Weaving Magic using Shades of Kerala, Heritage Symbols

Thrissur: Seamstress (www.seamstress.co.in) which stands out on the boutique map of Thrissur was set up by Vimala Viswambharan and Rasmi Poduval in 2011, drawing inspiration from the unconventional and charismatic design philosophy which they shared. Edgy and vibrant, their collection is a contemporary take on art and history.  While Vimala came with a 30-year experience in bespoke tailoring, Rasmi, an IIM Bengaluru graduate, brought in her management expertise gathered from stints at Coca-Cola and Saregama.Located in a 100-year-old building at the ‘cultural capital’ of Kerala, Seamstress works with weavers from as far as Chendamangalam and Wayanad to Mangalgiri, Pochampally and Bikaner, and block printers from Barmer, Pipar and Kutch. The watershed was in 2014, when they started the ‘Kaithari’ project in which they worked closely with handloom weavers from Kerala. They experimented with the age-old weaving techniques of Kerala, by retaining their essence but infusing the fabric with colour and a play of textures to create a vibrant line of garments.

Excerpts from the Interview

How was Seamstress born?

We started Seamstress in 2011 with the intention of combining Vimala’s expertise in tailoring and our love for handloom and hand-blocked textiles from all over the country. We worked with Ikat weavers, Ajrakh block printers, Bandhni dyers and handloom weavers from all over India. Somewhere along the line, we realised that we had never worked with Kerala handloom or ‘Kaithari’ as it is called in Malayalam. A chance visit to a weaving co-operative in Chendamangalam made us realise that there is far more to Kerala weaving than Kerala ‘kodi’. Here was an untapped wealth of weaving techniques honed over centuries of weaving influences – the royals, the Portugese and the British, which was dying due to neglect.

Our association is slowly expanding, covering all major weaving hubs in Kerala – Kannur, Chendamangalam and Thrissur in phase I of the project, and in phase II we will be partnering with weavers’ consortiums in Neyyatinkara, Kasargod and Wayanad.

Would you call Seamstress a brand or a boutique?

At Seamstress, we like to believe that we tell stories through our clothes. We conceptualise, design, cut and tailor our clothing at our in-house store. We have an exclusive label right from our inception. So, by that definition we are a brand. We sell online and offline. The store has been up since the past five years and the online store since two years. Volume wise, they seem to complement each other in that many of our customers who purchase online have come to visit us at the retail store or at exhibitions and many of the store customers buy online as they know their size already.

What changes have you observed in taste of customers and sales volume after you started selling online?

Seamstress has a certain aesthetics, and our clothes and the people who wear them reflect those – classic, elegant, minimal, textile-oriented, revivalist, history lovers… By being online, we are only widening our reach. Both the ‘Kaithari’ and ‘Theyyam’ projects have been much appreciated by customers, Indian and foreign alike. The bulk of the clientele is still Indian and the major change has been customer education. While at the store the preference is for kurtas and classic silhouettes, the online store customers seem to prefer dresses and jackets. The much liked one across all channels is sarees and blouses.

Tell us about your design sensibilities and price points?

Designing for us starts from the fabric always – the mood the fabric evokes is translated into the garment. For the ‘Kaithari’ project we have drawn inspiration from the land itself and used Blood Red, Peachy Pink, Parrot Green and Inky Blue shades. We owe much thanks to the dyeing ‘maashu’ (masters) of the weaving co-operatives who patiently dyed samples for us till we hit the right shade.

As for the price, it is between Rs. 1000-5000.

What is the personality of your brand?

For design inspiration, we look to the cultural heritage of the land. For instance, we have been working with a few leading ‘Theyyam’ artists to translate a unique appliquéing, that they do on their ceremonial robes, onto our textiles for the ‘Theyyam’ project. In this collection we have a range of vibrant sarees and blouses drawing inspiration from everyday Kerala – like the lungi sarees. We are working next on a range of garments based on the lungi.

Is the customer in Kerala still very price conscious?

We see ourselves as a textile revivalist label, translating history onto textile. The customer in Kerala is more value conscious than price conscious. Both the ‘Kaithari’ and ‘Theyyam’ projects have been very warmly received by Malayalis. It could be nostalgia, pride in your heritage, vibrant colours in an age-old textile or a bit of everything. We definitely see more and more people liking the kind of work we do.

Has the boutique concept been tweaked to adapt to the modern environs or is it a natural evolution?

The boutique culture in Kerala was actually bespoke tailoring houses run by enterprising women.  Seamstress is the next step from one such tailoring house. Vimala started with a tailoring unit in Kochi called Ideal Cholis, went on to have units in Udupi, Mangalore and Thiruvananthapuram, before finally settling in Thrissur. We pride ourselves in our cut, fit and finish which came from years of tailoring experience Vimala carried forward to Seamstress.

What is the future of boutiques in Kerala according to you?

There is definitely a market for well-designed and well-tailored clothing. Though there seem to be a large number of boutiques now, ultimately the wheat will get separated from the chaff. Handloom weaving in Kerala is a dying traditional craft form, but there are not many young designers working in this field. While these boutiques may have started out as being ‘acceptable’ jobs for women, they have evolved much further from there and emerged as strong brands worthy of recognition.