In Chennai, a decade in design

Co-founder of Collage Lata Madhu talks about what makes her boutique tick and the city's growing style sensibilities

March 20, 2015 05:23 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:46 pm IST

“Retail my stuff out of Chennai?” exclaimed designer Nupur Kanoi, petrified, when she was approached to put up her collection in this city. This was in 2012. Three years later, her edgy designs, including dhoti skirts and jumpsuits, are on the most popular list at the Collage store, which turns a decade old this year.

Lata Madhu knew it would work... and it did. “Chennai is one of the most experimental markets in the country,” says Lata, who started Collage along with sister Priya Vasudevan, in 2004. “I was looking for something to do. I started with displaying a collection of designer clothes and accessories at Apparao Galleries. It was a 1,400-square-foot space… basically three small rooms upstairs in the gallery. But the response I received was overwhelming,” she says. That prompted her to start her own space. “I wanted something that had a ‘wow’ factor. So, we got a good architect and designed this store that was 3,900 sq.ft. We started with designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Raghavendra Rathore, Meera and Muzaffar Ali....”

For Lata, it’s always important that she believes in the designer and the work Collage is showcasing; it doesn’t matter how big the name is. “You can’t base your business on luck. Our store is not just about the names. It’s about curation, and what’s kept where at what time,” she adds.

At a time when multi-designer outlets were at a nascent stage, and Chennai hadn’t entirely woken up to the concept, did she feel Collage may not work? “Every time someone has introduced a new element in the city, it has worked. We are more into classic stuff. If you know your market and your clientele well, you can do well,” she says.

The proof of that lies in the fact that designers who started their careers showcasing at Collage have done well and keep coming back to the city with their collections. Manish Gupta, Rimzim Dadu, Nikasha Tawadey and labels like Pashma by Shilu Kumar are a few examples. “Manish started retailing out of here eight years back and his clothes were between Rs. 16,000 and Rs. 35,000. Now, it’s in the range of Rs. 25,000 to Rs. 50,000 and people still buy them,” says the 45-year-old, and adds, “There are also designers who have outgrown us. We don’t want something very predictable.”

Tarun Tahiliani, Priyadarshini Rao and Manish Arora are the other best-sellers. The store, now 4,100 sq.ft., stocks the works of over 35 designers.

Shortly after Chennai, Collage was launched in Bangalore and Kochi, in 2006 and 2012, respectively. The Bangalore operations are overseen by Priya who, unlike her sister, is quite a fan of western wear. “Even though I stock western wear, I am not as excited about it as when I see a lehenga. How much craft can you show in western wear? It has to have a fabulous fit,” says Lata.

A big believer in Indian fabrics, Lata’s future plans include starting a store in New York – one that will have something Indian. That apart, Lata says her plan is to keep working till the end. “I don’t have a background in fashion. I didn’t even know how to stitch a button. But this is my passion. And passion is when you know what you are putting up on the racks is what you love.”

As for the challenges in starting from scratch and setting up a store of this stature, Lata laughs, “I can write a book on that.”

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