At Thamarai, over 50 embroiderers design intricate works of art that are worn by global celebrities. We go behind the scenes with the women at the top.
Four years ago, a custom-made Shanghai Tang gown got a lot of attention. Inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s painting, The Great Wave, its intricate embroidery featured a silver-grey fitted bodice made up of lines of sequins that ended in a wave and a blue-and-silver skirt that seemed to be embellished with a scatter of sequins, but which were actually embroidered rosettes. What was most interesting was that the work, which took over 600 man-hours to complete, was done by a team of embroiderers led by Kiran AN (50), Sangeetha Saravanan (44), and Yogambika Manoj (33), the brains and ‘brawn’ behind Thamarai, the Chennai-based house of embroidery that is encouraging and sustaining the intricate art of hand embroidery. Since then, the trio have attracted the interest of some big names, including leather goods brand Hidesign and designers like Vivek Karunakaran and Anamika Khanna. An iconic European house of fashion and a famous shoe designer from the continent are also on their high-profile client list.
Today, the six-year-old company with a turnover of `2 crores a year, is expanding, entrenching their reputation in home décor—they are currently working on a range of customised cushion covers for Harrods—attracting upcoming designers in Europe and the Middle East, and growing their base by opening a second embroidery unit in Thiruvallur earlier this month. Curious to know more, I navigate a maze of labyrinthine streets in Guindy, where their airy unit takes up an entire first floor, well lit by tube lights and sunlight pouring in through large French windows. When I walk in, I’m struck by a sense of calm and coordination—men dressed in white are bent over fabrics stretched on wooden frames, Kiran is discussing patterns with one of the drawing artists, while Manoj and Saravanan have their heads together brainstorming an upcoming project (wall art for a home in Anna Nagar, where they are experimenting with mixed media). But the quiet is soon broken, with laughs and reminiscences, as the three founding partners take me through their journey.
Turns out, the trio met while working at Jean François Lesage’s Vastrakala, the city-based export house that boasts clients like Christian Louboutin, Lanvin and even European royalty. The heir to France’s illustrious House of Lesage (which was taken over by Chanel in 2012), had hired Kiran first, nearly 25 years ago. “He loved my earrings, which I’d made out of rudrakshas and wooden beads,” laughs the 50-year-old, who had completed her class 12 and was debating about further education in England, when a friend told her about the embroiderer. “There was no formal interview. I guess he sensed my love for design and that got me the job.” Saravanan, who was into hotel management, joined next. “A friend of mine worked with Lesage. She was quitting and asked if I would be interested. I didn’t know anything about it, but I love dressing up and colours, and I loved the job,” she says, telling me the Frenchman picked them based on their personalities.
Later, they interviewed and hired Manoj, who had just graduated in fashion designing from Bishop Appasamy College of Arts in Coimbatore. “We were all in production and it was a really good learning experience,” Manoj says, adding, “Lesage trusted us and gave us free rein. The art of embroidery is so diversified, and this helped us learn so many things. We also had the privilege of leafing through his father’s archives and creating from it.” While work-wise it was all “stunningly beautiful”, as the years passed, the pressure that went with the job soon began to overtake the pleasure, and Kiran admits she was not happy with the balance. She began thinking about starting something, and one day, in 2010, it just clicked. “Yoga walked over to my desk and said ‘maybe we should just start’ and I said ‘let’s do it’. I even had the name ready, Thamarai,” she shares, adding that Lesage is still a close friend. In fact, he sends clients their way even today, which no doubt continues to cement their reputation in the international market.
As they put it, all three “come in different sizes, ages, languages (Kiran is Tamil, while Saravanan is a Malayali and Manoj, a Telugu), and interests”. This means three different perspectives at work that usually meld well—something that people they’ve collaborated with, agree to. “They have the advantage of being like-minded people who can take decisions and interact with clients depending on their strengths. There is a nice division of labour, too, which helps them function smoothly without anything coming to a halt,” says Vivek Karunakaran, who has teamed up with the entrepreneurs several times, for couture and art installations.
