25 years of Good Earth: An Indian design story
Ahead of Women’s Day, we meet the ladies of the luxury design brand who have been taking the stories of India’s artisanal legacy to the world for 25 years
"Aao huzoor tumko sitaron mein le chalun….” It’s not often that you enter a factory production unit to be greeted by a 1960s Asha Bhosle song emanating from a loudspeaker, and offering to “… take you to the stars”. This is followed by Camila Cabello singing about how much she misses Havana. Inside Good Earth’s 78,000 sq. ft factory, an hour away from Delhi in Haryana’s Ballabgarh, music is a constant companion.
Over 200 workers at the luxury design brand factory spend an average of eight hours daily, six days a week, creating tableware, home décor, soaps, candles and perfumes that are sold across India and 235 other countries, all the while listening to music greats like Elvis Presley, A.R. Rahman, Perez Prado, Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh.
As I enter the bright, airy production section for crockery, I notice a woman, clad in a bright orange-pink sari, sitting on a high chair, swaying to the Havana tune. “Yahan waqt ka pata hi nahi chalta (music makes you forget about time here),” Saroj Bala says, humming along with the song. The 57-year-old has been with Good Earth for 11 years but, she insists, it “feels more like 11 days”. As we talk, she’s applying pre-printed images of a blooming blue iris to fine bone china plates—a process called ceramic decal—creating a collection that’s part of the Flashback series launched in February to celebrate 25 years of Good Earth. “There has never been a day without music here,” recalls Bala, with a wide smile. “AL doesn’t like working without music. She has passed on the habit to us as well.”
AL is Anita Lal, the brand’s creative director. Apart from being an instinctive businesswoman, the 72-year-old is also a music or, more specifically, an Elvis Presley fan. Since 1996, she has been curating playlists of songs, reflecting her mood, the weather and the vibe of the brand’s newest collection, to be played at all Good Earth workspaces. For the 25th year, she has curated a Spotify playlist, Flashback25, that has been playing since January at the factory and 10 retail stores across India, their biggest market.
When I meet her the next day at Good Earth’s Delhi office space Tulsi Garden Studio, the first thing I ask about is the choice of songs in Flashback25. “Elvis was my heartthrob but then my husband introduced me to jazz. I also like ghazals and old Hindi songs. So Flashback25 has a mix of everything. It also has songs I played at my first store in Kemps Corner (south Mumbai) in 1996,” says Lal, showing me guava flowers in the studio garden. “You should give it (Flashback25) a listen and tell me which one (song) you like the most. Music brings a lot of joy and I want to share that with everyone,” she goes on as we walk around the studio, which wears the same haphazard, unfinished look as the brand’s shops. “In a way, the music reflects our journey… a journey of India, our heritage, our culture, the world around us.”
Good Earth, which started its journey with a small team of potters, designers and front-end staff, arrived on the scene at a time when liberalisation had made Indians aware of a life that could include aspirational as well as everyday goods. Disposable income was rising; tastes were evolving. Traditional home objects and white crockery had begun to make space for Western imports.
Twenty-five years later, India is a more globalised market but with the Make in India movement in full force, the focus on growth has now turned more inwards. Good Earth’s story is similar: It started with indigenous resources, moved to imports and is now back to using indigenous raw materials. In the process, the brand has grown by leaps and bounds. From a turnover of around ₹5 crore in 2001 to over ₹100 crore in 2011, it has become a ₹150 crore force that has taken Indian heritage around the world.
In 2020, the company claims, its web boutique grew by 200%, with international business contributing 40% to online business revenue. At the core, though, the 550-plus employees, most of them women (90% of the department heads and leaders are women), continue to work towards one goal: telling stories of India’s artisanal legacy through crockery, décor, clothes, spa products and lifestyle items.
“Good Earth is one, particular story of India,” says Meher Varma, an anthropologist and independent brand strategist. “It has been an Indian ambassador to the world. One reason they have stayed so relevant is their aesthetic has remained consistent and identifiable through time. It plays with nostalgia, while giving consumers an imagination of a regal past which was maybe never theirs in the first place. Not many brands can achieve that.”
What’s the colour of the sky?
