Giving Fashion A New Legacy

Up, Close and Personal with the gorgeous designer Beena Kannan of Seematti Silks.

The name Beena Kannan has today become synonymous with brand Seematti Silks across Kerala and the other Southern states of India. Speak to anyone who knows their silks and they can vouch for the fact that the brand, headed by its dynamic 56-year-old leader, not only produces some of the most exclusives drapes, they’re also one of the very few brands in the country to work tirelessly with craftsmen making the art of weaving sarees more futuristic and contemporary, while insistently maintaining traditionalism and culture. Beena Kannan is a force to reckon with in the business circles of Kerala. She has single-handedly propelled brand Seematti from being a one shop wonder to today being one of the most successful and sought after silk houses in Kerala, UAE and USA.

RITZ meets the high priestess of silks over a spectacular meal and traditional Malayalee hospitality at her beautiful home in Kochi.

One look at her trim frame, her energetic demeanour and charm, and you would mistake Beena Kannan for someone in her early 40s. Her penchant for style, her attitude and manner set her apart from many other Malayalee women who still chose to dress and behave in more traditional ways. Get to know her a little better and you realise that the 56-year-old proprietor and CEO of Seematti Silks is as traditional as they come, she’s just chosen to move with the time and embrace modernity in most aspects of her life and business, simply because its the need of the hour.

Beena Kannan (6)

The sarees designed by her are traditional beauties with a modern twist – Kancheepuram silks in non-traditional colours, borders with contemporary motifs, newer design elements in sarees, yet all the time working tirelessly to preserve the heritage of hand-woven silks and dying crafts. Beena is the perfect amalgamation of her principals and ideals. She dresses modernly, but chooses to remain a traditionalist at heart. She encourages change, but opts to champion older customs and practices when it comes to weaving. She embraces growth, but knows that it is wiser to spread her wings only as far as she can fly.

“The brand Seematti was started by my forefathers (who were from Andhra) way back in 1910. My father popularised the business in Kottayam, Kerala, and when I took over in 2000 I realised that there was no need for me to plan rapid expansion across the South. India is rich with culture and silk sarees are not a novelty here. I chose to concentrate my growth and expansion plans to countries where there was minimal silk brand presence, and give my home market something that they would never find in any other store. I think the strategy has worked well for us and today a visit to Seematti Silks when you’re in Kochi or Kottayam has become a must-do activity,” explains the elegant lady as she shows off a stunning blue and pink Kancheepuram saree, which she is dressed in.

Beena married one of her first cousins Kannan and the couple had three children. His untimely death about 15 years post their marriage was a shock for her, yet she opted to deal with the hand fate dealt her and three days post her husband’s death Beena was back working in the store. “People looked at me in a strange manner, I think they were mentally judging me. But work was my solace and being an only child to my father the onus of carrying on with the family business was on my shoulders and I wanted to give it everything I had,” says Beena as she recalls one of the most difficult times in her life.

From being predominantly a saree shop, Seematti transformed the fashion dynamics of Kerala by introducing a ready made section for salwar kameez suits and a men’s section that stocked readymade shirts and pants. “There was never any concept of readymade garments in Kerala and it took people a while to adjust to the mindset that they did not have to depend on a tailor for their clothes. They could walk into the store and buy off the shelf,” Beena tells us. Today, Seematti Silks is a fashion destination not only for exclusive sarees, but also for women’s western wear, men’s formal wear, party wear and children’s garments. “We have a showroom spread across several levels. You don’t need to look outside our store for your fashion needs,” says the dynamic businesswoman. The crowds that throng the store on any given day are testament to the brand’s success in their hometown.

Beena Kannan (4)

Seematti soon became a pioneer in everything related to fashion. “I realised that there was competition in the fashion industry and so I decided to start offering customers more. We constantly renovated our showrooms, there was a carpenter and painter on call 24X7 to take care of any changes I wanted made. We began fashion shows inside the store, just to keep customers engaged and involved in our collections, there are contests that we run for models and budding designers where we get lakhs and lakhs of applicants from all over the world wanting to participate. There is so much more to the Seematti brand than just being a store,” explains Beena.

Despite having grown in a market that has remained tight-fisted in tradition and all things simple and ordinary, Beena chose to experiment and educate the market. “In Kerala people are very traditional in the way they think and dress. A bride does not want to try out an Indo-Western cocktail gown for her wedding reception. Older women do not want to experiment with colours. But I firmly believe that when you give people change in small doses, they gradually begin to accept it. The market is now opening up to newer fashion ideas and concepts and the younger generation see novelty in being different. I can proudly say that I have played a huge part in bringing about this change in Kerala. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t respect tradition. In fact I’m steeped in it,” she says. Giving us an example of how she’s been wanting to get a tattoo done for the last year or so, Beena laughs at how she dragged her feet, giving herself numerous excuses each time the thought resurfaced. “Now I feel that tattoos have become extremely common – everyone’s sporting one – so I’ve convinced myself that I should drop the idea. It’s the same with the local market here. Unless they’re forced to sit up and notice change they would rather choose to ignore it,” she tells us with a laugh.

Her Fashion Legacy

“My father always ensured that I was exposed to fashion from an early age. When most Malayalee girls were wearing skirts and blouses, I was brought to Commercial Street in Bengaluru to shop for my clothes. I wore maxi dresses with tie-backs, palazzo pants and tops and other modern outfits. My mother used to watch movies and make her saree blouses according to what actresses wore on screen. We were probably the only Malayalees living in Kottayam who ate out of glass plates using cutlery. Even in those days my mother wore Kancheepuram contrast sarees and diamonds. This state did not understand diamonds in those days. It was always about gold for them. Living within a conservative society, my father ensured that we were more modern than the others around us.”

What Makes Her Tick

“Travel is something that I love – I have four additional passports – I have travelled all over the world. That’s not to say there is nothing left to see for me. I thrive on travel,

Beena Kannan (3)

I learn so much each time I go to a new place. For me travel is a perfect balance between relaxation and work because every new place sparks off a new idea in my head or a new design on my sketch pad.

I have learnt to maintain and respect my body seeing foreigners do so. I have three children and I wanted to remain trim and not look like the quintessential mom. Despite all the modernity, a deep sense of morality and culture have been ingrained in me, to a large extent by my father and then later by my husband.”

Her Design Mission

“Designing is my passion. I am a self-taught designer, and I realised that earning in the service industry was a hard task. One should not get carried away by the luxury you see around me. I’ve worked extremely hard to get where I am and it’s taken me several years to do so. I actively work in revolutionising the design sensibilities of weavers, especially with respect to silk sarees. I can openly say that a lot of the revolutionary work being done with Kanchipuram silks and design is today happening under my tutelage. I have channelised my energies towards keeping change a constant as far as designing sarees is concerned.”