Meanwhile, at the unit, I find that something work-related has caught their attention, so I wander among the embroiderers who are working in silence. While one is bent over intricate gold work on a panel that will soon form a collection of kaftans by Moroccan designer, Houda Berrada, another is hard at work at threadwork and cutwork on leather, which will be crafted into clutches. A third painstakingly sews beads on ornately-embroidered motifs in gold, silver and blue—that combine European and Indian sensibilities—which I’m told is for a French designer. I remark on the unhurried rhythm, and Saravanan smiles that it isn’t always so. “There are days when the materials come in from Morocco or Russia (where they work with a designer named Alina German) in the morning and have to be returned by evening flight. There have even been times when we have run around looking for people travelling out!” The men, most of whom hail from Thiruvallur, specialise in aari, but are equally adept at beading, moulding (3D embroidery), cutwork, appliqué, and more. After all, embroidery is a language that ‘each state and country speaks with different designs, but the same alphabets’.
The road ahead
Kiran who handles design and quality, travels often, especially to Paris, because “we have to be familiar with what is there so we can produce the same quality here”. Even her holidays have become a means to feed her creativity. “Last month I went to the UK and, in London, I visited the Tate Modern and the V&A. Wherever I go, I make it a point to see art exhibitions, historical monuments and the like, and absorb as much as possible because anything can spur you to think in terms of design,” she says. This passion led them to open their Thiruvallur unit, where they employ 35 embroiderers, 15 of whom are women. “Most people there are third or fourth generation embroiderers, but hardly any are passionate about taking the craft forward. They don’t want to initiate their children into it either, as they feel it won’t give them a good living. We want to uplift them; we talk to them about the value of their craft, and offer them fair wages and job security,” she shares. They also keep morale high by sharing photos of the finished products. “It gives them joy to see their embroidery being worn by stunning celebrities (singer Beyoncé was spotted in a pair of jeans from Preciously Paris that bore Thamarai embroidery). They get inspired.”
Till now, much of their work have come to them thanks to word of mouth. But now, Thamarai is getting aggressive. The partners have set aside a budget for marketing and expanding to new markets. Moving forward, they also want to experiment more, possibly even launch a line of finished products. “We’d tested the market a year ago, with a line of fashion accessories under the name Audrey, which included jewellery and bags. But with the kind of detailing we do and the quality we maintain, the end product becomes expensive. So we are trying to work the kinks out,” says Kiran, adding that they are also planning to participate in an upcoming art exhibition in London, as ‘embroidery as art’ is a trend that is picking up.
Talk of the town
The trio pick their favourite projects
Design Hotel: “For the boutique hotel at Phoenix MarketCity, Chennai, we did three lobbies. In one, we used digital printouts of Bharatnatyam mudras, on which we embroidered just the bangles using real kemp stones and gold soft wire. Another lobby had dancing feet, where we embroidered the anklets using real bells,” shares Kiran, adding, “The final one is contemporary, inspired by American abstract-expressionist artist, Barnett Newman, where we painted a huge blue canvas with two vertical stripes, and on it, embroidered ghungroos.”
Hamsa: “We teamed up with Vivek Karunakaran for this. We did a nine-metre wall panel for a Chennai restaurant, where we represented the mythical bird flying through the five elements of nature, using different mediums—from hand painting, printing, highlighting and embroidery,” says Manoj. “It took us one-and-a-half years to execute, and we used a lot of textures (with appliqué and fabrics) and at least 10-15 embroidery techniques, including zari, load stitch with moulding, katcha tanka (long and short stitch) and chain stitch, along with crystal and bead work.”
Miot Hospital: “Chairperson Mallika Mohandas wanted a seven-metre wall panel at the hospital. We studied the space, the lighting and the colours, and after she gave us a tour of her private garden there—where she pointed out her favourite flower combinations—we designed a ‘Tree of Life’. It took over 1,400 hours of embroidery, but it looks magnificent on the wall,” states Saravanan.
By Surya Praphulla Kumar