Weaving ‘Woke’ into Chennai’s Lifestyle

When the Epidemic loomed in the year 2020, it postponed higher education plans for most students around the world. Chennai based Visual Arts graduates, Sneha Chakrapani and Liza Jane Fernandez decided to look at the brighter side. The former college mates got back together to utilise the break year to venture into putting together their combined interest in textile, interior design and entrepreneurship. Now that people were spending more time at home, it was apt to launch a sustainable product company aimed at making homes happy, warm and comfortable. Rightly so their brainchild was named Narah. “It is Greek for happiness and Japanese for stability, but many people think it’s derived from Naraha, which is Sanskrit for man, which was not what we were going for,” laugh the young female entrepreneurs.

Having spent their entire lives in Chennai, it was the obvious place to start the brand. “So far the Chennai market has been the best! Many people here look for things that are homely and warm. And they are definitely into comfort!” says Liza with a grin. They also believe that up North the home and lifestyle business has become saturated and that the market in Chennai is less rushed and has an interesting demographic of mindsets allowing them to freely experiment with their products. “Whenever we talk about home decor or lifestyle everyone immediately thinks of Mumbai and Delhi because that’s where the market is. But what is most comforting about being in Chennai is that we feel more connected to our clients. We like to keep it real, so it’s really nice when our clients are open about things like wanting cotton because it’s easier to maintain. With this feedback we’ve started custom making some of our pieces in cotton and increased our sales,” adds Sneha.

“Believe it or not, a lot of work happens in Tamil Nadu, it’s just very silent,” says Sneha. Tamil Nadu is the hub for fabric, organic dying and weaving. It’s funny how everything gets transported to Delhi or Punjab and gets resold back in Tamil Nadu at a marked up price.”

About three months old, the business was launched in mid December 2020, however the backend work had been going on since April 2020. During the 9 months Sneha and Liza had to manage time during their internships to do thorough market research, network and understand design trends post the epidemic while studying their ‘competition’. “We didn’t want to employ people directly under us, which meant that we had to find units to outsource our work, to get our products done. We spent a lot of time contacting tailors, embroiders and fabric procurers.” With the backbone of the company in place the duo dived into the design process and started creating a collection.

Narah’s operations completely work off of Social Media. “Today social media is a big platform for businesses. When we decided that we were going to put our store up on social media we had to plan out the theme: we would either have to look serious and established or make it more personal and connect with our audience,” explains Sneha, “The second option seemed like the obvious way to go forward because we were excited to share our start-up journey with all of its learnings and explorations with our followers.”

The brand relies entirely on networking and social media for marketing. “We started with our first circle and then we kept getting introduced to other people through them. That’s how we have expanded our client base,” explains Liza. Today Narah has a client base of about 25 to 30 people.

Three months into the game, Narah was a part of Chennai’s first Fleamarket hosted by Canopy. “It just popped up on Instagram so we signed up. We got to know the person organizing it one to one,” says an amused Liza, “After signing up we were thinking, ok it’s a pandemic are people even going to show up. But the footfall was more than any of us expected!” This platform let the young entrepreneurs understand real time what their client base was like, how they reacted and how they could improve as a brand.

That wasn’t all. “We saw that there were so many startups and homegrown businesses that were doing interesting things. We got to meet and connect with a lot of these entrepreneurs. It was kind of like the first day of school where we all start out together, we don’t know what’s right or wrong but we’re all trying things and seeing where it goes!” They believe that platforms like these are of colossal importance to bring out the entrepreneurial spirit that is hidden deep within Chennai.

Narah believes that a stitch in time saves nine, therefore it places a large importance in sustainability. The brand ensures to follow this policy even during its preliminary stages. For now the young designers collaborate with another alumnus from their Alma Mater, on natural dyeing techniques for their products. They also make sure there is no fabric waste. “We are working towards a sustainable set-up, making all of our products organic so that we don’t add to the existing troubles from the textile industry.”

“As a student I got a chance to visit weaver’s homes. For the work they do, they barely get even 10% of the credit they deserve,” explains Sneha. Many weavers do not want to continue in this profession anymore because they do not get a fair pay for the amount of effort they put in. This endangers the rare skill and the cultural identity of Tamil Nadu. The duo are on a mission to revive this dying skill by giving weavers around the state a better opportunity.

As female entrepreneurs, they are also determined to support women who are looking to become independent. Currently all of their products are made by women. They got in touch with a vocational center called DisAble WomeN welfare Trust (DAWN) Livelihood Centre, in Alwarpet, and also came across a couple of embroiderers and tailors at the heart of the city, who had machines at home and were looking for work. “All of a sudden we had 10 women who were willing to work on all of our orders and experiment with us. They are talented and do really good work!”

Narah has sold about 40 to 45 products since its inception. Besides the products from their collection, they also custom make designs and are dipping their toes into larger scale interior styling projects.

Starting a business early can seem intimidating. For the fresh graduates, starting the business in their hometown meant that they would have mentors who they had known for a long period of time. Aishwarya Manivannan of Maisha Studio, who specializes in interior design and Liza’s Uncle, Brian, who runs an advertising agency called Green Chilli Brands, were instrumental in helping the duo kickstart the business.

Juggling design and entrepreneurship can be tough. Sneha and Liza keep shifting roles with the former usually taking care of the numbers and the latter detailing out the new designs. They believe that it is important to explore and keep looking for ideas everywhere and not fall prey to the seriousness that comes with running a business. As new-comers to the world of design entrepreneurship their word of advice is: “In this field you have to learn to strike a balance. If you get stuck in a rut like us then remember, it’s good to go crazy sometimes. But on the other hand if you’re going too crazy then you should probably balance it out with some discipline.”

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GOTN is a platform that aims to bring together entrepreneurs from around Tamil Nadu to form a creative community by offering inspiration, information and facilitating connects.