There are many business lessons to be learnt from the Good Earth story—how did a psychology student with no formal education in design, merchandising, warehousing or finance go on to build a brand that has created a niche for itself in a competitive market? How has a brand managed to keep traditional designs so relevant over 20 years? How has a brand managed to successfully launch sub-brands in already crowded sectors?
“Zidd (obstinancy),” answers Lal. “I was brought up to fight till the end, no matter what.”
Her parents, who had travelled from Lahore to Kullu on their honeymoon around July 1947, had to stay back on what became the Indian side owing to Partition. They settled in Punjab, ensuring their two children got an education that would enable them to lead independent lives. When Lal wasn’t in class or playing kabaddi with friends, she would be busy painting her room with trees or butterflies, or staring at the sky as it changed colour from dark blue to violet and then black. “Even as a child I could make out the difference between dark blue and violet. Now that we are talking about it, I think the design journey started during childhood without me even realising it,” says Lal.
As for her fondness for flowers and nature—often visible in Good Earth designs—she says: “That’s from my mother’s garden. The smell of roses, jasmine, genda phool—they introduced me to the language of fragrance and beauty in nature. I am still very attracted to them. Our childhood shapes us, no?”
Lal became an entrepreneur by accident. During a disappointing experience while shopping for her daughter Simran’s trousseau, Lal, a studio potter, saw a market gap between the dying art of pottery and the urban consumer looking for high-quality home products. Around the same time, her husband, Vikram Lal, then chair of Eicher Motors, had turned down the offer of a retail space at Kemps Corner. With the financial support of her husband, she took that space to start an Indian design-led crockery venture.
Their first collection, Chillies, mixed red and green chillies on a hand-painted indigo background with accents of saffron, turquoise and red—“a real Indian masala,” as Lal describes it.
Much of the design even today is about what the team, especially Lal, finds attractive, says Asha Madan, a 1994 textile design graduate from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, who has been with the company from the beginning.
Madan, now the head of design for home and apparel, has been maintaining a motif library, essentially a record of all Good Earth designs. “It’s not a practice many brands follow in India,” she says. “It helps to go back and find new inspirations.”
The overall design team consists of 25 people, all of them reporting to Lal. “Our design process is mostly to do with what AL finds attractive. We did a collection last year inspired by flowers (Pushpanjali); we thought flowers would bring some joy during such a tough time. It was AL’s idea,” says Madan. Lal changes the design till the last moment to ensure products “look like they have life”. “We did this design that included a butterfly. AL decided to add the effect of glitter around its wings to bring it to life,” smiles Madan.
It has not always been a story of smiles and laughs, though. Between 1996-2000, there were days when Lal would cry herself to sleep, filling her journals with lines like “Why am I doing this to myself?”, “I should just quit”, “I can’t do this”,
“I couldn’t quit,” says Lal, who counts herself lucky for having the financial backing of her husband.
By 2002, however, Lal had lost steam. That’s when her daughter Simran stepped in as the second-generation torchbearer. The then 31-year-old decided to help her mother in retail—the aspects of business that were “holding back AL’s creativity. It was like doing a practical MBA,” laughs Simran, as we sit in her colourful stand-alone cabin with a tree running through it, looking out on to a courtyard at the Tulsi studio.
Under her leadership, Good Earth started expanding in the retail space. Lal became more involved with design. Moving beyond the main influences and inspirations of their collections—van vaibhav from the Rig Veda, which explored the splendour of the forest, the evolved aesthetic of the Mughals, the charms of tropical India and the Silk Route—the brand started indulging in eclectic storytelling in the form of annual collections and collaborations. Farah Baksh (2012-13), for instance, celebrated the rich design heritage and lush gardens of Kashmir. The following year, Samarqand brought to life the legacy of the fabled city of Samarkand, which lies at the heart of the Silk Route. Two years ago, Maladvipa, combining the Sanskrit words mala (garland) and dvipa (island), celebrated the bounty of flora and fauna.
They launched their Web Boutique in 2013, ushering the brand into the digital age well before other brands realised the potential of e-commerce. Two years later, the brand went on to sponsor The Fabric Of India exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum. The effort included retailing contemporary craft designs at the museum gift shops.
Over the years, the brand has also gained greater exposure to crafts that are languishing, working closely with handlooms, especially Khadi, and craft legacies like malkha, Maheshwari and papier mâché. Its best-seller Periyar design story, inspired by the magical lake in Kerala of the same name, has graced the coffee tables of global designers. So famous was the collection that the mugs from the Periyar range were included in the celebrity gift bags at the 2015 Oscars.
