Raghavendar Balasubramaniam, better known as Raghav, grew up in the busy neighborhood of T. Nagar. Anyone familiar with the locality instantly recalls the bustling traffic and hoards of crowding outside the largest houses of the oldest fashion and jewellery brands in Tamil Nadu. The sidewalks and entrances of these large franchises are lined with smaller street vendors pitching the latest bling at competitive rates. Anyone soaked in this environment is bound to take interest in the fashion industry in some way or the other.
Circa 2012, Raghav had just returned from Mumbai with a degree in fashion management from NIFT after realising that he did not want to pursue engineering. He was in casual conversation with his childhood friend D. Kumar (who had a degree in computer science but followed his passion for creativity through filmmaking and editing) when they decided they would start a business together.
The first idea, from the top of their heads, was to start a graphic t-shirt company—perhaps the bustling commerce from their childhood in T. Nagar had something to do with it. However, they weren’t going to be just another t-shirt company. They wanted to start a movement. “It is very common to see people wearing prints of Che Guvera and Bob Marley without really knowing much about their legacy.” Raghav and Kumar were adamant to design something that the people of Tamil Nadu would find relatable.
It took around half a year of scouting and networking with clothing manufacturers, graphic designers and illustrators. “Neither of us knew how to draw,” Raghav reveals with a chuckle as he recalls their early days at Angi as amateur entrepreneurs. “We thought we’d start with some basic designs of Thiruvalluvar and Bharadhiyar.” The idea was still way ahead of its time. Several manufacturers and designers raised eyebrows and were hesitant to take up the project claiming that the young entrepreneurs were ludicrous to assume that their concept would sell.
The tireless duo eventually found a small team of freelancers and an export clothing manufacturer in Tirupur. Raghav’s college senior, who was working at Jack and Jones back then designed their logo and t-shirt spec sheet with size and colour details. In January 2013, the first batch of printed t-shirts arrived. “I took one of the new tees and washed it at home, only to watch the print disappear,” Raghav confesses while bursting into laughter, “That was what the beginning of Angi looked like!” The entire process was a series of discovery and disaster management.
While quality management was only the first hurdle, the hunt for the perfect designer was a whole other ball game. Raghav divulges another anecdote that he recalls with a sense of nostalgic amusement. “Our friend introduced us to an artist named Jagdeesh,” he begins to narrate, pausing to mention that the artist is now a good friend and a regular collaborator. “The first time we met him at his office, we asked him to illustrate Murugan (a popular god in Tamil Nadu) on a peacock that resembled Master Crane from the animated film, Kung Foo Panda.” Just as the duo took pride in their unique idea, they were met with an illustration that resembled the one on a Rani Muthu calendar (a popular artefact found in most Tamil homes). “We burst out laughing while the artist explained how that was the style his company instructed him to use.” Although the result was not quite what they were expecting, the incident sparked a long-term collaboration between Jagadeesh and Angi through collections featuring infuriated Thiruvalluvars with flying hair, clutching an ‘olai chuvadi’ (palm-leaf manuscript) while rapping verses from the Thirukural.
Very soon Angi Clothing became a regular at the Madras Market in Chennai and Soul Sunday in Bangalore. The flea markets were an ideal place to begin their retail business given the smaller overheads along with the added advantage of interacting with customers and receiving feedback.
It wasn’t long before the young entrepreneurs came head to head with a new challenge—stock and inventory management. The export manufacturing unit required a minimum order of three hundred to five hundred pieces per design in order to provide a competitive rate. Four collections were released in a year with each collection consisting of five to eight designs. If a particular design did not sell as well it would become dead stock. “We had a deadstock of about thousand five hundred t-shirts before we realised that we should change our strategy by manufacturing solid tees and getting simple chest prints using local printers in Chennai.” Eventually, they would reduce the recurrence of the trademark Thiruvalluvar and Bharathiyar designs in every collection and increase the demand for those designs by releasing them as limited edition collections over the years.
By the end of 2014, the store went online and in 2015, a brick and mortar store was opened in T. Nagar (just in time for the infamous Chennai floods—another hiccup that the relentless duo would overcome. “We anticipated a larger customer base from our online store, but it turned out that people liked to see the t-shirts and try them on before they bought them,” he explains.
Around that time, Srivatsav Raj, Raghav’s junior from the bachelor in the fashion design program at NIFT, joined the brand as a full-time designer. Malaysian singer Yogi B’s fleeting comment about Angi being a Tamil urban streetwear brand and the Jallikattu t-shirt collection’s active feature during the protests in 2017 brought a cult-like following to the brand. Angi even featured in events like the Covelong Surf Festival and the Chennai Book Fair with its new identity as a Tamil Streetwear brand. “However, the Tamil topography and design community in Chennai is still very small,” adds Srivatsav, hoping that more designers from the state would embrace the local culture.
Over the years, Angi has managed to accumulate several suppliers enabling it to negotiate with manufacturers to produce smaller batches of two hundred pieces per design. This not only transformed the business by reducing the production time from three months to one and a half months but also gave the brand more scope to experiment with new designs. “The future is meta,” believes Raghav as he hints at the Tamil streetwear brand to make its presence in the metaverse. Meanwhile, the passion-driven team is resolute to overcome every barrier as it continues its journey to widen its boundaries and bring Tamil into modern mainstream culture.