V-Star is one of Kerala’s home-grown lingerie brands that managed to create a unique space for itself in an increasingly competitive market. Sheela Kochouseph Chittilappilly, its managing director, says the growth has been more than what she expected. Having started her business in 1995, Sheela worked her way through the highs and lows of the industry with a pragmatic approach.
Today, V-Star exports, retails at the big malls in the city and is readying for expansion. The brand, which branched into Vanessa (innerwear for women) and Valero (innerwear for men) is now back under the former brand name, V-Star.
Sheela Kochouseph talks about her life in business and otherwise.
How would you describe yourself?
I am and have always been a hands-on person. As a student, I was a hockey player, representing my college at university hockey competitions, and I took part in all the activities in Vimala College, Thrissur, where I studied Home Science. As a homemaker and mother, I did household chores myself. I can live with the minimum. The only thing I can’t do is sit idle. Now I feel it is this trait in me that led me to my achievements. Even today, I like to do most of the work myself whether it is gardening or daily household chores.
Did you foresee your husband Kochouseph Chittilappilly’s phenomenal success as a businessman?
When I got married, I was just 23-and-a-half. It was an arranged marriage. Kochouseph had just stared a small business in Ernakulam. And I remember I was excited to move to the city. We lived in a small house and we were very comfortable. I was happy. Success came after all the hard work and perseverance. It did not matter to either of us.
What is Kochouseph’s attitude towards your business?
He supports me and is very appreciative of my work. During the difficult times, it was he who helped. But business was business. He would give money only as loan and that too with interest. There was no husband-wife relationship there.
What led to the formation of V-Star?
Though I am from a business family… my father had a jewellery and textile shop in Wadakkanchery, Trichur,… I had no intentions of starting something on my own. But after my kids grew up, I found I had a lot of time on my hands. By then V-Guard was doing extremely well and I used to go the office to help around. And it was nothing more than looking at Kochouseph’s personal files. There was no contribution of mine and that did not interest me. I wanted to prove that I could do something, too.
So, in 1995, I summoned all my resources and decided to start garment-making. I got together designers, embroiderers and a cutter (ten people in all) and started making salwar kameezes under the brand name V-Star. Today, the establishment has 180 people as direct employees and around 2,000 indirect employees engaged in the production process. We have 16 units in and around Kochi where 50-60 women from charitable institutions run by nuns work for us. We have about six units in Tirupur where panties, camisoles and leggings are manufactured. We plan to introduce boxer shorts and T shirts for men and sports bra for women. Track pants for both men and women are also on the cards.
International brands are now available here. Has that affected your business?
It has only helped my brand. People are now more aware of the options in innerwear. The demand has only increased. We are supplying to Lulu Mall and will soon be available at Centre Square Mall, too. From Rs. 55 crore last year, the company is looking at a turnover of Rs. 75 crore this year.
With support from Kochouseph, the going would have been easy.
No way. The first five years were a struggle. I really had to fight my way through the hurdles. There have been instances when I felt like giving up.
Why did V-Star decide to specialise in innerwear?
Innerwear as a business prospect seemed sensible to me. There was a huge demand and I thought I could cash in on that. In 2000 we started making Vanessa for women. Soon, Valero for men was also introduced. I used to travel abroad to understand the emerging trends in lingerie. Now, lingerie is no longer just a functional piece of clothing. It is about style. Today, we sell more than 100 types of bras.
Describe a normal day of yours.
I make sure that I spend at least three hours at my office in Kakkanad a day. Since it is a lifestyle product, the way it is packaged is extremely important. I mean the promotion and the advertisements. Quality and comfort are the two things that we do not compromise on. And I think people trust me for that. I exercise an hour every day without fail. Both my husband and I are weight-watchers. You know, it is good to wear saris, because the blouse will immediately warn you if you have gained weight.
I paint, love gardening (especially bonsais), interior decoration and cooking. I love travelling too. We have always done at least one trip a year (now it is two). While the blueprint for Veegaland was shaping up, we went to a lot of theme parks in the US, the UK, Germany and Singapore to get an idea about international trends.