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Shalini James

Shalini James

Brand - Mantra

Textile artisanship is the bedrock on which I built my design practice

Shalini James is the founder and lead designer of Mantra, an Indian clothing brand whose ready-to-wear garments, in hand-crafted textiles and standardised sizes, have done pioneering work by bringing a paradigm shift from customised designing to pret-a-porter. With a passion for design and handcrafts that began at a young age, James became an entrepreneur at the age of 28. In an interview with Fibre2Fashion, she talks about her inspiration behind Mantra, her brand’s design philosophy, her achievements, future plans, and a lot more.

Fibre2Fashion: What was your inspiration behind the launch of Mantra clothing brand?

Shalini James:

I was exposed to this profession from the age of 12. My mother, who was rather creatively inclined, had a design studio at home. Later, when the design unit grew out of our home into a much larger, organised set-up of about 60 karigars—embroidery artisans, tailors, and patternmakers—I spent all my free time there, pottering around with fabrics and trims. This early experience and exposure, especially to hand-crafted textiles, led me to pursue an education in fashion at NIFT, Chennai, and become a fashion entrepreneur at the age of 28.


F2F: How would you describe the design philosophy of your brand?


For eighteen years, we have been making clothes with hand-crafted textiles—weaves, prints, and embroideries. For this, we have liaised with most Indian textile crafts and innumerable artisans across the country. Our rich and extensive textile heritage is deeply embedded in our DNA.

Intensity in colour and texture is as important to us as subtlety in detail and rather inexplicably, we have always managed to straddle the two in our designs. There have been instances of using twelve different textiles, five different prints, three types of embroideries, and two kinds of borders in the same garment which got described by the wearer as minimalistic! That is just who we are and what we love to do. We are constantly trying to achieve that elusive sense of aesthetic balance in a battleground rife with colours, textiles, and crafts. You could call that our design philosophy.

F2F: How do you balance the use of hand-crafted textiles with standardised sizing in your designs?


Very early on, I realised, from my personal experience, and from market studies, that women who had a deep appreciation for Indian textiles, could not often find clothes made of these textiles in the right sizes. It was the ‘free-size raj’ everywhere for Indian wear. This lacuna in the ethnic wear industry needed to be filled with standardisation of sizing, seasonal styles, and high-quality tailoring.

It is a well-known fact that managing quality in hand-crafted textiles is an arduous task. A designer’s influence in textile development is often limited to design inputs regarding motifs, colours etc. Quality protocols and processes are time-honoured ones passed down over generations and almost always managed and monitored by the artisans themselves. Designers who work with hand-crafted textiles bow to the wisdom of these artisans and take in their stride any inconsistencies that may be there in the final output.

These inconsistencies, however, need not be transferred, by default, into the garment-making process. In fact, they can be managed or even made redundant with good design methodology, smart patternmaking, and stringent quality protocols in garment production.

Therefore, use of hand-crafted textiles in our clothing in no way precludes standardised sizing, good tailoring quality, or seasonal changes in style.

F2F: How do you ensure that your designs are both fashionable and functional?


Three things that go into my design process are: a deep reverence for Indian textiles, an understanding of trends in the fashion industry, and a frequently updated knowledge of customer preferences; always in that order. The balance of these three elements in my designs have ensured their relevance in terms of fashion and function.

F2F: How do you incorporate customer feedback into your design process?


We are very open to customer feedback. We collect it systematically from our stores and online portals and incorporate it wherever necessary.

For instance, based on early customer feedback, we instituted protocols to test every fabric we use, for colour fastness, shrinkage, and strength. Based on the results, a tag accompanies the garment, informing the customer about the nature of the fabric along with wash and care instructions. Feedback about the fit of our garments is taken into consideration and our size charts are revised with detailed tests and trials every six months.

F2F: Can you tell us about your collaboration with textile artisans from across India and how it influences your design choices?


Textile artisanship is the bedrock on which I built my design practice. From the inception of my business, I have been travelling to remote textile villages, interacting with artisans, and liaising with them. I treat textile artisanship and the knowledge guardians of our textile heritage with heartfelt respect and awe. Therefore, in my design process, the textile always reigns supreme. There is never an urge or attempt to put my stamp on the textile. Instead, I happily surrender to its stamp on me.

F2F: What was the research process behind devising your own size charts? How do you ensure the unique aesthetic and fit of your clothes?


The research process involved identifying body-types, recruiting volunteers for each type, developing samples, test-fitting, altering, and test-fitting again till we arrive at an optimum fit. Once a sample set is approved, the measurement charts are finalised and given out to the design and production teams. The size charts have variations included, based on styles.

Following this process diligently over the years has ensured that our fit remains unique.
The aesthetic of our clothes evolves from our understanding of the colours, crafts, and culture of our country. As the Indian ethos changes with the times, so does the aesthetic of my brand.

F2F: How has Mantra contributed to the revival, sustainability, and elevation of India’s hand-crafted textile heritage?


Over the years, we have held on to our first premise that the key resource at Mantra would always be handloom and hand-crafted textiles. We have done copious amounts of work with artisans of Bagru, Sanganer, Bhuj, Phulia, Pochampally, Masulipatnam, Chendamangalam, and many more.

We have consistently contributed to the revival, sustainability, and maybe even elevation of these crafts. It has not always been an easy path, especially during the pandemic. Yarn prices skyrocketed, artisans meandered, lead times were extended, and quality yoyo-ed. But we persevered, despite the many problems that rained on us.

F2F: What major challenges have you faced in your journey, and how did you overcome them?


Steering the brand through the pandemic was the biggest challenge I faced in my entrepreneurial journey. But thanks to my team, business associates, and a close coterie of supporters, we could get through the worst.

F2F: Can you share some of your achievements as a fashion designer in the fashion Industry?


I’d count our vast customer base that believes in and endorses the brand Mantra as the biggest achievement in my long innings in the fashion industry.

F2F: Could you please share your future plans for the brand with us?


We have plans to expand our retail presence to other parts of the country with collaborations with online portals, multi-designer outlets, and exclusive brand outlets in selected cities.

Could you please share your future plans for the brand with us?

Interviewer: Kiran Sahija
Published on: 27/04/2023
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