Sheila James: The Matriarch of Kerala’s Fashion Boutique Industry

Thiruvananthapuram: The first time I walked into the office of Sheila James in Thiruvananthapuram was almost a year ago – a small room adjacent to Czarina Designer Wear Boutique. On one side is a shelf full of framed photographs of her family. The portrait of Baby John, her father who was one of the tallest leaders of Kerala politics, which Sheila herself did, stands apart. A modern art by noted painter B D Dethan, Sheila’s guru, hangs on the wall behind her.

I had gone to invite her as a singer for the second edition of Destination Kerala’s CEOs Croon for Kerala Kids (CCKK) event to be held in Thiruvananthapuram. She returned a quizzical look. “No! I am not a singer. Not even a bathroom singer. Please excuse me. I am happy to attend the event,” she said. I explained to her the idea of CCKK, which is the publication’s innovative networking event with a unique CSR angle to it. “Ok, then let me think about it,” the reply was slightly encouraging as if she had second thoughts.

A few weeks later, when I met her again, I was amazed. In one corner of her table, I saw a music system with two microphones. “I am singing Manathe Maari Kurumbe… from the film Pulimurugan at CCKK. I have already started practicing the song. A music teacher visits in the evening to assist me,” she said. The story did not end there. Sheila sang fairly well at CCKK. A week after the event, I got a call from her. “I am planning to constitute a music club with like-minded people. Please help me inform this to those who sang at CCKK. You should also join,” she said. Subsequently, Trivandrum Music Club was born. With around 40 members, it has been organising a monthly musical evening since March 2017. No wonder that she has attained ‘cult’ status in her chosen field. That is the amount of throbbing energy and positivity I found in her.

‘‘Earlier, we used to shop during our vacation trips to Bengaluru or Chennai. That habit changed when Sheila opened Bodytunes in Thiruvananthapuram. We started getting designs and fabrics that suit our tastes. Till now, there is no change in this. Sheila will inform us whenever there is a new collection and we will get products much to our satisfaction. Recently, I purchased all saris for my granddaughter’s wedding from Czarina only. When Bodytunes was started, I used to go there for buying salwars with hand embroidery work. Those days such designs were not available in Thiruvananthapuram. We always get the best stuff from fashion hubs across the country at Czarina.’’
– Vasanthi Nair and Malini Hemachandran

Yes, Sheila James is dedication-personified. It is this passion and determination that have made her the matriarch of Kerala’s fashion boutique industry. What she began as a hobby in 1986 has now become the synonym of designer wear for Malayali women. From a designer supplying saris to various boutiques, Sheila has evolved over the years into a high-end boutique owner managing Czarina Designer Sari Boutique, Czarina Designer Wear Boutique, Czarina Royale featuring traditional Kanchipuram silk wedding saris, Czarina Cotton Studio and Bodytunes.

Right from her childhood, Sheila developed a passion for fashion. She used to sketch designs and try those on blouses during her college days. “I always wanted to dress somewhat differently. Churidars were not common in Kerala those days and sari was my attire in college. Back then, there was a tailoring shop named Metro at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram. I used to sit with the tailor and try different designs while stitching my blouses. Later, when churidars became popular, I again went for different designs to give an exclusive touch to my wardrobe.’’

Even after her marriage, Sheila continued with her fashion experiments. “While in Chennai in 1986, when all my three kids started going to school, I found more free time all of a sudden. Once I got a churidar stitched with a local tailor using one of the designs in my collection. At that time actress Sarada ran a boutique, Panjali, at Anna Nagar in Chennai. I was one among the customers. The boutique was managed by another woman to whom I showed the churidar. She was pretty impressed and asked me to keep it in the boutique for sale. It was sold in no time and she encouraged me to do more,” Sheila goes down memory lane.

