How this entrepreneur is restoring the lost glory of Kolhapuri chappals

Dileep More, Founder, Korakari

Dr. Dileep More

With a history dating back to about 400 years, Kolhapuri chappals have always been one of the favourites of not just the Maharajas but also the local folk. Now, with a vision to restore the lost glory of Kolhapuri chappals with a modern touch, Dr. Dileep More, Founder and Managing Director, Korakari, set up his own venture to promote the craft along with enabling sustainable livelihood for the Kolhapuri artisans.

This Skill Story captures his journey, how the organisation is working towards reviving the age-old craft, training the artisans on modern processes, diversification, marketing the products to the customers and much more. Read on to know more.

Q: Could you tell us about your journey in brief and how you started Korakari?

A: My grandfather was in the business of making Kolhapuri chappals and he used to export it to other countries too. Times were good and the business for Kolhapuri chappals and the Kolhapuri artisans grew. However, my father discontinued it after the demand for the Kolhapuri chappals fell and opened a successful Kirana store. I completed my studies and joined academics where I used to teach how to start one’s own business in IIM Kolkata. Then, little did I know that it would lead me to start my own venture. I soon wanted to get back to the traditional business of making Kolhapuri chappal, as I knew so much about the craft, the problems that artisans face, marketing and so on.

This is being an unorganised sector, there were many hurdles during the progress of setting up and growing the business. For example, the quality of leather, unavailability of artisans, lack of youth’s interest in this craft anymore and no proper industry to champion this craft. Though in my village, every household was into making Kolhapuri chappals, no one was willing to take this up now. It was difficult for me to find even one craftsman, for which I struggled for 6 months to find one. But today, I am connected with more than 1000 artisan families. I wanted to pay better wages to the craftsmen, as it is them who will sustain the craft of Kolhapuri chappals.

This is how this entrepreneur is restoring the lost glory of Kolhapuri chappa

Q: How are you reviving the product and meeting the demands of the current market?

A: About two-three decades back, there was a huge demand for the Kolhapuri chappals. There were being exported too. But as people started making the Kolhapuri chappals with cheap leather and local colours, the quality of the product came down and so the demand.

Since this is an unorganised sector, and therefore not much research has been done on improving the processes over the years. Therefore, I started by studying and understanding the processes and market. I recognised and understood the issues with the Kolhapuri chappal. Some of them are, due to the use of hard and tough leather, the first time you wear the, you will experience a shoe bite. Slippery nature is another issue along with colours fading off easily. Therefore, to revive the product, we started addressing these issues first. To improve the comfort factor, we started using rubber at the bottom, which acts as a cushion. We started using terracotta leather which is soft and began using Italian colours. As we want to grow our business across India and abroad, there are some norms to be followed while exporting, like the colours should be permanent and must be sun proof.

Also, we improved upon our designs to give them a modern look. We standardised many processes to fill the gaps. For example, for Kolhapuri chappals the sizes were never standardised. Sizes are different in each shop that sells Kolhapuri chappals. We studied various sizes like the UK sizes, US sizes and came up with standard ones.

Arun Satapute, Kolhapuri Artisan

Arun Satapute

“I am making these Kolhapuri chappals for more than 30 years now. My uncle thought me how to make these and I was interested in making and took it up as a profession. Now I know many more techniques and new designs to improvise these chappal. Mr. Dileep shows us the new designs after designing it on the computer and we develop on those. After coming here, I am able to earn better wages and have fixed timings to work. However, my children are not interested in learning these crafts or making this a livelihood. They want to go elsewhere to earn.”Arun Satapute, Artisan working at Korakari

Q: Do you also train the artisans in the new processes?

A: As I already mentioned, this is a highly unorganised sector. After I extensively studied the processes and spent a great amount of time in research, I realised 85% processes do not need skilled workforce. Therefore, we were open to getting unskilled people and training them on how to colour and other processes of making Kolhapuri chappals. We train them to use small devices for strap cutting and which has automated some of the processes like strap cutting, critical processes like embossing, etc.

But for processes like stitching the bottoms, trained and professional people are needed. This is mostly done by women and they are less in number. The stitching is very tough and their shoulders tend to swell after stitching a certain number of products. To address this, we developed a machine which has certainly reduced the burden on these trained women.

Q: What are the channels through which you sell the products?

A: We sell our products on e-commerce sites on Amazon, Flipkart, Myntra, Nykaa and through our own website too. We also do private labelling for three ethnic brands in India, one of which is Fab India. We have also collaborated with Times of India, where our products were appreciated greatly. These collaborations helped us increase the production capacity. The demand for our products had drastically increased post-lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic. We have lined up innovation required in manufacturing and product line to achieve a turnover of Rs.100 crore in five years.

Q: What are your thoughts on diversifying the products?

A: To be honest, I didn’t want to diversify. But I want to develop a network of franchises in India. The retailer would not sustain if they sell only Kolhapuri chappal, therefore the need for diversification came. If an artisan can make Kolhapuri chappal, they can make any leather product like wallets, necklaces, earrings, etc. using leather waste. We have also launched bags, belts, Kolhapuri sandals incorporating Kolhapuri designs. This is a sustainable model. During the rainy seasons, when there is less demand for Kolhapuri chappal, these artisans can make these other products and ensure a sustainable livelihood.

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Q: What is your vision for this craft?

A: I want more youngsters and younger generations to get attracted to this art of making Kolhapuri chappal. We have fixed timings for artisans and pay high wages to attract youngsters. They can also become micro entrepreneurs. We have collaborated with many artisans and Leather Sector Skill Council too to promote this. The demand should increase, more ethnic brands should come up and I want to bring back the old days for the craft and for Kolhapuri chappal.

“I am in this profession for many years now and it is a family profession. However, after coming to Korakari, I learned many new things. Though I knew the craft for many years, the knowledge on how to make it better came after joining Korakari. I have also improved my livelihood with consistent income. Though my children are in other fields now, they do know the craft and they help me whenever they are back to the village during their holidays.”Arun Gavali, Artisan working at Korakari

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