Shalini James is a graduate in English literature who abandoned the subject mid-sentence to pursue her love for fashion. After a three year spell in Fashion design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, she took a business management program from IIM, Calcutta. Her education now a heady cocktail of sorts, she spent more than a few years figuring out her mantra. Eventually in December 2002, after a particularly intense eureka moment, she founded a company in the living room of a house in Cochin and named it Shalini James' Mantra. Simply put, Mantra is a firm that designs, manufactures and sells clothes that appeal to Shalini. That they appeal to a whole lot of other women too may be incidental, but it turned out to be fortunate for her.
In its thirteenth year, Mantra has spread its wings and moved out of that living room into a state-of-the art factory which looks more like a farm house. Nestling amidst coconut palms and meandering canals, the Mantra house stands tall in Cheranalloor, a once- sleepy village on the fringes of Cochin. As the neighbourhood wakes up to the resonant music of temple bells and the spicy fragrance that wafts in from a nearby pepper grove, a group of people buzz into action here. This colonial-style building that houses big dreams is home to Shalini and her team.
Shalini James, the label, is an exotic potpourri of all things Indian; in silhouettes that are sometimes ethnic, sometimes contemporary, and mostly a unique mix of both. Shalini’s signature line, ‘Indian by choice’, espouses her design philosophy. In 2014, a collection inspired by the civil disobedience movement paid tribute to the patriotism of those times. Loose, boxy kurtas with rolled up sleeves, cool, airy patialas and dhotis, with a jacket thrown on, were representative of a fashion attitude that was laidback, yet purposeful. The silhouettes were relaxed, and mildly dismissive of earlier fashion dictates, to fit into a predetermined size. The look was interestingly androgynous in nature – kurtas, dhotis and jackets being mostly items of male clothing which found their way only later into the female wardrobe.
The far reaching impact of this collection led to further editions. SS 15 saw an eclectic collage of ikat, kalamkari, mashru, bagru and other traditional textile crafts. The forthcoming season will see a profusion of colour, on a palette replete with more than thirty, true Indian hues – Rani, Gulabi, Gajari, Neel, Firozi, Ambar, Mehendi, Kumkum, Krishna and Kohl, to name just a few. This season, ‘Indian by choice’ promises to be a riot by Indian colours in protest against western imperialism in colour names. The designer’s signature blends of textiles, crafts and embroideries join the fray in aid of this cause.
The collections are available at exclusive Mantra outlets in Cochin and at Ambika Pillai’s Style Loft in New Delhi.