“At a function I saw an acquaintance wearing a beautiful peach crepe sari with exquisite motifs in grey. She had it accessioned with grey pearls and looked elegant and stylish. I was pleased to see that such brilliant handwork was still in vogue and wondered how much she had spent on her sari. When I complimented her, she told me that she had bought the sari from my boutique some 22 years ago!” recalls Sheila James with a big smile on her face.
The first to set up a designer boutique, Body Tunes, in the city in 1988, Sheila recalls how there was hardly anyone who encouraged her when she decided to open shop. Sheila’s Body Tunes made designer clothes accessible to all those with an eye for fashion and the wherewithal to buy bespoke saris and dresses.
“I find it hard to believe that I started my business without a capital investment to speak of. It was my passion for design and colours that helped me make a mark as a designer,” muses Sheila, one of three winners of the Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur of Kerala Award for 2020.
Accent on handlooms
“Right from the beginning my choice was handlooms and handworked saris. It was intuitive and not driven by any sense of business acumen. I can confidently say that I popularised handworked raw silks, tussars, Kanchi cottons and handlooms.”
Initially, she had a space opposite her house in PTP Nagar where 10 families, all experts in Ari work, were accommodated. Over the years, Sheila has relocated them back to their home town and now has craftsmen all over the country doing specialised work for her.
Eventually, when the business outgrew the tiny space in Sasthamangalam, she moved to her present location in Statue and named it Czarina. “My daughter Shalini James, a designer and founder of Kochi-based Mantra, came up with the name ‘Czarina’. ‘The princess within you’ is the tagline of the boutique. We believe that there is a princess in every woman and we cater to her with the best from all over the country,” explains Sheila.
She laughs when she remembers travelling to Benares, Kolkata and Jaipur on her own to source weaves, meet craftspersons and locate sellers. “It was the late eighties. No net, no mobile phones and no connections in the fashion world. All I had were some friends and some contacts given to me by my workers. I was literally discovering India’s rich diversity of weaves and textiles. My family would have been aghast if they had known I was travelling on my own during those trips,” she recounts.
That experience has stood her in good stead and today Sheila and Shalini travel together to select material and weaves for their boutiques. “Shalini is a trained designer and so I turn to her to learn about materials and technique while my contacts and experience have helped her in sourcing exactly what she wants,” she explains with a smile.
Sitting pretty in a sari her boutique, the self-taught designer says she never thought she was setting out on a new adventure when as a young mother of three, she got a tailor to run up a few salwar sets on a sewing machine she had at her home in Kilpauk, Chennai.
“My youngest daughter had turned four and I had a little time for my own. Since I had always been fond of designing my clothes, I decided to make a few for me. I liked what I had done and showed it to a person who used to manage actor Sarada’s boutique, Panjali, in Chennai. She complimented me on my work and told me to leave them behind. I remember how happy I was when I was told they had been sold,” recalls Sheila.
Buoyed by that initial success, she employed more tailors, turned the garage of her house into a workspace and got down to work. Body Tunes, her outlet in Chennai, became popular with Malayalis and she also held a couple of exhibitions in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuam.
Eventually, she decided to open an outlet in the city. Her father, the late Baby John, asked her if she wanted some help. “And I wondered aloud if Mammootty could come for the inauguration. My father did succeed in that and I remember how the entire Vellayambalam-Sasthamangalam was packed with people waiting to see the actor,” she laughs.
As congratulatory messages and calls keep interrupting the conversation, Sheila says that she does not measure her success in number of outlets or celebrities wearing her clothes. Her happiness is in her loyal customers who have grown up with her boutique. Although she had franchises in Kochi, Kottayam and Kozhikode, she says she closed them down when she found that she was unable to give those outlets personal attention.
Today, as boutiques spring up in every nook and corner of the city, Sheila has a word of advice for young entrepreneurs, “Start small and stay grounded. Be realistic and, I feel, it is best to use your own money to begin with so that the fear of repayment of loans will not hamper the pleasure of doing something that you enjoy. And, of course, give the best to your customer.”