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A mother and daughter team combines business acumen and a family legacy in the sari business to bring customers a unique retail experience.
“Yes, my mother still handles the cashier’s at her shop,” smiles Thilagavathi Mookhan, referring to the iconic Madras Store in Masjid India, which has been there since 1969. According to Thilagavathi – better known as Tilak – when her father died, it forced his barely 30-year-old widow to rally and support her nine children.
‘The original Madras Store was exactly where it is today, but it had nothing to do with saris,” Tilak continues. “In order to make ends meet, my mother, Letchumi Veeran, took up a quarter of the space in the shoplot to sell snacks to the local merchants. Being the enterprising sort, she diversified her stock and added daily newspapers, stainless steel utensils as well as lungi sarongs that were popular with the labourers. There was also a small selection of saris that my mother bought from local wholesalers.”
The response to the saris was overwhelming, as Madras Store was the very first to offer the textile in the Masjid India area at the time. Emboldened by their success, Tilak’s eldest brother was tasked with learning the sari import trade, and set off to India to meet with weavers and suppliers.
As Madras Store grew in size and reputation, going on to take over the entire shop lot around six years after it first opened, Tilak found herself running the entire silk sari department. And thanks to her uncompromising requirement for quality and keen eye for the latest trends, she’s become a sought-after expert when it comes to picking special occasion saris.
“Most people don’t know what makes a good sari, they’re not looking at the weave or the craftsmanship. They just want a ‘grand’ sari for an event like a wedding or dinner. And it’s easy to make a sari look ‘grand’ of course, just slap on some bling-bling and everyone is dazzled,” laughs Tilak.
However, Tilak cautions that it isn’t easy to spot the difference between a genuine silk sari and a synthetic one.
“These days the art-silk saris look like the real thing – ‘art’ is of course just short for artificial! You must buy your saris from a reputable dealer, someone who knows their fabrics. Most places will just try and sell you a supposedly silk sari, and when you ask them what type it is, they’re stumped,” she sighs.
Having been in the sari business for over 40 years, Tilak notes how customers’ sari preferences have changed over the last two decades – including today’s increasing demand for cotton over silk.
“When I used to sell saris to my customers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, silk was the only material you would wear to attend a function,” says Tilak. “But would you believe it, now everybody wants cotton saris. It used to be only grandmothers who wore cotton [saris], but now all the youngsters want light, breathable fabric, especially if they’re going to a daytime wedding.”
Tilak with her daughter, Koki.
As we speak, Tilak’s daughter, Kokilavani Palaniandi (Koki for short) is nearby, in deep discussion with a customer about the detailed embroidery on a Kanjivaram bridal sari. Noticing this, Tilak remarks that the enthusiasm for saris runs deep in the women of her family. In fact, it was Koki’s idea to open Tilak’s Silk Saree House – a shop the mother and daughter now run together full-time – which specialises in one of a kind, hand loomed saris from all over India.
“My daughter decided to open this shop two years ago, because she wanted to provide an extraordinary sari shopping experience to customers,” explains Tilak, who serves as the store’s managing director. “Koki goes to India and meets with weavers personally to ensure every hand loomed sari is selected with utmost care. We believe in quality and exclusivity, which is why we only have one of each piece here.”
“I want women to come in and learn about all the different types of saris available,” adds Koki. “I really don’t mind if I don’t make a sale, it’s building the relationship that is most important to me. At the end of the day, you should select a sari that speaks to you, and I’m happy to facilitate that conversation,” Koki concludes as she carefully unfolds a raw silk sari for a customer, who gasps in delight at its striking jewelled tones.
By Sumitra Selvaraj
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