Very soon the garage of Sheila’s home in Chennai turned into a tailoring unit. Besides tailors, she also arranged people who could do embroidery works as well. “In the beginning, I was supplying only to Panjali. Later, when I set up a full-fledged production unit, I started supplying products to other boutiques as well. At the same time, I began conducting exhibitions at various locations in Chennai. Then I organised one in Ernakulam followed by another in Thiruvananthapuram. I found that majority of my customers were Malayalis and hence, in 1988, I set up ‘Bodytunes’, a boutique, at Sasthamangalam in Thiruvananthapuram. It was actor Mammootty who inaugurated the showroom and it soon turned out to be a big hit. To my knowledge, there were hardly any designer wear boutiques in Kerala then. Of course, we had popular retail textile shops in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. But those who loved to dress differently had very few options. They used to shop whenever they went to Chennai or Bengaluru or Mumbai. When they got an opportunity to buy designer wears at their doorstep, they utilised it and supported us. The dresses were brought from our Chennai facility,” she says.

In 1990, Sheila and family shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. “It was a tough time for me as things got unsettled. I thought I would have to discontinue the work. The only option left was to take the tailors along with me. Fortunately, 10 of them had agreed to accompany me to Thiruvananthapuram. That was the turning point in my entrepreneurial career. I set up a small production unit, Silverline, close to my home at PTP Nagar with accommodation facilities for tailors. We completely stopped supplying to other outlets and began selling saris and churidars bearing hand embroidery works done by me through Bodytunes. This also became popular. People were hardly aware of such pattern of work at that time. Besides Bodytunes, customers started coming straight to Silverline to design wedding saris and also to watch how the embroidery work was being done,” she says.

With the business fast picking up, Sheila had to expand her facilities and keep pace with changing trends. Her frequent travels across the country for procuring fabrics made Sheila realise that a lot of innovations are happening on the weaving and tailoring fronts. “I found several new designs, which I was sure would impress my customers. Thus I decided to expand my business and Czarina was born in 2000.’’

Foreseeing the major transformation happening in the textile industry, Sheila decided to tweak her strategy. Instead of stitching dress materials and doing embroidery works locally, she engaged traditional and expert workers across various locations in the country to work for her. “I ran Silverline successfully for 10 years. But I realised that running the unit locally would not be a right decision anymore due to various reasons. Firstly, workers here hardly get any opportunity to stay updated. Secondly, there emerged a situation wherein I had to shift my workshop to a rented facility. As Czarina became more popular, I had to spend more time in the showroom as well. Gradually, I scaled down that activity and began engaging workers at different locations,” she says.

Today, Sheila has people working exclusively for Czarina in Chennai, Kolkata, Varanasi, New Delhi and Kanchipuram. “We associate with reputed and award-winning weavers in these places. Most of these craftsmen are so image conscious that they do a background check before entering into a contract with any new boutique,” she adds.

According to her, as far as textile industry infrastructure is concerned, there are many limitations in Kerala. “We do not have full-fledged printing units, tailoring centres or dying units here. The scenario is no different in terms of availability of fabrics also. Given the situation, we can only run the business smoothly as long as we are able to travel. Since I enjoy travelling, it is not a challenge for me. Moreover, decades of association with all these weavers and fabric vendors makes my travel and procurement of products very comfortable. However, for a beginner, this may prove a major handicap,” she says.

Don’t you feel that you should have maintained a boutique in Chennai? “The most important aspect of this business is your hands-on presence. Personal attention given to customers is the key. I could have continued my business in Chennai. But in my view, we should not continue a boutique for the only reason that we did not like to close it. You can easily arrange different sets of the same product for sale in all your branches. But you cannot interact with the customer. We still have customers who prefer not to buy when I am not present at the store. It is not just about physical presence but something more than that. When I am with them and suggest a design or fabric, they feel more comfortable and confident. That is why I have customers not only from Kerala but from other states and even abroad as well.”

Is that more a management issue? “No, it is not. I have tried professionals to manage the business. But this is a field which requires a personal touch very much and no one can replace the passion and commitment of a person who puts his or her soul into creating the products. You cannot expect someone to always think like you do. If you have a brand, it is a different ball game. You can supply your products to multi-brand outlets and run the business,” Sheila says.

Czarina conducts eight to 10 shopping festivals every year. In December and January, it presents month-long Christmas and New Year collections respectively. It will have a brief Valentine’s Day festival in February followed by Kota Utsav, a mega festival in March. There will be a White collection on account of Easter. Prior to Onam, the biggest shopping season, Czarina celebrates an almost two-month-long NRI festival. After Onam, it does Mix ‘N’ Match eying youngsters followed by Tussar Trove in November. “Along with this, we always maintain a good collection of wedding saris. Usually, we start working for every shopping season at least six months in advance and I plan my travel schedule accordingly,” she says.

