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Fashion Industry In Kerala Undergoing A Makeover

Thiruvananthapuram: One touch of the fabric, and it should take you down to its loom of birth and let you feel the joy of the weaver who set the thread and the artist who enlivened it through days of work. They are the ‘thoughtful clothing’ that many women would find in boutiques, the small personalised

Thiruvananthapuram: One touch of the fabric, and it should take you down to its loom of birth and let you feel the joy of the weaver who set the thread and the artist who enlivened it through days of work. They are the ‘thoughtful clothing’ that many women would find in boutiques, the small personalised spaces where women with similar philosophies of life share their love for fabric and design and develop ideas that evolve into brands with inimitable personalities.

Mankind’s most wearable art – the fabric, that was shaped and reshaped by time and tastes, is also one of the most sophisticated civilizational elements. The innovations in yarn and colour have transformed the warp and weft to weave wonders for the modern times.

Handloom fabrics from all over the country have been reaching the select few discerning customers in Kerala through hand-picked stocks at boutiques.

Czarina and its predecessor Bodytunes in Thiruvananthapuram and later, Abi’s in Kozhikode and Zenana in Kottayam are some of the earliest entrants into this field who ushered in the boutique culture to the so-called ‘fashion backward State.’

The USP then was exclusivity; at a time when transport facilities had not reached the present level and travel was still expensive, they accumulated the country’s best offers in their small cubicle spaces.

Readily advising the customers who had an eye for perfection and an instinctive choice to stay away from the ‘mass fashion,’ the boutiques carved a niche for themselves through their customisation and personalisation. You did not need your best friend to accompany you as the talented women at the stores would serve as your design advisers too.

Fast forward to 2016; the boutique scene is saturated, travel is common and cheaper, the handloom market and design philosophies have evolved to admire the beauty of the subtle and the subdued. The scene is slowly witnessing a change, a sea change rather, with talent and expertise coming out with exclusive designer brands, capturing national and international markets.

‘‘There were not many even in 2000 when I opened Czarina,’’ says Sheila James, Founder, Czarina boutique. Mable Mathew of Zenana agrees, “It was easy then as people came to the city to buy good clothes. But now, the scene has changed drastically. There are small good stores everywhere,’’ she said while sharing her plans for diversification.

Boutiques have been mushrooming in every corner of the State, with unofficial estimates pegging the number at 500. With changing shopping patterns, a whole lot of them are actively taking to Facebook marketing and online stores to increase their reach and revenue.

“These days, if you do not have exclusive collections and excellent taste, there is every possibility of a customer pointing out that she has already seen the product at another store,’’ says Shalini James, Founder and Lead Designer of Mantra.

The changing apparel choices of the post-liberalization era woman have been reflected in the demand curve. Take the case of iconic brands like Mantra or Seamstress. If the boutiques remained popular destinations for hand-picked rarities, it shows that the new-age brands have redefined clothing as such.

“There is a fundamental difference between boutique and online businesses,’’ says Sheila. “An online store cannot maintain exclusivity with current price points, and a boutique has to be exclusive,’’ she adds.

Another major change has been in the client referral system, with social media chewing up a good deal of the advertisement. “Our customers are mostly regular, so we need to have fast-moving stocks and latest collections,’’ says Mable Mathew.

Shanthy Ramasubbu, Managing Partner, Silkyway, a specialty silk boutique, says sticking to your craft alone can bring brownie points. Market choices may change, but the personality of the store should stay intact, she feels.

Sheila affirms that her exclusive associations stood her in good stead in the face of an expanding market. “Some associations are such that the weavers look for the best place to supply their products, and we have been maintaining that pride of place for years now,’’ she says.

While the earlier boutiques sourced their design and fabric from outside, the current day biggies are looking more inwards for inspiration. Customer awareness has gone up dramatically. “Previously, they would come asking for something which is trendy but now they need something no one else has,’’ says Sheila.

Neelaambari, a hit designer studio in Kochi, does not even maintain a full-fledged store, with most of the product lines getting sold out in less than an hour of being published on their Facebook page.

