The Empress of Fashion Retail

Kochi: Thanks to its ever-flourishing businesses and the IT boom, Kochi is regarded as the trendiest city in Kerala. It is only natural that it is viewed as the shoppers’ paradise. Its strategic location as a significant trade corridor coupled with a state-of-the-art metro in the making and its cosmopolitan society, make the ‘Queen of Arabian Sea’ a lucrative haven for traders, shop owners and international retail brands, who flock to set shop here. In the last couple of years or so, the city has been inundated with a multitude of shopping malls, which reflect the never-say-enough attitude of the city’s consumption-driven society. As an avid shopper, you are bound to be floored by the sheer variety of goods, consumer durables and commodities available in the markets and malls of the city. But still, there is one place that stands out amongst all these new ‘entrants’ and that is Seematti. The new wave of malls and boutiques has in no way affected the business Seematti has been doing as this is one place which offers exclusivity to your shopping. The cash crunch, demonetization, the new markets/shops/boutiques and the chaos of the ongoing metro works have not impacted Seematti at all. A glittering presence in fashion business for over a century, Seematti which stands tall at the MG Road North end still enjoys the unfailing patronage of Kochi’s shopaholics.

As we walked in through an unbelievably myriad variety of clothings from across the country, we could already see the crowd of shoppers, which was swelling every minute, choosing from the humongous range of the season’s trends, including latest and exquisite collections of sarees, though it was hardly 10 am in the morning. Just on time, when it ticked 11 am, Beena Kannan, the lady superstar of the textile industry in Kerala and the spirit behind  Seematti, walks in bubbling with energy, throwing smiles all around, greeting every single customer who looks at her. In her electric blue saree crafted with ‘le moda e la pace’ (meaning ‘fashion and peace’ in Italian) in golden letters on the borders, she looked impressive as ever. Even when posing for photographs, she could be seen engaging the customers, suggesting the best suited sarees for them. The queen of silks took charge and demonstrated salesmanship in no time, displaying the traditional peacock motifs, brilliant pastel pinks, gorgeous beige, the kalamkari designs and the trendiest of the designs specially picked by her.

You ask about competition and the ever-confident Beena gives you one of her sharp looks and tells you outright that she faces no competition at all. “I am not boasting or flattering, I am being realistic. I lead the industry, I lead fashion. I am being followed and, if I go a little faster, others trail behind catching up with the latest fashion. I have slowed down 90 per cent and still I am leading in Kerala, which says a lot about how Kerala takes fashion,” says Beena. “Seematti is rate-wise cheaper and fashion-wise better and offers exclusive collections all the time, and this is what makes Seematti unique,” adds Beena. “Quality and trendy goods, good selection and very friendly staff are the specialties of Seematti,” says C Narayan Lal, a retired professor of Sanathana Dharma College, Alappuzha, who has been traveling all the way to Kochi just to shop at Seematti for the past couple of decades. He also opines that the spacious showroom never gives the feel that it was crowded. The professor, who is an ardent fan of Kurtas, has just one suggestion; he wants to see more kurtas for men added to the product line.

Why do the other players in the industry fail to attract the clientèle of Seematti? Beena feels that the other players in the industry are just buying new clothing without putting their heart and soul into it.  And, when asked how she selects her dresses and how different is she from the others, Beena says, “it is all emotional; it is all from within me.” Beena says she sits with weavers and is even ready to wait for three or six years for getting what she wants.

Manju Jagadish, a regular customer at Seematti, says she is always happy with the selection of sarees and other dress materials. Manju, who is fond of simple sarees with bold borders and ‘mundhani,’ says: “Seematti has never failed to impress with its collections.” She is also fond of the sales persons at Seematti who, she says, “make my shopping very comfortable and easy.” Every customer who walks into Seematti will have something or the other to talk about the ever-friendly staff at the counters. Seematti is home to around 1400 employees and Beena is all praise for the efforts that they put in to give customers a better shopping experience. When you ask about expansion plans, Beena says she is looking at ways to generate more revenue so that she could help the employees in a much better way. No wonder why each one of them manning the counters looks at her with respect and love.

Unlike Manju, Mythili Narayan, Swallowing Pathologist at Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Kochi, is someone who loves trendy sarees especially in pastel colours. She prefers Seematti ‘‘as it offers affordable good quality modern dresses which suit all occasions.’’ Mythili is also happy about the price range. And, she did not forget to mention about the customer-friendly employees and the chic coffee shop at Seematti.

