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Building Fashion Brands Using Creative Strength

Kochi: Tucked away in a serene corner of Edappally in Kochi is the production unit of Mantra (www.shalinijamesmantra.com), a Malayali-owned national fashion brand of India. Shalini James designs her perfect ‘Prêt-à-Porter’ redefining ‘the fit’ with her hand-picked team of designers and tailors here, in an atmosphere far away from the crowd, literally. Shalini owns and

Kochi: Tucked away in a serene corner of Edappally in Kochi is the production unit of Mantra (www.shalinijamesmantra.com), a Malayali-owned national fashion brand of India. Shalini James designs her perfect ‘Prêt-à-Porter’ redefining ‘the fit’ with her hand-picked team of designers and tailors here, in an atmosphere far away from the crowd, literally.

Shalini owns and designs ‘Mantra’ and ‘Shalini James’ brands, and her ‘Indian by Choice-Season III’ went on ramp at the Amazon India Fashion Week 2015 with Ambika Pillai as her showstopper. Her ‘Shalini James’ label is already in vogue in the carefully curated high-end stores of the country.

Mantra was born out of the perfect marriage of design expertise and premier business acumen. Shalini’s design history dates back to 25 years, when she was 17. After 11 years, with short breaks in between which helped her gain ample experience and get professional training at NIFT, Chennai, she launched Mantra in Kochi in 2002.

“I didn’t lose any time in setting up Mantra once I was here. I registered a trademark and started off, and within two months, we began selling our own brand of clothes,’’ says Shalini. Her first store also incorporated a boutique with hand-picked materials which she wound up soon, leading to her first design revelation. This culminated in what we know as the ‘Shalini James’ and ‘Mantra’ brands today.

“Customizing was not what I wanted, my creative strength was getting overshadowed and I decided to quit that segment to concentrate on my vision of a label,’’ she says.

Mantra’s birth was with a purpose and Shalini did not stop till she restructured the brand evolution, right from starting a brand study in the woefully under-researched women’s wear market in India where standard size charts are yet hard to come by, to opening their eyes to a reconceptualization of the handloom art and aesthetics.

“From 2004 to 2008 we were going through the process – that would mark us out among the crowd – of size standardization in a so-far anti-fit or free-size handloom wear industry. While the feel of the fabric was captivating, the customer needed more, they needed a good fit, that is where I found my niche,’’ Shalini said.

“By 2008, my product, the airy-yet-fit line of handloom kurtas, had matured, having gone through four years of trial and error, and we launched our store at Oberon Mall. Design and volume hit the perfect sync and ‘Mantra’ entered the first major run maintaining the monopoly for four years. “Within the next few years, the scene changed, national brands came to Kochi with Lulu Mall and Mantra got its playground there for competition,’’ she said. Shalini believes that competition is necessary. It has to be there to help you grow and elevate you to the next level, something she is always keen on.

By then, her range of ‘Shalini James’ brand was already receiving very good response along with the earlier brand ‘Mantra’. “While ‘Mantra’ concentrated on the design and volume with price point advantages, ‘Shalini James’ flouted the rules with free-flowing ideas, and the product was rich and beyond reproach of the market rules of the day,’’ she says. She dabbled in extremely rich work on cotton, creating a riot of colours and rebelling against the traditional gradation disfavouring cotton for high-end fashion. Her shows dazzled, with her tune and aesthetics getting picked up by the market biggies and celebrities coming out in favour of the freshness. “I will soon enter the bridal wear segment, but again that will not be a customized range,” Shalini adds.

She says the fashion industry has evolved massively in the past few years and customer awareness is high due to media exposure and travel. The ‘Kerala trends’ have given way to the national trends and the cities are dressing up very similar to each other.

“The online market has homogenized the price points. I do not have to sell cheaper than a seller in Kolkata and vice versa. We need the online platforms more as a face but the store is where we still realize the bulk of our sales,’’ says Shalini.

She stresses the necessity for skilling and upgradation given that the sector is facing competition like never before. “It is only the real talent and skill combined with astute financial management that will see you through the race. This is not an easy business any more,’’ she says.

Vouching for the traditional model of slow and steady growth, she says, “It takes at least four years for a well-to-do store to open another one using only the profit. Acceleration is a different issue. For me, here I micromanage my label and that mandates meticulous time management. That is how my creative and commercial jigsaws fit. Growth cannot overshadow the design.’’

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