What makes the brand unique, says Varma, is that at a time when brands are trying hard to make ikat super-minimal in design, for instance, Good Earth has never looked at contemporary and traditional designs as two very different things. “They are able to stay close to the original craft form while working on quality to create long-lasting products. This may have been more important than trying to contemporise tradition,” she insists.
Their other focus area is sustainability, says Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango, Good Earth’s design partner. “When I think of Good Earth, I think of sustainability. It encompasses sustainability in many aspects, from silhouette to technique to craftsmanship,” explains the designer.
It comes at a cost
The story of Good Earth, however, would be incomplete without a mention of their missteps. Like Simran’s decision, as early as 2013, to create a gifting app that never saw the light of day. Or their experiment with more affordable products.
A few years ago, says Simran, the team decided to offer a pared-down, less expensive version of Good Earth products. For, rooted in the cultural legacy of India, Good Earth comes at a price point that’s more aspirational for a large part of India, especially millennials, a generation most brands are trying to cater to—a fact not lost on either Simran or Lal. “We created a corner in a shop with some products. But it just didn’t work. People came expecting that aesthetic. So we decided to stick to what we knew, and what’s good for us. We are a heritage label, after all,” explains Simran.
It also becomes difficult to be sustainable when you reduce the price, interjects Lal. “A lot of effort, time, energy, resources, natural dyes, go into creating these products. And we don’t really directly speak to millennials and post-millennials.”
That’s why Simran, along with her husband Raul Rai, launched Nicobar—a “millennial-friendly, cleaner, simpler, more boho chic” extension of Good Earth—in 2016. “The decision was more inner-belief led. If you ask my husband, he would say I have three sides. One is the Mughal princess, which is the Good Earth side. Second, the bohemian gypsy, which is the Nicobar side, and one is the yogini, which is Paro (her latest wellness brand, all about spiritual and philosophical thought—think jasmine body wax, a five-oil combination that keeps a wick steady, to therapy rooms with a Himalayan pink salt brick wall),” laughs Simran.
It’s the same trend-agnostic, inner-belief led aesthetic one finds at Sustain. For the past 12 years, this Good Earth clothing brand has been giving craft a modern facelift. Among its more popular items are traditional silhouettes, such as the choga, ghaghri and kedio, given a contemporary twist in textiles like handloom matka silk, chanderi, Benarasi brocade, glass silk, mashru, kinkhwab brocade, kora tussar and gajji silk. “We are the only Indian brand that has created and works on an India size chart,” says Shalini Sethi, creative head of Sustain.
The post-pandemic life
Much like other brands, Good Earth and its sister labels were compelled to adapt to the new normal in the pandemic. Microsoft Teams is now their most used mode of conversation; some of the staff continues to work from home, while others work in a physically distanced setup at the factory and the shops. “It was, surprisingly, a seamless transition for us. The pandemic didn’t hurt us as much since online sales remained very good,” says Simran.
Good Earth has pivoted to focus more on digital strategies, like live online presentations, says brand custodian Beenu Bawa. “We are now looking at our website as our primary retail channel and curating special edits, launches and Instagram experiences to cater to different customer needs. We are also trying to offer services like an online dressing room to ensure a seamless experience,” says Bawa.
To commemorate its quarter-century, Good Earth has created a collection of tableware with ceramics artist Vineet Kacker that celebrates nature and the dying craft of village kumhars (potters). Their in-production annual design collection for 2021 is inspired by the Bosphorus, borrowing elements from Greek, Persian, Turkish and Indian designs.
Today Lal is not too concerned about revenue. “In the past 25 years, what I have learnt is making and keeping relationships, with those whom you work with, with customers, with people around us. It’s important to give freedom to people when you are working with so many of them, especially women. That’s my only business lesson from all these years,” she laughs.
Perhaps it’s this artistic licence that keeps people glued to the company: Many of the employees have been with Good Earth for over a decade.
When I ask Lal if she’s planning retirement anytime soon, she smiles: “‘I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.’ That’s Rumi. That’s me.”
FIRST PUBLISHED06.03.2021 | 07:00 AM IST