In Label Mana’s back room, there are bags and bags of colourful scraps of fabric, sorted by colour and texture. These are Meyammai’s treasures, sourced from shops and factories across town, as well as beautiful bits of her mother’s and grandmother’s clothes, particularly their sarees. These pieces inevitably make their way into some of her creations – into skirts, kurtas and dresses, sometimes even baby clothes, either stitched into the sides or used as material for the outfit entirely.
She recently completed an Indo-Western fusion blazer for singer Niranjana’s concert. Upon Niranjana’s expedited request, Mey (as she is fondly known as) customised the dress in her preferred colour palette in four days. Aside from western casual wear, Mey also designs fusion formals, dresses, trendy ethnic wear, wedding gowns, and much more. She often takes design inspiration from history and architecture and admits to being fond of necklines in the shape of minarets. One of her guiding principles is to create designs that clients are comfortable in, while adding her touch of uniqueness to it, with their consent.
2018 was the year that Meyammai says was the beginning of her future. It was the year she made the decision to follow her passion and start her own venture- a custom clothing label called Mana. The journey to get to the point where she made that decision was full of twists and turns. For a start, Mey, had no professional background in fashion design. Having previously studied tourism and human resources in college, she knew right from the beginning, that a typical nine-to-five job would not be the one for her.
In her heart, design had always been her first love. She recalls countless days spent at home where she would refashion her own clothing to wear to college. After college, while she was working part-time with an NGO, she made the happy decision to take up design full-time.
“I then enrolled in a six-month course and learnt the techniques and experimented on my own. I got my portfolio done and wanted to work somewhere for a solid year and a half before I started my own firm,” she says.
Her big break came in through her friend, who requested Mey’s help with the perfect ensemble to wear for her reception. Initially, Mey thought she had been requested to help select the dress – “I had no idea that she intended for me to make the whole thing from scratch—I didn’t have a unit or anything! Just a tiny table top sewing machine,” she laughs.
Her friend requested a lehenga, as no one in her family had ever worn one. One of Mey’s friends had a design unit, and her tailor was looking for additional work. With his help, Mey began to make the dress. During the designing process, she received requests from the rest of the wedding party for their outfits as well.
“At first, I thought the dress was only for her— then I ended up making outfits for three of her nieces, then her aunts… totally, it would have been about twenty outfits, without any unit!”
She used the tiny sewing machine she’d depended on for her class assignments to make samples for her first bride and thus started the journey. When she was thinking of setting the place up, she rented out a space in her grandfather’s house and had it refurbished to suit a design unit. They started with one table, two machines, and a trial room. “Just like any growing design studio, we were faced with operational troubles, but the Master who now heads the stitching has been of great help, and it’s been wonderful since then,” she laughs.
Several of Mey’s creations also use fabric given to her by her customers, perhaps in their request to make something new out of an existing garment of theirs. If clients bring their own fabric and want to make something out of it, together they discuss the kind of garment, and occasions for it to be worn. Based on the client’s’ preference and their willingness to experiment and yet, remain comfortable in their skin, they then sketch a design and work from there.
Mey recalls one of her recent clients, who wanted kurtas she could wear to the office. Mey searched for what would complement her fabric and curated the best materials from her in-house collection of scrap fabrics. This gave an entirely new dimension to the outfits.
Today, Label Mana is expanding rapidly, and has spent 2019 establishing themselves and are gearing up for their second major exhibition this year amidst a lot of niche collaborative projects. Mey hopes to take her homespun creations across the world. We conclude by asking her—what are some of the favourite projects she has worked on?
The 120-year-old saree
There was one client who had a beloved beautiful checked saree which had been passed on from her great-grandmother. It was 120 years old, with subtle gold motifs. Her grandmother decided to make pattu pavadais for her and her sister, as they were the last two girl children in their generation. She found it now after years, when she was clearing the attic to move out. She brought it to me and asked if we could make something out of it, because she wanted to preserve the saree. The silk was very delicate and the zari was disintegrating yet still retained its regal appearance. We’re ideating to preserve parts of the saree and turn it into a wall art that attempts to retain some glory of the much-loved heirloom.
Madhu’s detachable outfit
“I play the Veena at concerts often so I would generally prefer to have ethnic outfits that I can reuse. Once, I handed Mey this random blouse fabric with elephant motifs on it and we came up with a super sexy blouse design which I fell in love with and just couldn’t let go of!” she laughs. “So, we made a detachable peplum with hooks that could be fastened to the blouse if needed. The blouse was inspired by Mughal architecture and existing patterns on the fabric as such and since Mey is a sucker for shapes, the back has a wide opening in the form of a minaret with translucent netting that is hardly visible, but present because, well I’ve to wear it for Carnatic concerts!” she adds.