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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Full metal to jacket: The tailor-made story of Nilesh Rane

Rane was a shooter himself, and had shot at every national championship since 1995. He also made shooting apparel, the thick, stiff ergonomically cut jackets and trousers that were essential (and mandatory in competitions) for keeping an athlete stable while shooting.

other-sports Updated: Jul 25, 2019 23:59 IST
Ajai Masand
Ajai Masand
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Shooter Nilesh Rane.
Shooter Nilesh Rane.(HT Photo/Satish Bate)

On a muggy January afternoon in Thodupuzha, the venue for the national shooting championships in 2009, Nilesh Rane sat uncomfortably on a plastic chair, casting his eye every so often on the wall clock hanging in one corner of his small rented stall just outside the range. Heavy multi-coloured shooting apparel—jackets and trousers—hung precariously on tarpaulin partitions, even as a tailor worked feverishly on fixing a jacket on a sewing machine.

Rane was a shooter himself, and had shot at every national championship since 1995. He also made shooting apparel, the thick, stiff ergonomically cut jackets and trousers that were essential (and mandatory in competitions) for keeping an athlete stable while shooting.

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For Rane, it had been a brave decision to bring his merchandise to this outpost in the Idduki district of Kerala, where even diehard competitors found it a serious challenge to even get to. But this was a labour of love. No one in India made competition quality shooting gear. Any one who picked up a rifle also had to shell out a hefty amount to buy apparel made in Europe. But Rane wanted to plug this gap, working with little more than his deep knowledge of the sport and a pair of tailors, sitting in a tiny workshop inside the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai.

As an announcement was made, he quickly got up and put on one of his own bulky jackets and walked awkwardly towards the 50m shooting range, his .22 rifle in one hand and a box of ammunition in the other. The Mumbai shooter had been doing this since 2002; putting up stalls with his merchandise outside shooting ranges where he went to compete in 50m rifle prone and 3-position.

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That year, in 2009, he found just a handful of buyers after sitting in his stall for over 15 days. Next year in Tokyo, at the 2020 Games, three in every ten of the best shooters in the world will be sporting his apparel during competition. Rane now sells his jackets and trousers to top shooters across more than 60 countries, and his clients include world champions.

“I’ve won around 50 medals at the national level, even set a national record (in 2001), which stood for 4-5 years,” Rane, 42, says. “My only regret in life is that I could not make it to the national squad. The apparel business now is a way to remain connected with the sport, which is the only thing I’ve known in the last two-and-a-half decades.”

Rane’s love for shooting began the day his father enrolled him and his elder brother, Nilad, at the Maharashtra Rifle Association (MRA) range soon after he completed his schooling. “We always had guns in the household as my grandfather was a fond of hunting”, he says. “I became obsessed with shooting and not a day went by with me not visiting the Worli range—a half-hour walk from our house— spending hours practicing ‘dry shooting’ (practising without using pellets).”

Rane found his obsession reach such a degree that he would walk to the range even on days when it was closed, just to sit outside the locked gates.

Because his brother owned a small business making hand-stitched leather wallets, Rane got the idea of making a competition trouser for himself with the leftover leather. He taught himself the craft how to stitch, use a sewing machine, and cut leather. “That was in 1998. A lot of shooters noticed it and some came to me and asked, “Where did you get it from?”, he says. “I said I stitched it. A couple of them asked if I could stitch one for them. The first trouser I made was for a Maharashtra shooter, Leena Shirodkar, in 1997. I ended up making three as the first two didn’t fit her. I was a novice, experimenting. I started with no business acumen or mode, and made absolutely no money,” Rane says. “But it was a learning process.”

He also needed a name for his product, so he sat leafing through dictionaries for inspiration. “Until I came up with the French word “Cap-a-pie”, which means a warrior covered and well-equipped from head to toe, ready for battle,” he says. “It had meaning for me, because I am a Maratha, and we were a clan of warriors.”

But making it into a business continued to be a major challenge. There were not many shooters at that time—roughly 500 Rane estimates—and selling the product to such a niche group was tough.

Things started looking up for Rane only after Abhinav Bindra became India’s first world champion, at Zagreb in 2006, wearing his apparel.

“Abhinav could afford the most expensive apparel but he approached me in 2005 and asked if I could design one for him,” he says. “By then, rifle shooter Suma Shirur had shot a perfect 400—a world record—wearing my kit. That perhaps gave a lot of shooters confidence that my product was good. I told Abhinav confidently, I will do it. He was in Mumbai for five days. Those five days were the biggest learning lesson for me. I visited him every day, taking measurements and suggestions from him.”

Rifle shooting apparel is highly specialized. The jacket and trouser, made of special stiff breathable canvas and leather, provides crucial support to the shooter as he or she holds a position, takes aim and fires. Since the sport demands absolute precision—the slightest tremor in the body can translate into a rank bad shot—it is critical for the apparel to act as a sort of shock absorber, drastically cutting down the transfer of body movements to the rifle. For example, during competitive shooting, the heart rate can go up from an average 65-75 to 130-140, and the almost imperceptible ripples this causes through the muscles can result in a wavering aim; the shooting jacket cuts that out. The combined weight of the jacket and trouser is between 6-7 kgs and need to be perfectly well fitted to the individual shooter. During competition, the apparel, just like the guns, are subject to stringent equipment control, and must meet a prescribed standard of fit, weight, and thickness.

For Rane, the years of hard work was finally beginning to pay. “I remembered the days when for 15-18 days in a month, there was no work,” he says.

Yet it took time—time for an explosion of interest in shooting in India, which brought hundreds of young boys and girls to the sport, many of them rapidly going on to the international level. From 2008 onwards, demand for Rane’s shooting apparel rose steadily. By 2013, news of his apparel had spread word-of-mouth to shooters from other countries too, and he got his first export orders.

Now, Capapie runs out of a manufacturing unit in Thane, and employs a hundred people, including the two original craftsmen, Jallu and Mukhtar. They make around 450 trousers and jackets a month, and a third of that is exported to Europe. “I get happy when I see top shooters using my product and earning medals at the world cups and world championship,” he says.

The current world champion in 50m rifle 3-position, Tomasz Bartnik from Poland, uses Capapie.

“Still, I think I am not doing any business,” he says. “I sell my product cheaply compared to foreign brands. I have always kept the margins low. Because I thought if my product is affordable, more people will take up shooting.”

Rane last shot at a nationals in 2017, but says that he still practises regularly.

“I become unapproachable,” he says. “My staff gets frenetic.”

First Published: Jul 25, 2019 23:59 IST