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Abishek Elango of Tailor & Circus on creating a sustainable business

Innerwear brands are notorious for promoting an unhealthy body image, and that’s exactly the idea that homegrown brand Tailor & Circus wanted to turn on the head. Regularly posting body-positive images on its popular Instagram handle, the brand’s models are everyday people like us. This body acceptance positioning, without compromising on quality, is the backbone of their direct to customer (D2C) business that’s about a year-and-a-half old.

Add to that that founders Gaurav Durasamy, Abishek Elango, and Vasanth Sampathkumar took two years to lock in the unique fabric mix — a combination of Tencel ModalMicro and Elastane — and finalise the most comfortable cuts and patterns designed for a spectrum of brown body types. But when deliveries started getting affected due to lockdown, balancing responsibility towards employees, commitment to sustainability and keeping the business afloat was a new challenge.

We caught up with creative director Abishek Elango on how Tailor & Circus is managing its business in a pandemic.

Abishek Elango
Abishek Elango

How did you scale up operations for Tailor & Circus?

The start-up was completely bootstrapped, with the founders pooling in their money and their families helping with the rest. In order to build the business, the next focus was creating an inventory to have more size options. We invested in making both the front- and back-end aspects of the business more sustainable, including a higher quality dyeing and eco-friendly packaging. Branding, although a crucial aspect of our positioning, was strengthened almost entirely organically, and by people to whom we were allies.

Do you spend a lot on fixed costs?

Tailor & Circus prides itself on running a tight ship. Besides the founders, we have 16 people at the factory between the tailoring, prototyping, processing, and packaging team. The back-end and operations team consists of four employees, two staffers take care of marketing and design, and two more assess performance and analytics. A team helps us run the website, through which we sell directly to consumers.

Tailor & Circus

You have talked about a sustainable growth model in the past — how did that come into play during this pandemic?

A sustainable growth model has been key to the line of business, as opposed to inorganic rapid scaling. This is normally achieved by product discounting and having large advertising spend. As founders, we still don’t take a salary or really any money out. From the beginning, our principle has been ethical profitability and to that end, we believe it is crucial to look after your lowest rung employees, often the most valuable. This aspect is only more obvious during times like the ongoing pandemic.

The founding goal for Tailor & Circus was to pay an internationally certified living wage to every employee in the factory. According to the team, it has been challenging to find the balance in managing funds both to build the business, but also to improve lives from the bottom up for every team member.

How did the lockdown affect your business?

As a direct-to-customer (D2C) brand, Tailor & Circus was initially caught off guard with the pandemic-related restrictions. But the widespread prevalence of logistics infrastructure and India’s comprehensive transport network meant that as long as people could receive packages, they could order. Nonetheless, being in the D2C space has been a privilege since the retail sector in India is crumbling. Since people got accustomed to buying online during the lockdown, including innerwear, Tailor & Circus’s business appears back on track. We expect to hit our revenue targets comfortably this year. This time has allowed us to also design more products around the idea of being at ease in one’s home, where much of life may now happen for a while.

Tailor & Circus

Has there been an upside to the pandemic?

The restrictions have helped the team focus on the unit economics of every product sold and prioritise sustainable profitability in the short term. We have also realigned the vision to accommodate the new role of e-commerce in the long term. From the start we have been a low-margin high-value product, we are now taking more control of the production process than we already do, and increasing the number of processes in-house. It will help us support the factory team better to give them more bandwidth in profit margins, but enhance the quality of the product further.

Tailor & Circus

What is your advice to a homegrown business when starting out?

I suggest factoring in how much money needs to be made for every individual in the company when starting off. Since we are an eco-friendly company and believe in sustainable profit, calculate the environmental impact costs, then re-assess your idea to see if it still makes sense within the scope of sustainable profitability. It has to be accessible for it to be revolutionary. Starting at a point with easy access to capital for the first 1,000 days of business is pivotal as well.

Images Courtesy: Tailor & Circus’s Instagram

Anam Naqvi

Anam is an astute writer who aims to demystify personal finance and wealth management for the common man. She has written on geopolitics, economics and politics for the Economist Intelligence Unit before moving to personal finance content strategy. Her penchant for storytelling and conversation has resulted in a podcast about human stories called “Sapien Story”.