What does it take to head a 110-year-old textile brand for over 20 years? For Beena Kannan, it means travelling around the world, scouting for fabrics and weaves in different parts of India, and a lifelong passion for silk. By Rashima Nagpal
When you decided to join your family business, what were your goals?
Seematti was started in 1910 by my grandfather, S Veeriah Reddiar. I joined it in 1980 after my graduation. I was interested in Indian ethnic wear, bridal wear, and celebratory wear from different parts of the country. I wanted to associate with the artisans who created these beautiful pieces, especially those from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, and help them create new designs through Seematti.
What was it like to grow up in a household that cherished textiles? Do you remember the first sari you owned?
My father adored Seematti. He used to work day in and day out to build it up. He looked after the family as well as the business. I was the only daughter, and women were never allowed to work in our community. I was not allowed in the store except to get my clothes once a year. We never talked much about the industry at home, because my father didn’t want us to get involved in the difficulties. However, I had an inherent sense of responsibility towards the brand. The first sari that I owned was my mother’s. It was a multi-coloured, chequered Kanchipuram sari. It is still my favourite one!
What is it that you wanted to change or retain about the brand’s philosophy when you took over?
I took complete charge of Seematti after my husband’s demise in 2000. I knew that the world was changing and that millennials are a different group of people with whom I’d have to work. I had travelled all over the world and explored fashion in different parts like Spain, Turkey, China, and Thailand. I realised that the philosophy of the world is different but it is attached by a single thread of culture that is fashion. I wanted to create our own philosophy so that we could conquer the world through fashion.
When you met weaver communities in India, what were your impressions?
I was enchanted by the various designs and colour combinations. The same design was depicted differently in different parts of the country. I was awestruck by the weavers—their capabilities are inexplicable! But they were repeatedly creating a set of traditional designs. I wanted them to come out of this and weave designs to fit the new generation. We tried to bring innovations into the industry by introducing power looms and bringing new designs like pictures woven into saris. We have woven Mother Teresa, Lord Ganesha, chariots, festivities of India, etc.
Which weaver communities do you work with?
Be it Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Assam, UP, Delhi, or Kashmir, we have worked with artisans all over the country and tried many weaving techniques like paithani, jamdani, Assam weaving, madhubani, chanderi, phulkari, and Rajasthani weaving.
What inspired you to make the longest silk sari that made its way into the Guinness World Records in 2007?
Making the longest sari in the world, half-kilometre long, with hand-woven and hand-dyed fabric was a nearly impossible task. But I wanted to prove that my weavers and I could make anything. Sometimes, the loom would not work or big glitches would appear. Weaving the design of Mother Teresa posed a major challenge. There was constant learning and adjustment involved.
What is your vision for your new label?
My new label, Beena Kannan, is my dream come true. I want to be remembered through it. The label will be the first-ever Kanchipuram-inspired garment line featuring high-quality, unique designs. We will be collaborating with many traditional master weavers across the country. The label will feature bridalwear, groom-wear, and celebratory-wear, and Kochi will have our first flagship store.
How are Indian textiles, particularly silk, perceived in the international market?
Wherever you go in the world, silk is celebrated. Recently, various Indian silks like Kanchipuram, Banarasi, Madhubani, Tussar, and more have gained a lot of interest in many parts of the world. Efforts by the government have helped in taking silk to the world, and tourism initiatives have brought attention to our textile culture too.
How do you like to spend your days off?
I have not taken a day off since 2000! I spend most of my time researching about fashion. Before the advent of the Internet, I used to collect periodicals and fashion magazines from around the world to see trends. Now, I use Instagram and other social media to follow designers across the world. I also travel a lot, especially to places that are renowned for fashion and where I can learn something new.
Do you have any go-to vacation spots?
I like to travel, from as near as the backwaters here in Kumarakom to as far as the Himalayas. I also love European countries as I enjoy their architecture.
A country or region that has stood out for its fashion?
I like France, especially Nice. I like Turkey and Spain for their intricate designs. I also like Brazil and Mexico for their vibrant culture.
Destinations you are yet to check off your bucket list?
I’ve never been to Iceland, Finland, or Egypt.