‘Redefining Style Mantras’ With Shalini James !

Shalini James Talks Of Mantra and Her Journey Into The World Of Fashion! 

A fashionista who treasures the rich textile heritage and ethnic weaves of India, who followed her passion, exploring and fearlessly moulding traditions into contemporary styles – Shalini James is making waves in fashion. Her brand ‘Mantra’ and her line ‘Indian by Choice’ have been very successful, and she even has the distinction of being the first and the only Keralite designer to participate in the Amazon India Fashion Week. RITZ gets a into conversation with the lady herself as she ventures into new horizons!   

Interview: Riya Sonny Datson

Tell us about your first steps into the world of fashion…

I’d grown up amidst textiles and craft – my mother had a textile and apparel business and I used to potter around at her factory. When I was 12, my mother started a design studio at home.  The garage became a makeshift embroidery unit and the house had textiles coming out of its ears. All of us were constantly bumping into rolls of fabrics or stepping over packets of sequins. There was no escaping the onslaught of this influence. I could tell a Mangalgiri from a Venkatgiri even before I learnt my 12 times tables.

“My work has always been a potpourri of all things Indian – textiles, craft, silhouettes etc. I see myself as a sort of raconteur, picking up cultural vignettes or stories from the past that I translate into the medium of fashion.”

The design unit soon grew out of our home into a much larger, organised set-up of about 60 karigars – embroidery artisans, tailors and patternmakers. When I was 16, during a school-break, my mother offered me a job – a proper job with a salary and all that. I spent my weekends and my vacations at the unit.  We were creating ethnic wear – saris and salwar-kurta ensembles. There was a lot of fine aari and zardozi embroidery, block prints and handloom weaves.  I used to sketch embroidery designs, tweak patterns, match trims and before I realised it, I was neck-deep in the art of designing clothes. By the time I joined NIFT, I was armed with a working knowledge of the industry. Before NIFT, I’d graduated in English Literature. Business studies came much later, after I was firmly entrenched in the business of fashion.

How did ‘Mantra’ happen?

I had a two year old in hand when I started the label, Mantra in Kochi in early 2003. The preceding years had been uneventful, career-wise, and I was raring to go. While I was studying at NIFT (1995-98), I’d set up a small unit of tailors and embroidery artisans and managed it in my spare time. Due to time constraints, I had to have a business model that didn’t have much to do with meeting clients on a regular basis. The concept of ready-to-wear garments appealed to me. Even though I’d started developing it then, it was much later in Kochi, after many rounds of research, trial and error, that I formulated a working model of a pret line in ethnic wear. It was new to Kerala. Bringing six point sizing, impeccable quality, seasonal style changes and consistently great fits together in one package was a big challenge, but over the years we perfected the formula.

What is the USP of the brand ‘Mantra’?

My work has always been a potpourri of all things Indian – textiles, craft, silhouettes etc. I see myself as a sort of raconteur, picking up cultural vignettes or stories from the past that I translate into the medium of fashion.  I did a series of three collections titled, ‘Indian by choice’, in 2014, it was a line of clothing inspired by the civil disobedience movement. For SS 15 (Spring Summer 2015), it was a collage of textiles – ikat, kalamkari, mashru, bagru and other textile crafts. For SS 16 which was showcased at the Amazon India Fashion Week in New Delhi, ‘Indian by choice’ was a riot of Indian colours in protest against western imperialism in colour names. Textile crafts of one region were juxtaposed with those of another- bagru with kalamkari, pochampalli with mangalgiri   – to create a visually intense collage. This was followed by a collection called ‘Song of the South’, inspired by the cotton textiles of Tamilnadu-kandaangi saris of Chettinad and chungidi saris of Madurai. I like to focus on relatively unknown textiles which have not been picked up in earnest by the fashion industry. I enjoy taking up crafts that are commonplace and elevating their status with a unique design interpretation. This season, for SS’17, I worked with the cotton textiles of Varanasi for ‘Jahanara’.

Who is the typical ‘Mantra’ woman?

Our customer is the smart modern woman who shops to satisfy her Indian ethos but wants style and convenience in the same package. She could be 16 or 60. She could be a globe trotter or a homemaker. Whatever her choices are, she speaks her mind and wears her mantra on her sleeve.

Price points at mantra…

Our price range for the ‘Mantra’ label starts from Rs. 2000 and moves on to Rs. 15000. But, the bulk of our merchandise is in the range of Rs. 2000-6000. The ‘Shalini James’ label retails between Rs. 15000 and Rs. 50000.

How difficult has it been to get Bollywood or mainstream South Indian stars to wear your designs?

The movement upstream in the film industry in the South and in Bollywood happened quite organically. Stars have been frequenting the Mantra store to pick up casual wear for the onscreen and off screen wardrobe. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was styling them for events. AIFW opened up options in Bollywood. After my shows, stylists from Mumbai and Delhi got in touch with me to source garments for their celebrity clients.

Your list of celebrity clientele includes Sonam Kapoor, Rima Kallingal, Raveena Tandon and Ambika Pillai to name a few, How has the experience of working with/dressing up celebrities been?

Having worked in the fashion industry for over 13 years, I have had the opportunity of working with many talented, bright stars of the film industry. Rima Kallingal, exceptionally talented actor and dancer who brings her unique style quotient to anything she wears, is a dear friend and has been a delight to work with. We have worked together on several interesting projects, one of them being especially close to my heart- designing costumes for her dance school, Mamangam. Ambika Pillai, the beauty and fashion magnate who brought her expertise to Kerala recently, is also a dear friend. She was instrumental in getting me to spread my wings outside Kerala. I would have been content in my space if it hadn’t been for her well-timed push in the right direction. AIFW opened the window to celebrity styling in Bollywood and it has been an exciting journey since then.

“The best experience of them all was having Ambika Pillai walk for me as my showstopper. It was her way of holding my hand as I took baby steps into her world.”

Your experience at the Amazon India Fashion Week as the first and only Keralite designer participating at the show…

Being the first designer from Kerala to participate in the AIFW was a great experience. At a platform like AIFW, designers, buyers, fashion media and everyone associated with the industry come together under one umbrella to promote the growth of Indian fashion. The boost given to the participating designers is incredible, in terms of opportunities as well as exposure.

Any interesting incidents during your fashion week experiences?

 The best experience of them all was having Ambika Pillai walk for me as my showstopper. It was her way of holding my hand as I took baby steps into her world. I was so touched by the gesture.

Your Inspiration…

History, culture, people, art, nature…inspiration has no finite boundaries. A designer’s output is directly proportional to the time and effort spent in nurturing and organising her mind. It can be compared to a well-maintained library of images that brings forth the right picture without having to hunt for it. It can be like a well-watered garden of ideas where young shoots grow unhindered because the gardener has been diligent in pulling out the weeds.

What’s next?

The label, ‘Mantra’ grew out of a living room in a suburban house in Kochi to have stores in all the leading malls in the city and an online store. We also opened a new branch in Hi Lite mall, Calicut recently.  This year I hope to tap the online market further. The label, ‘Shalini James’ was launched in 2012. As compared to Mantra, this was a line of occasion wear and was showcased twice at the AIFW. This has opened up a slew of retail options which are being pursued outside Kerala.

Rapid Fire

  • My Favourite Attire: Sari
  • I love: Family time
  • My hobbies:  Classical Dance, Yoga, Reading
  • My Style Mantra: Less is more.