Surat- The Fashion Fabrics Hub

In the past one decade, the once famous diamond polishing hub has quietly morphed into a top supplier of value-added fashion fabrics to the world. Radhika Sachdev goes behind the scenes to report on this amazing Rs 50,000 crore transformation

From 6 am, into the wee hours, a bevy of tempos and trucks begin to ply on the wide-open streets, loading and unloading bundles of vibrant, fluid, wrinkle-free viscose staple fibre (VSF), a biodegradable, man-made fibre (MMF) that is the current fashion rage.

Outside Millennium Mall on Surat’s Ring Road, throughout the day one can spot mountains of neatly packed and stacked VSF fabric ready to be shipped to all parts of the world, but mainly to the Middle East, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the US and the UK markets. Although accurate figures are difficult to come by, between 2010 and 2017, the export of MMF fabrics from Surat to Pakistan has seen almost 200 per cent increase, according to one Textile Ministry report.

Despite the adverse impact of Goods and Service Tax (GST), Surat with its 650,000 power looms, 150-200 wholesale textile merchants, 20,000 manufacturers, including 10,000 weavers, 75,000 traders, and 450 processing units — not to forget the 50,000-60,000 embroidery machines, produces 30 million metres of raw fabric, according to a 2018 ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ report by the Industries Commissionerate and the Gujarat Industries Development Corporation. This effectively turns Surat into a Rs 500 billion MMF hub.

Not surprisingly, from the hotel reception desk to the auto driver, everyone appeared keen to conduct us straight to a textile mill owner’s retail outlet, which pays 1% of the sales proceeds to the autowala for delivering the customer to his doorstep. No doubt the parallel ecosystem is well in place in Surat, that in less than a decade has begun to straddle the whole value chain in MMF from yarn spinning to weaving, dyeing, processing and retailing of the finished apparel.

There are jobs for everyone. Durga Devi (35), a semi-skilled migrant mill worker from Bihar earns Rs 10,000/month, while her husband makes another Rs 15,000/month on an eight-hour shift, and together the couple is able to keep their three children in the village in ‘English-medium schools.”
Those with larger means, who migrated to Surat in the early 80s from the textile pockets of Bhivandi (Thane), Bhivari (Pune), Raipur (Chattisgarh), Godda and Gumla (Jharkhand) to fetch a new living in synthetic fibre, have turned mill owners in just two decades, with capital investments of as little as Rs 20-30 lakhs, and now have their extended families, involved in the same business.

Not many would be aware that the late patriarch of the Ambani empire, Dhirubhai Ambani, who came to be recognised as the ‘Polyester King’ of India had his humble beginnings in Surat. It’s another story altogether that, the Ambanis did reverse transitioning from polyester resins (the basic units for a textile manufacturer) to petrochemicals, and have once again diversified from one end of the textile value chain (polyester) to the delivery of the end product in retailing finished garments through Reliance Retail.

Today, there are many such little Ambanis briskly doing forward and backward integration from fibre to fabric, as well as retail. Although, a massive proportion of the textile sector in Surat is still unorganised, albeit efficiently-run, over the past fifteen years or so, with greater hi-end technology infusion and rising exposure to the Western fashion winds, imbibed at international trade festivals – where the representation of Indian textile exporters has steadily been on the rise – there is a growing sense of innovation-led design in Surat’s present gen textile scions.

Armed with textile degrees from abroad, they are moving up the value chain to silently lead a fashion renaissance of sorts at their family-owned businesses, which is putting Surat on the world textile map, as an evolving sourcing destination for some of the finest, trendiest MMFs.

“Export of MMFs from Surat is growing, and will continue to grow since Surat can cater to all kind of orders, whether small or big. Further, there is constant government support to the industry, labour laws are conducive, so there is hardly any difficulty in setting-up industry,” says Siddharth Bachhawat of Niharika Creations, who deals mainly in polyester fabrics – prints and solids. He claims his natural fabrics and polyester fabrics with digital print are both in high demand, and in the next few years, he’s eyeing a turnover of Rs 80+ crore.

Although VSF and polyester are both MMFs and wrinkle-free, VSF, unlike polyester is a skin-friendly, ‘breathing,’ material, making it ideally suitable for the apparel industry. In some cases, it so closely resembles natural fabrics, such as cotton, silk, crepe and organza that non-connoisseurs would be unable to tell the difference. The difference lies in its biodegradability and cost-effective, fast production, and especially in the kind of value-additions that it lends itself too, making it extremely popular with the designer community that’s patronising it as “the future fabric.’

The value-addition in VSF either comes from the blending of new, high-performance fibres, such as Tencel, Modal, Excel, Sunshade etc. or/and design, which is evident in the revivalist movement (a retro-shift to say, khadi) or imbibed from the West after visits to international fashion fairs.

Gokul Textiles in Surat claims a leadership position in VSF processing from the yarn it procures from Birla Cellulose, a specialist division of the Aditya Birla Group.

Innovation-led Laxmipati Mills in Surat won an international award for its processing of silk corn crepe from American corn; while Madhusudan Rayons is positioning itself strongly in hi-end processing and use of automation tools and digital labs for colour mixing and printing. For some players like Laxmipati and Madhusudan, value-addition in VSF is also coming from the blend of new, high-performance fibres such as Tencel, Modal etc.

Some of these facilities visited by the FBC team have significantly invested in their studio infrastructure and 3G and 4G processing units, imported from Germany, Korea and Japan, costing anything between a few lakhs to a few crores. Capacity-building is on the upswing, along with regular participation at international buyer meets to gauge the consumer’s pulse.

On the flipside however, the challenges that these new crop of textile barons face are also many – from acute skill shortage (migrant workers from UP and Bihar come as unskilled labour), to keeping pace with the fluctuating oil prices and now, meeting the demands of the new GST regime.

Since crude oil play a crucial role in the final pricing of the finished product, MMF traders have to watch over their input cost to maintain their margins. Over the years, the consumption patterns of the fastidious Indian Millennials (As reported by a Nielsen study) have also seen a sharp shift both in non-processed yarns and finished fabrics.

However, with the use of special digital printing and dyeing technologies, that have cut down on the processing cycle, Surat merchants are now producing fashion fabrics that are almost comparable to, if not better than those available in Milan and other Fashion capitals of the world.

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