STAYING UPDATED, STAYING EXCLUSIVE

For every season, Sheila brings out thousands of saris but exclusivity in design is her USP. “Exclusivity is the flavour of the season. We will not have more than one piece of the same design. To ensure this, we associate with a large number of textile units. We have an understanding with them that they also will not supply the same design to other fashion houses. But there have been instances where some of the units have violated this. For them, manufacturing more quantity of the same design gives higher profit,’’ she informs.

Yet another peculiarity of Czarina is that Sheila only uses pure handlooms – be it cotton or silk. For the last three decades, she has been procuring handloom fabrics from weavers all over the country. ‘‘I procure handlooms from Kerala mainly during Onam. This fabric would then be sent to Kolkata or Delhi for different types of block printing so that I can showcase designer Kerala saris during the festival season.’’

“Years ago,’’ Sheila says, “people wanted to imitate what celebrities did.“We then mainly got enquiries about designs saying that so and so had worn that outfit in a particular movie or at a function. Now people think that they should be the only person wearing an outfit that they have purchased. That is a big change. Then, of course, a lot of people started preferring designer wears. There is increased awareness among women about how important attire is in enhancing their personality. How can we present the best of ourselves with good attire? Surely, women are paying more attention to dressing now. They have developed a sense of choosing dresses which suit an occasion. I think social media has played a major role in this. We have 2.17 lakh followers on Facebook. Almost all of them are genuine customers,” she says.

‘‘Sheila’s Bodytunes literally changed the shopping culture of women, especially in Thiruvananthapuram. Till then nobody knew about custom-made saris or salwars. First, my grandmother became a regular customer of Bodytunes. Later, my mother and I followed suit. She has the unique ability to come up with exquisite collections every season with excellent colour combinations. For this Christmas season, she is presenting Kanchipuram silk saris with three colour combinations. The quality of products apart, I feel very comfortable shopping at Czarina. Sheila is always there giving us suggestions. She will honestly tell me whether a particular product suits me or not.’’
– Suman Nair, MD, Krishnan Nair and Sons

According to Sheila, staying updated is crucial as there are customers who seek designs based on global trends. “If a particular colour is in vogue in the US this season, I should know it and be ready with products for my customers from that country. We have to keep on offering new products to our customers that should be convincing for them, too. Otherwise, you cannot retain your customers. The interaction with weavers and tailors during my travels across the country helps me stay updated on fashion,’’she adds.

Sheila feels fashion trends follow a cyclical path. One trend may disappear suddenly and reappear after some time. “The ‘Anarkali’ churidar that has become a fad now was in vogue when I started the business. There is another churidar variety called Dhoti Salwar, which made fashion ripples in the 1980s. It resembles a traditional North Indian dhoti. It has now become a trend again among the fashionistas. Similarly, we can cite several examples in saris as well. Earlier, I used to sell saris in raw silk with hand embroidery work. Of late, I am getting enquiries about such designer saris. The same is the case with designer blouses, half saris and the like,’’ says Sheila, for whom the favourite attire is handloom sari, be it cotton or silk. “I love block print work but am not much interested in flashy designs,’’ she reveals her personal preference.

“Recently, at a function I saw a sari with hand embroidery work that was designed 30 years ago. It still looks like a brand new piece. That is how our customers use it. Another customer recently came to me requesting to recreate all the designs that she wore during her college days. That is the quality of handwork. It never loses charm. Really timeless!’’ Sheila says.

The unending list of celebrity clients is a testimony to the brand value they attach to Czarina’s designer wear. “Of course, there are a number of them. I still remember different kinds of designs made for renowned playback singer K S Chitra. She has a unique style of covering her body with duppatta. So, we used to do bold designs on the bottom half that suits her while doing stage performances,’’ she narrates one celebrity experience.

Czarina has products ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 60,000. It sells saris, salwar sets, kurtis, duppattas and running fabrics catering to the taste of women of different age groups. “What we lack is Western wear collections and it is a deliberate decision. My focus has always been on Indian wear,” she clarifies. For Sheila, Czarina Sari Boutique is the major source of revenue. ‘‘For obvious reasons, I am not divulging the turnover. But as a boutique, Czarina is doing pretty well with a decent growth rate. I have never kept targets based on the number of saris or dress materials to be sold. I have always wanted to ensure that there is at least a slight increase in the sales turnover compared to the previous season,’’ she says.

