Of old tribes’ tales

Kochi’s Linen Trail collaborates with Toda tribeswomen for a modern-day collection based on the age-old embroidery motifs in their shawls.
The Toda tribeswomen
The Toda tribeswomen

We have all, sometime or the other, read about the Todas, an indigenous tribe living in their arch-shaped huts, inspired by the rainbow, in the Niligiris for centuries. While the men are mainly involved in agriculture and buffalo rearing, the women create the most unique hand-embroidered shawls or pukhoor, as they call them. It is these shawls that have caught the fancy of Linen Trail, a Kochi-based slow fashion brand established by Kollara Enterprises.

Enthralled by their craftsmanship, the six-year-old brand collaborated with these tribeswomen to come up with apparel based on their motifs that have been passed on from mother to daughter for years. Elaborating further, its co-founder and director Anirudh Kollara explains, “I grew up studying in a boarding school in the Nilgiris. We kept hearing of the Toda tribe and their simple way of life which protected and preserved the resources around them.

Linen Trail’s Toda Collection
Linen Trail’s Toda Collection

My mother (head designer and co-founder Shalini Anilkumar) was able to connect with Vasamalli, who leads a Toda self-help group of women. We travelled multiple times to meet and discuss how we could partner with them and create a steady demand for their work. Vasamalli made it clear at the very outset that they would not stray from the traditional geometric patterns inspired by their surroundings—the valleys, flowers, mountains and the sun using white, black and red wool on white cotton mul.”

So, taking care to keep the traditional Toda motifs unchanged, the designs are developed on metre-long patches—purchased and paid for in advance—which are then fused with contemporary tops, dresses, jackets and kurta in pure linen in shades of ecru, white and black. “The amalgamation has been challenging, but beautiful,” says Kollara, adding that when a product from the Toda collection is sold, five percent is kept aside for the group of women that work on the embroidery. 

Aiming to create a classic, season-less collection, the idea, says Kollara, was to not limit the collection to a single season, but to keep the partnership alive throughout the year. “The clothes are also named after the Toda women who worked on them. So you have names such as Rasamalli, Simarani, Sabina, Nadia and more,” he adds.

The Toda tribeswomen
The Toda tribeswomen

Even as Linen Trail spearheads slow fashion, Kollara says it’s an uphill task. “It is a challenge to create awareness among consumers about it when fast fashion brands are rapidly expanding their network of stores across the country. The peril is the lack of awareness regarding the importance of sustainable fashion coupled with the cost of apparel from slow fashion labels being inaccessible to our large consumer landscape. Linen Trail has been able to overcome this challenge by keeping the prices affordable. Our customers have also been extremely supportive with a 20 percent month-on-month repeat purchase rate,” he says.

Sustainability has always played a huge part in everything Linen Trail does. The brand tries to make sure that their processes, as well as approaches are ethical and holistic. “We believe in creating long-term relationships and closely work with our weavers and artisans to help support them by providing fair wages and try to create timeless pieces that are handcrafted, functional, pure, season-less, and versatile so that they resonate for a long time,” says Kollara. In fact, from the fabric they use to the processes as well as the packaging material, everything is pure, handmade, and 100 percent sustainable.

The brand is now working to bring alive Kasuti embroidery from Karnataka, and is also developing custom hand-carved blocks to support block-printing craftsmen. “We are on a constant quest to partner with unique crafts across the country which empowers communities,” says Kollara.

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The New Indian Express