The Madras Trunk – Redefining Kolhapuris, a Fashion Classic

Nithila Arun of The Madras Trunk has managed to redesign the classic to create a vibrant range of kolhapuris, attracting reapeat buyers from all over the country. 

Kolhapuris. They were a rage in the 80s when coolly casual folks paired them with blue jeans and a breezy kurta while extolling Satyajit Ray’s genius. Cut to 2023 and kolhapuris are still the choice of the trendy and fashionable! The credit goes to designers like Nithila Arun of The Madras Trunk who have managed to evolve the classic to keep it in the public eye. Continuously experimenting with form and style, Nithila has created a comfortable range of kolhapuris attracting buyers from all over the country. 

Festive collection
Festive collection

While traditional kolhapuris have a uniform plain tan look, The Madras Trunk has infused them with joyful colours and peppy embellishments. “Traditional kohlapuris are not very comfortable and can slip on smooth surfaces. Keeping this in mind, our designs are cushioned and provided with an antiskid base,” explains Nithila.  Imagine a rare colour and you can probably have a pair of Kolhapuris made just for you in your exact size at The Madras Trunk. The brand promises that level of customisation! But we are getting way ahead of ourselves here. So let’s pause and start with the name. 

Why ‘The Madras Trunk’ for a fashion footwear brand? We were keen to know and Nithila was only too happy to share.

Juttis
Juttis

The emotion behind the name

“I love Madras. Though this city is now called Chennai many of us still call it by its old name. When I started this venture I wanted this connect to reflect in the brand. The other part refers to my grandmother’s trunk where I keep all my favourite things. My granny likes to collect cute stuff some of which she’s saved from her childhood and passed on to me. She’d gift me little things sharing sweet stories about them. In fact she even gave me the letters I’d written to her as a kid. I preserve all these knick knacks in the trunk. So The Madras Trunk seemed to be a lovely name to give a business I am so passionate about.” 

Slip ons for kids
Slip ons for kids

From idea to execution

Having graduated in Fine Arts from Stella Maris college, Nithila went on to complete her post graduation in Textile Design. She’d always been keen to start something of her own in the creative space but wasn’t sure where to begin. On researching, she realised that the accessory space seemed more promising than the saturated fashion clothing segment. A random thought led her to zero in on footwear and she started experimenting with the idea. 

Pairs in many hues
Pairs in many hues

“But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be,” she confesses. “If you want a dress made you can source the material and pattern and get it tailored. You’ll get the dress you imagined, somehow. But getting footwear made is not the same. I realised that I needed to understand the basics and so I joined a course in footwear design at CFTI.”

Even after completing the course, Nithila kept going back to CFTI to fine tune her designs and products. “I realised that lot of cobblers are very skilled but they don’t have much knowledge on the technical side of things. They can just see a foot and tell what its size is – what would fit and what wouldn’t. But they don’t have any idea of exact measurements and guides. This was a challenge for me when I started off.”

Designed for kids
Designed for kids

Getting a foot in the door

Nithila found it difficult to get people on board. It took her a year to put together various elements of the business. She got some samples made with cobblers in Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram. Realising she wouldn’t go far without her own unit, she set it up and found people who were willing to work for her. “I had to impart my technical skills to give specific instructions, parameters to use etc. Then with their skill we finally got products ready to market.” 

Sales from big feet

“The big names in this space have huge factories to manufacture foot wear. But when starting out, my plan was not to make hundreds of footwear. Initially we participated in pop ups and exhibitions. Customers liked our products and also the fact that we could tailor-make to their size. We’ve had many customers looking for sizes 45 and even 46. Many brands don’t have these sizes. This is the segment where there’s lot of demand.” While customisation is their unique selling point they also stock standard sizes. That’s the only way to keep sales steady. If there’s a particular design on website that’s not in stock, then it’s made on order. 

Soft pastels
Soft pastels

Freed by the lockdown

Nithila’s efforts are slowly bearing fruit and today her brand is stocked by top online retailers in India. Myntra, Nyka, Tata Cliq, Azaab and Jaipur are just a few of the sites where you can shop for The Madras Trunk footwear. Apart from stylish Kolhapuris The Madras Trunk also has limited edition juttis, sandals and heels crafted from leather and fabric from tanneries and weavers from around the country.  The COVID outbreak also had an impact on Nithila’s business. The lockdown put an brake on her dream to set up a standalone store. She then expanded her visibility by getting the brand listed with online market places. This worked in her favour as sales grew. And this was also when they started making products for men and kids. 

In favour of a retail outlet

With so much going for the brand, why is Nithila still keen on her goal to set up a standalone retail store? “People still prefer to try out the sizes for comfort before they buy. They like to feel the texture and see the colours up close. And to establish the brand strongly there’s nothing better than having an individual retail presence.”

Finding a balance

So has this focus on the business side of things come in the way of her creative output? “When I was in college, I’d take weeks to finish a design assignment! Now I’m designing without giving it any thought. Ideas flow smoothly and easily all the time. It’s the other areas of business such as managing labour and keeping track of finances that I find challenging!” she chuckles.

The brand is showing great promise and the future looks bright for The Madras Trunk, which started off as just a concept in Nithila’s mind. So how has this mother of a five year old managed to stay the course on this tough challenge-ridden journey, we wonder. Laughing, Nithila says,”It’s not been easy, but I’m now consciously trying to get away from work and spend quality time with my family.” 

We’re sure Nithila will strike the right balance just the way she’s managed to achieve what she set out to do. 

If you like what you read, do visit www.themadrastrunk.com to support Nithila’s venture.

Nithila Arun, Founder, The Madras Trunk
Nithila Arun, Founder, The Madras Trunk

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