But despite being a stellar presence in Kerala’s vibrant fashion scene, Sheila is not very keen on expanding her business to new markets. “I have never wanted to scale up the business in a massive way and kill the pleasure that I am getting out of it today. I strongly feel that we have to maintain the element of enjoyment in what we are doing. Many of my well-wishers, in fact, have pointed out the immense scope for expansion. Of course, people say this as they are only looking at it from the business angle. Even many financial institutions have come forward offering credit to expand the business. Given my contacts in the textile industry, it is not very difficult to open new shops wherever I want. Originally, as I have already mentioned, I started doing this to engage my free time, doing what I love to do. I have never compromised on that aspect till now. Using whatever profit I have made, I gradually expanded the business. The growth has been purely organic. I have never borrowed money for business nor taken a loan from any financial institution,’’ she explains.

Of late, Sheila has been contemplating to shift the business to a fully owned premises in the capital city. “But I am not in a hurry. The present space is very convenient, right in the heart of the city and with ample parking facilities. However, the idea is to bring together all showrooms which remain scattered now into a single unit.’’

Within a month, Sheila will launch an exclusive e-commerce portal for Czarina, but according to her, the online model is against the very spirit of her existing concept. “That is why I have been delaying it till recently. Since we began, we have been proclaiming exclusivity. You cannot have more than one piece of a particular design. But online business is totally different. We should keep at least 100 saris of the same design. Then only we can cater to the demands of our customers all over the world. Now, my decision is to run the online store maintaining the exclusivity factor. The true potential of online retail cannot be utilised here. It may also disappoint a lot of my customers. But if I compromise on the exclusivity factor, online retail has the potential to increase my revenue by hundred per cent.’’

Though born in a political family, Sheila never had any genuine interest in entering politics. It was her brother, Shibu Baby John, who carried forward the legacy of their father. “But, I keenly follow political developments. I got married while I was pursuing my graduation and I had to stay outside Kerala for many years since my husband was a civil servant. But since my return to Kerala in 1990, I have been fully involved in my work. Some of my relatives and friends have suggested to me about trying my luck in politics but I was not interested then or now. I only want to spend time doing what I love – creating designs, interacting with my customers, singing songs and the like…” she chuckles.

Sheila says that the goodwill of her father had helped her business to a certain extent in the initial days. Baby John had a sea food business, which he started in the late 1960s at Neendakara near Kollam. “Perhaps, I may have got the spark of entrepreneurship from him. Moreover, throughout my life I have seen my father making things happen. He never had two minds and was highly optimistic. If you decide to do something, make it happen. That was his policy. He also immensely supported my brothers whenever they came up with new business ideas. Right from my childhood, I have been closely watching this. That helped me to ward off negative thoughts,’’ says Sheila, affirming that she never faced any difficulties as a woman entrepreneur.

“But entrepreneurship always has its challenges, no matter be it a man or woman. My only advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is that they should be passionate about what they are doing. Then only they will succeed. I believe honesty, commitment to quality and financial integrity are what helped me succeed as a business woman,’’ she says.

Is it not the right time to think about succession planning? “To be frank, I do not have a plan right now. Let me continue as long as I can. I believe one of my children will step in when a situation arises. As a kid, Shalini, my elder daughter, used to come to the production unit. She is talented in drawing. After her graduation, she decided to take up fashion designing as her career. Unlike me, Shalini’s passion was more towards designing outfits. Being a designer, she also wanted to create a label of her own (A leading fashion designer, Shalini runs Shalini James’ Mantra, a designer clothing store). My son Tarun is working as an engineer in Dubai. The younger daughter, Reshmi, is in the US. She is the one who is overseeing the setting up of the online store. I have told them that whoever is interested should come and spend time in the shop and interact with my customers. Then only we can ensure a smooth transition,” she opines.

More than money, for Sheila the whole journey and the creative role associated with it makes her happy. “Seeing somebody wearing your creations, especially wedding saris, and someone else appreciating the work, gives me a sense of fulfillment,’’ Sheila signs off.