Starting with International Women’s Day last month, The Teenager Today has been bringing you a series on women entrepreneurs, ‘Women Mean Business’. Each article will introduce to our readers an inspiring woman entrepreneur or professional and give us an insight into what shaped them and their experience of entrepreneurship.
India has long been known for its glorious traditions in textiles and fabric design. And among its most loved are its handloom creations. Alas, these works of art, painstakingly crafted by hand, are seeing a slow death, taken over by power looms and modern automated processes, thus putting at risk the livelihood of these traditional weavers.
Enter Mrunmayi Avachat, a fashion designer and entrepreneur who took it upon herself to revive the dying handloom industry and ensure that weavers were given a fair deal.
Mrunmayi grew up in Nashik where she completed her education in the science stream. Her father is an architect and her mother owned a small tailoring workshop, both of whose skills are beautifully woven into what Mrunmayi chose as a career later on.
Mrunmayi was drawn to art forms at an early age, participating in and winning numerous inter-school drawing competitions and also being trained in Kathak under Guru Rekha Nadgauda, under whose tutelage she performed on stage and even won a prize at the all-India level. Right through childhood, she was greatly influenced by personalities who came from smaller towns and made it big. She used to read about designers and how the fashion industry was shaping up as a formidable sector in India and this instilled in her a desire to contribute to this growth story.
Fashion design was not considered a wise decision back then given its association with glamour and hence a most definite no-no for academically bright students. However, Mrunmayi chose to follow her heart and study fashion designing at the PV Polytechnic of SNDT, Juhu. Fashion greats such as Neeta Lulla, Hemant Trivedi, Wendell Rodricks and Priyadarshani Rao were her teachers, and doyens of the fashion world such as Manish Malhotra, Meher Castelino, Sabira Merchant, etc., mentored the students. In their graduating collection displayed at a fashion show sponsored by Femina with professional models walking the ramp, Mrunmayi’s collection won the award for the best outfit of the year! A placement with a fashion house followed immediately and Mrunmayi’s professional career took off. Luckily, all her jobs from then on required her to take decisions on product development and that gave her the confidence to launch off on her own a few years later.
While working with Walt Disney as Creative Head, Disney Consumer Products (Fashion), Mrunmayi felt that there was so much more in product development that she could do which was not possible in her corporate job profile. She had always had an inclination towards ethnic wear and hand embroideries. So, with her friend Nikita, she decided to explore some art and crafts and adapt them to more urban wear outfits. They started with the phulkari embroidery of Punjab and to preserve the authenticity, sourced it from village women near Patiala. They thought of giving a name to their creations and came up with NIKAYI which means ’A small (rare) collection’ in the ancient Pali language. Additionally, it also had their names (NIK – Nikita & AYI – Mrunmayi) in it and they started selling under the label. It was fun and they created a small range which got a welcome response from people and got sold instantly among their friends and colleagues.
Mrunmayi and Nikita then went to Madhya Pradesh and met some handloom weavers. This trip changed their lives. They realized that the younger generation in the weavers’ families were not interested in weaving. Most had taken up odd jobs and migrated to cities to make their living. It hit the duo hard; they realized if this continued our children would never ever see handloom products in their lifetime.
They also discovered other facets to the weavers’ existence — that they were not paid well, that they lacked sophistication in their techniques and that it included a lot of manual hard work which the meagre remuneration they received for the same simply did not justify.
NIKAYI began working with a few top weavers to make fabrics/sarees and dupattas to suit urban preferences.
Naresh Karmalker has been associated with The Teenager Today family since the last 30 years. He has spent the last three decades in the social sector, is an avid networker and trainer and is currently in the process of setting up start-ups in two diverse sectors.