.

 

downtown

How I learned where the handcrafted scarves came from

All was not a loss; the time and money investment in the project gave me the opportunity to live one extra year in Asia to learn all about the trade and find quality reliable commercial contacts to deal with later. Most shopkeepers and middlemen involved in the scarf industry claim to sell handmade products, made of pashmina or other luxury fibers But most are hiding the truth or are lying about not knowing thus creates a reality to suit the buyer’s needs. In many cases though, just parrot whatever was told to them by their boss or distributor. With time, patience and meeting the right people, I slowly learned how to differentiate the materials, their origins, their manufacturing codes.

 A woman in front of her shop

 

Indians are master calculators

This stereotype associating Indians as master mathematicians is based on some reality, but it has nothing to do with some kind of hereditary gift. Mental calculation is a survival skill in a world overtaken by too much of everything. Every little decision and move defines the self in all level of life, from family to business. There is no space for mistakes (aka miscalculation), so no innovation and spontaneity as both can be causes of mistakes. All decisions in business and in social settings are results of these quick calculations, not of risk-taking. In case of doubt (no results) the solution is imitation; do what the neighbor, the brother, the Facebook friends, the similar business are doing. It is working for them, so it has to be safe. Being different is too risky; it means to disappear to oneself and this tightly woven social structure.

 

women walking

This area of India is still very traditional 

Stuck between fear and a suffocating family system

Although it is not officially accepted, the caste system still is very much ruling most of India’s traditional lives, at both social and economic levels. It is a world in which higher casts impose themselves on lower castes, resulting in a law of fear and psychological oppression. Family and peers of one own caste is an essential reference for defining the concept of self. With this in mind, no wonder it is so difficult or impossible for individuals from lower castes to have any success in business without breaking one or other ties. Confronting the system or a person from an upper cast, is being different. As we now, innovating and taking risks is not part of traditional Indian culture. But the fear is not based on true danger. It is a fear of shame and breaking the tightly woven social structure

 

cows

 

But those lies are not lies

In a context with no absolute truth, there are no lies. My partner was honest -without guilt- about how he lied to customers. He told me all about his techniques, on how he would adjust the truth to be told according to the type of customer. He had to learn with experience how to evaluate quickly a tourist’s budget. Just in one glance, as this is all the time he had to create mentally the perfect combination of scarf quality and pricing. Modal for that is a great all purpose scarf; it can become pure silk, silk mix, pashmina (for backpackers with money) or fine bamboo (for backpackers without money). So the price of the same scarf could vary from a few dollars to higher than my own official catalog price. Which is quite embarrassing for my company, as he was handling out with the purchase, business cards with the website address.

 

me

Me, in a trustful wholesaler shop

My new mission; get the truth out there about Asian scarves

All this is experience will be great for my business plan, as I know that I don’t want to sell scarves as much as offer the truth to the western world about artisanal textiles. I hope my catalog will be useful as an online product and pricing reference, a little bit like a virtual museum. It could help buyers in Asia as well in Western countries, but also other resellers who still mix up pashmina and cashmere, fine wool, modal, silk, etc. They are victims of misinformation themselves. I am the first one -as far as I know- to know the exact composition of the “Kashmiri cashmere” * sold by most as pashmina. Maybe I am taking some risk being so truthful, but let's hope that in the long run it will be profitable for my business.

 

*Producers and middlemen in the wholesale industry in Asia ignore themselves all about the fibers used in what they are selling. A search on codes of yarn used in a Srinagar factory showed that what is sold everywhere else as Kashmir cashmere is actually made of fine merino wool and silk. In my own catalog I call them Kashmir Softies and Semi-Pashminas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Latest News

Clearance sale and online store upcoming temporary closure

Online orders will be disabled on Sunday, Nov 4th, at midnight, for our upcoming trip to Asia. Everything is now on sale at local market prices. Use your coupon code sent in our latest newsletter Did you miss it? Check our ebay auctions and make an offer.

New development coming for 2019!

The current store will specialize in cashmere only starting 2019, we will still sell other variety of scarves on other platforms. 

Shipping is free on all orders to Canada and USA

Shipping is free to Canada and USA locations for all our cashmere products. No minimum order.  Offer valid until June 30th 2019

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