When asked about her role in the selection process, Beena again gave all the credit to her team which, in her own words, “deserve a standing ovation or a salute with both hands. I am not much involved in selection these days as my team is very good in that. The Kancheepuram and silks fascinate me and I get involved in only the designing aspect,” says Beena. She feels that Malayalis are fixated with bordered sarees and very slow in accepting or welcoming new trends. She remembers launching ‘Jhal go Raang’ which marked the introduction of Jeri Oswalt embroidery on sarees, and stripes and embroideries on Kancheepuram sarees.

“Kerala always stands different from the rest of the world,” says Beena who also complains that God’s Own Country is very slow in adapting latest fashion trends. “Mumbai and Delhi are faster, Kolkata is totally different, Chennai and Bengaluru are the other destinations, but Kerala is far behind,” says a slightly disappointed Beena. She is all against young women who walk into the store with pictures downloaded from the internet or other social media platforms. She advices the youngsters to use the internet only for references and not to depend too much on it which, according to her, will take away the creativity and imagination of the individual.

Ask her about the fashion sense of women in Kerala, and Beena Kannan will immediately return an amused look and add that she has to pull down all her old stocks to help them choose from. “I do not mean old stock by virtue of it being here for six months, but because of the age of the design. The stocks are freshly replenished but still the designs are old and the ideas are stale,” she clarifies. “I want them to believe me more, that I understand fashion better than them. I am not here to do any kind of sales. I am in the service industry and I want all the women to look good, beautiful and at their best in any garment or every garment they wear. I am here to support them with whatever rates they are comfortable with – the minimum, the medium ones, the good ones, the still better pieces and the best ones. I wish all the youngsters had come out with their own ideas of fashion. I do not want them to be exposed but be fashionable in the right sense at the right time like in other parts of the world,” she explains her notion about how a society should keep pace with the trends in fashion.

While talking about succession planning, Beena says Seematti is a self-evolving system and ‘‘it knows how to take care of itself.’’ With Gautham (son) manning the back office and Vishnu (son) learning the nuances of business, Beena is sure that Seematti will always be able to provide the best to its customers. She is also happy about new players coming to the stage as that, in her words, ‘‘gives me an opportunity to see more fashion and serve the customers with more choices, taking cue from it.” Unlike the other businesses on the MG Road stretch, Beena says the ongoing work of the metro or the demonetisation have not affected her business. She is confident that once the metro rail becomes fully operational and the trains start taking U-turn in front of Seematti, people will be awestruck to see such a huge establishment and the crowd we are catering to.

As we wind up at 4 pm, after a six-hour-long photo shoot and interview session, Beena remains energetic and shows not even a faint sign of tiredness. When she walks out of the room to the floor, into the midst of customers, she looks as fresh and exuberant as when we started. One can easily relate to it when Beena says she has no passion outside work. “Work is my holiday, passion and enjoyment. I think and live Seematti and even sleep with it.” No better words to sum it all up.

The Longest Saree

Beena Kannan conceptualized, designed and created the World’s Longest Silk Saree which made immeasurable impact worldwide and entered the Guinness Book of World Records and the Limca Book of Records in 2007. The 486.60-metre-long and 4.33-feet-wide saree, which incorporated a pictorial mosaic of India’s rich cultural legacy, weighed 72.58 kg. The red-coloured sari has 51 pallavs depicting India’s cultural and historical heritage. Pictures woven on the pallavs include famous Indian personalities, cultural festivals, architectural landmarks like Qutub Minar and Taj Mahal, dance forms, pictures of animals and birds, wedding scenes, musical instruments of India, and scenes of Kalaripayattu etc. It took 80 weavers under the supervision of Seematti’s master weaver, Thiru Selvan, working round the clock for two months and 18 days to complete the saree.

About Beena Kannan

Beena Kannan was born on July 17, 1960 in Kottayam as the daughter of V Thiruvenkitam and Seetha Lakshmi Thiruvenkitam. Seematti was founded by her grandfather the late S Veeriah Reddiar in Alappuzha in 1910. Veeriah Reddiar was a famous textile entrepreneur who pioneered the fabric industry in the State. After receiving high school and university education, Beena joined her father to help him run the family’s textile retailing business in 1980. She got married to her cousin and childhood friend Kannan in 1985. Kannan passed away in 2000 leaving behind his wife and three children. It was a very difficult time in Beena’s life which threw up many challenges for her to deal with. However, with boldness, conviction and self-determination she overcame the toughest phase in her life and rose to become one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in the State.