Ethnic and embellished

Devi Muthukumar reinterprets the sari blouse for the contemporary wearer. Photo: M. Moorthy/THE HINDU  

Even when she was studying Electrical and Electronics Engineering in 2003, Devi Muthukumar nurtured her real vocation — fashion design — by running a home-based clothes boutique. Today, the young Tiruchi-based dress designer’s horizons have broadened to take her nascent label Irravikkai on to platforms like the Bangalore Fashion Week and the India Runway Week this year.

“My first customers were mostly my friends and relatives. After graduation, I took up some courses and learned embroidery techniques from north Indian karigars (artisans) because I wanted to specialise in embellished clothing,” she says.

Teaming up with her mother Sundari, also an expert tailor, Devi founded the Veebooshas clothing store in 2007. “We operated out of a small space initially, and used to source garments from all over the country for retailing in Tiruchi. It was my husband who encouraged me to go ahead with a full-fledged exclusive garment store,” says Devi, a mother of two.

Going online

While Veebooshas specialises in ethnic clothes for women and children, Devi’s two-year-old brand Irravikkai (a Tamil word that denotes a garment worn on the upper half of the body), began as a venture to showcase the sari blouse.

“We started out by making readymade blouses for our local clients. Our ‘two-way blouse’ that could be worn with both saris and as a top, was a big hit. We started getting requests for more garments that could be paired with the blouses as tops. So we came up with skirts and palazzos, and other garments like lehengas,” says Devi.

Both Veebooshas and Irravikkai also deal with bespoke bridal couture.

Even though people from the nearby towns flock to Tiruchi to buy their clothes, the city’s fashion scene was largely dormant up until 2010, says Devi. “The boom in social media gave designers a big boost, and by 2012, nearly everyone in the fashion industry had an online presence. Instagram and Facebook pages helped us to reach out to customers,” she says.

But going online created a few new hurdles. “When we started Veebooshas’ FB page in 2013, we had an organic ‘likes’ record of around 50,000, perhaps mostly from my friends. But prospective clients (including celebrity stylists) would hesitate to engage my services when they heard that I was based out of Tiruchi,” she says. “For every 100 calls, we had only around 5 genuine call-backs. So I started Irravikkai, as an online store in 2016, mainly to make customers focus on my work, and not my geographical location.”

Irravikkai designs by Devi Muthukumar. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Irravikkai designs by Devi Muthukumar. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT  

Participating in the Bangalore Fashion Week and India Runway Week this year was yet another step up in raising the profile of the brand. “To exhibit in professional runway shows, you have to be technically sound, so this was a big learning curve for me, because I haven’t studied fashion formally,” says Devi. Her designs, she points out, are made for the ‘real woman’, who may be a far cry from the size zero models on the catwalk. “My measurements have enough seam allowances for curvy sizes, without compromising on the basic design,” she says.

Multi-faceted garment

Devi reimagines the blouse not just as an essential add-on to ethnic ensembles, but as a star in its own right. Made mostly with raw dupion silk, woven and dyed to order in north India, these garments marry ornate embellishment with a practical design. A cutwork shrug decorated with brass blossoms is draped over a spaghetti-strap blouse, while another features an intricate placement of Mughal-style floral motifs using rubies. Some have shirt-collars, while others are stitched as blouson tops in billowing fabrics.

Care instructions
  • Embellished blouses cannot be laundered. They must be dried in open sunlight.
  • To prevent sweat patches from staining the blouse, wear underarm pads.
  • Cover worked blouses in plain cotton or muslin when storing in the wardrobe. Avoid plastic, as it could discolour metallic embellishments faster

“I want to make a garment which is both fashionable and wearable. It should suit the place where the client lives. Since I cater to people who live in Tiruchi, Pudukottai, Ariyalur and Perambalur, I have to ensure that they make the wearer look appealing in their social circle,” says Devi, who also has clients visiting her from Coimbatore, Chennai, Madurai and Bengaluru.

An Irravikkai garment can take anywhere from 3 to 55 days to create, depending on the intricacy of the embroidery. Devi prefers to use a ‘covered-up’ blouse style, because it gives greater scope for embroidery.

Sustainable fashion

The desire for exclusivity has unwittingly led to a situation where a garment like the blouse (usually stitched on 1 to 1.5 metres of cloth) is often costlier than the sari (usually 5.5 to 6 metres in length).

Irravikkai’s custom-made blouses, for example, start at ₹6,000 and go up to ₹30,000.

Irravikkai designs by Devi Muthukumar. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Irravikkai designs by Devi Muthukumar. Photo: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT  

“Yes, we are quite aware of this disparity, which is why we ask our clients to bring in more than one sari when they come shopping for occasional wear,” says Devi. “Having a blouse that can accompany many saris, can control the expense, and also create different looks from one base material.”

Trends to look out for
  • Silver and gold are on the way out in bridal fashion. “This year all the bright colours like electric blue, deep reds and ‘Fanta’ orange are back,” says Devi Muthukumar. While the wedding sari is invariably a heavy Kanchipuram handwoven silk, there are other options as well. “Benarasi fabrics are very trendy right now. Brides could also consider new types of silks from China and Korea,” says Devi.

In any case, she says the prices are fixed according to the hours spent working on the garment. A more expensive blouse will have premium embellishments like brass, 1 gram gold, or Korean crystals. “We currently engage 25-35 north Indian artisans in our manufacturing unit in Tiruchi, who work 8-hour shifts on my designs. During the festive and wedding season, the number of hours increases,” says Devi.

The exposure gained by exhibiting her designs professionally has helped her to enter into partnerships with stores in Chennai, Delhi and Jalandhar. But Irravikkai will remain a Tiruchi landmark. “I will be working from Tiruchi, and my productivity will have to increase to keep up with the demand. I simply want to make my client look and feel good in my creations,” says Devi.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 10:43:23 PM |

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