Take the case of Mantra in Kochi. Here, Shalini James, Founder, Mantra has redefined the anti-fit handloom range by standardizing the size chart scene of the women’s wear segment. Her experiments were viewed as a rebellion against the irreverence shown to the high-end designer products made of Indian cotton.

Thrissur-based Seamstress has taken the long dusty walk to the homes of the colorful arts and rich hues of Kerala. Their ‘Theyyam’ collection, among others, set new standards in handloom revitalisation. “We wanted to tell the story of the rich history, complexity and beauty of Kerala’s ‘Kaithari’ craft to capture the imagination of a whole new generation of users and weavers. We recreate the designs using local indigenous techniques, by re-imagining the fabric and innovating on the garment, but keeping the original weave intact always,’’ says Rasmi Poduval, Founder, Seamstress.

Maithri Srikant Anand, Founder, Vedhika in Thiruvananthapuram adds to this range. Her designs and motifs are like dream-catchers from childhood days with modern adaptations and a fusion of the present and the past.

Abitha Rasheed, Founder, Abi’s Saree Sellers in Kozhikode, says her travels help her predict the future of fashion and to bring the latest trend to her store. She started Abi’s Saree Sellers 31 years ago after returning from Saudi Arabia where she had moved to after her marriage.

She got international exposure on a European trip. On her return, carrying the images of Western boutiques, she chose a little corner of the sleepy Kozhikode to set up her own store. “Boutique culture was alien to the people when I started Abi’s. There was no TV and people did not know much about fashion. It was where I found my place. Mine was the first store where there were no counters. People could walk in and look around like in the modern stores these days. And, in those days, my store was air-conditioned too!’’ says Abitha.

“Earlier, it was good enough if you had an eye and the customer trusted your taste. But today, you need training, talent, taste and business acumen and some real strong content to stay in the market. The survivors will come out tested and fine-tuned from the competitive kilns,’’ says Shalini.

Customer choices have evolved dramatically and the eclectic combinations that marked out the boutiques are changing. Brands today speak hard business, but one look at the growth curve and it will be clear that the story has more to it. “The suppliers and weavers are the most women-friendly folks out there. They are so connected to their art that they are simple and easy, and they collaborate with us effortlessly,’’ says Shalini.

“I struggled for years to reach a shore with my experiments, cost and final product,’’ says Neelima Chandran, Founder, Neelaambari whose initial investment was her savings from her career as a chartered accountant and a Rs. 10-lakh loan from the Kerala Finance Corporation.

“I can not think of expanding. I need to be here in person, otherwise it is not a boutique. How can I be at different places at the same time? Moreover, I need to learn my customers, their tastes and predict what they need tomorrow. That’s my strength,’’ says Abitha.

“Fashion moves in a cycle. Nowadays, another person should not have what you have. One can say this is the peak of individualism. Personal stylists are in vogue, customisation is becoming super common even among commoners,’’ says Manuprasad Mathew, Central Coordinator, Fashion Design, NIFT Kannur.

Future of fashion lies in change and adaptation. Boutiques will survive if they adapt to the changing market trends. Handlooms might stay, but I am not very confident about the future of handlooms as such because of the prevalent social ostracism faced by weavers. Despite the immense amount of money spent on handloom rejuvenation by the Centre, the number of youngsters coming to this profession is still very small. The future will have to be client-centric, whether brand or boutique, he adds.

Most of the boutiques opt for a traditional growth strategy-ploughing back their profits into the business and making moves only after testing the waters carefully. While the veterans have turnovers of around Rs. 50 lakh per month, the figures hover around Rs. 3 lakh for the new entrants. The stable, established brands have been raking in around Rs. 10-15 lakh per month.

The common thread is, of course, their inspiration and depth, be it a brand or a boutique, and the product distinguishes itself as the result of the research that goes into it. Another interesting pattern can be observed in the professional expertise that is being infused. While the growth can be best termed ‘organic,’ the increasing competition has seen several boutiques emerging into seminal, enduring brands while the rest have been eliminated in the hard-nosed competition.

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