Sweden ushers in the spirit of Christmas by attacking its winter pall of darkness. Four weeks ahead of Christmas, the Swedes deck up their windows with lighted 'Advent' stars.
But paper stars, traditionally used to keep the darkness at bay, had been going out of fashion, caught in stagnant styles. Stars made of wood, metal and even Plexiglas were fast taking over until the year 2000.
But when Monika Lindstrom, founder-owner, watt & VEKE, a Swedish lighting emporium, ran into Virender Kumar, director, Inmark Exports Pvt Ltd, at an illuminations fair in London, things changed for the Swedish capital of Stockholm. She imported 5,000 hand-made paper stars from Kumar's factory in Patparganj, New Delhi.
The Delhi-based entrepreneur blended the Swedish penchant for austere designs with subtle patterns that were embossed, embroidered and even punched on his stars for a dappled light effect.
Kumar's innovatively patterned stars not only won over the lighting expert, Lindstrom, who liked the quality and the designs, but also the consumers in Sweden.
Together, they have wrestled nearly 50 per cent of the paper star market in Sweden with a shipment of 200,000 such decorative pieces finding a place in Swedish stores this Christmas.
Earlier targeted at NRIs for decorating during Diwali, Kumar had to adapt his stars to the toned-down Scandinavian tastes.
"It was a challenge to manufacture paper stars that had to be pure white and adhere to the Swedish preference for sharp and functional designs. Besides, I was exporting to the fourth largest paper exporter in the world," says Kumar.
But Kumar had talent and low costs on his side to see him through.
Lindstrom notes, "Virender is very creative and is always ready with a lot of choices (of designs)." The creative streak runs deep in Kumar.
He says, "During my travels, I look at visual themes, including colour combinations, used in different products. It helps when I have to complement the colour moods that are given to us by stores in the UK."
The two believe in constant interaction for a better understanding. While Kumar takes Lindstrom to the vendors, she gets him to interact with the clients.
"Virender can understand our clients' needs better that way, while I can understand the different sources and hence generate more ideas," says Lindstrom. Quality checks at every stage of manufacturing also ensure Sweden gets only the best out of his factory.
Kumar and his team have to be on their toes around the year to meet the year-end demand spike. To make sure that the stars reach the stores in October, the process is set rolling a year before to finalise the styles and for manufacturing the stars in the next four-five months.
Kumar and Lindstrom believe that catering to a high-end clientele will help them keep alive their artistic slants and also differentiate their one-of-a-kind products.
"We will try to make the stars more exclusive through exquisite designs and packaging," says Lindstrom. Their strategy underlines the distinct qualitative and creative advantage that India enjoys in export markets where China's bulk usually floods the lower-end.
Even their upmarket positioning has not dampened the demand, for Lindstrom claims that almost every window in Stockholm will have at least one of these stars twinkling this year.
Inmark Exports had been manufacturing hand-made paper products for large departmental stores and distributors such as Lindstrom until now, but Kumar plans to enter the Indian market in 2008 with paper lanterns. This will help him weather a rising rupee.
A factory planned in Greater Noida would help Kumar in increasing the manufacturing capabilities to 500,000 stars in a bevy of shapes, shades, sizes and patterns.
Almost 70 per cent of Kumar's stars sell in Christmas, while the rest are picked up all around the year for home decorations, for example in the US, the UK, Australia and Germany.
The partnership not only highlights trends in Indian exports but also proves that creativity knows no bounds. It can cut across cultures and lend a new spin to traditions that have become stagnant over the years. As Lindstrom says, "We brought the trend of fine paper stars back to life."