Self-taught designer Prema Isaac talks of her work at the Rangoli design studio and shares her experiences
The atmosphere at the Rangoli studio is young, lively and full of joy and colours – with salsa music playing in the background and customers and friends sitting on cane sofas, sipping their coffee. Prema loves what she's doing, and that's reflected in her work.
Twenty six year old Prema was born and brought up in Auroville. As a child, Prema already had a great sense of style and elegance and was always complimented on the clothes she wore. In 1999, though she had had no professional education or training in the field, her passion for clothes prompted her to begin her career as a designer and she created her own label of women's clothing: ‘Rangoli: a colourful experience'.
“I was having lots of fun designing clothes and getting them stitched for myself, just as a pastime,” recounts Prema. “The clothes were very appreciated by people around me, and I was enjoying myself so much, playing with different fabrics and colour combinations, that I created a small collection consisting of a few skirts, shirts and pants, which was displayed at the Auroville Boutique.”
This first collection sold out very fast, and there was demand for more, so gradually what began as a hobby turned into a full-time job. She started spending whole days in Pondicherry, buying fabric, coming up with new designs and working with a couple of tailors who produced for her...
A year later, Prema was allocated a space in the Aurobhakti building in Auroshilpam, Auroville. She rented a sewing machine, employed a tailor and three women to do embroidery, put up shelves to store her fabric and started her very own design studio. “It was really an intimate, personalized space,” she remembers, “it was bubbling with energy and life, and I loved being there, it inspired me.”
At that time somebody had started a production unit in the same building, making use of the machinery, which had been an asset of the Aurobhakti unit. That is where Prema began to get her clothes produced. Some time later her partner took over the production unit, and they started working together. That went on for a few years until he stopped working there. By then, most of the production being done was for Rangoli, so Prema decided to take up the challenge and run the production unit as well.
Today, she employs twenty people, consisting amongst others of a cutter, a master pattern maker, tailors and women skilled in embroidery. She constantly creates new designs, while simultaneously managing the whole unit herself, as she is the one in charge of all the administrative work involved, sourcing fabric and maintaining customer relations.
Prema sources her fabric from different parts of India, most notably Calcutta in Bengal. “I initially started using the sari, which was actually the inspiration behind my creations. The sari is so traditional and uniquely Indian, yet I designed modern clothes in Western styles and cuts out of it. In the very beginning I only used the Bengal sari, which is woven in fine tangail cotton, is very elegant, its borders are often soft, subtle and delicate. I play a lot with transparencies, so I use different cotton linings and layers to bring out different colours and shades. Of course I also started to explore all kinds of different fabrics, silks, cottons, crepes. I have contacts to purchase surplus fabric of big export companies as well. That way I get very interesting fabrics to work with: some techno-coloured stretch, different denims, or the Irish Linen, out of which I created a line which is now much in demand. I've also been working with beautiful antique saris which I sourced in Delhi.”
Prema finds great joy in the creative process of designing. “It's a passion.” she explains, “I love playing with fabric, with layers, transparencies, and colour combinations. I also like to wear the clothes I design and to feel good in them, and I think it's important to dress well, it really gives one an inner sense of well being…”
Over the years, inspired by the vibrant colours of India, Prema has developed a unique and universal style, born of a fusion of cultures, a fusion of the East and the West, where the traditional and the modern, the ethnic and the chic meet and blend harmoniously.
The Rangoli line of clothing comprises a number of different collections: elegant and sober, well cut linen shirts and pants, multi layered, fluid dresses made from the Bengal sari, twirling flamenco skirts, fun, funky pants and tops, classical embroidered kurtas, raw silk evening dresses, as well as accessories, such as hand and shoulder bags, scarves and sequin embroidered leather slippers. Recently, Prema has also added a collection of children's wear to the Rangoli line.
“We don't come up with whole new collections as such, but we keep adding new designs, and stopping to produce old ones throughout the year,” explains Prema. “Some of the first designs I had created and started off with are still being produced, because they sell very well.”
Different Rangoli collections are sold at the Auroville Boutiques in Auroville and Pondicherry, in Casablanca, and at the Amethyst boutique in Chennai. Prema also supplies the stores of the Casino group of hotels in Kerala. Exports are undertaken, with small boutique owners from Europe or the US coming to the studio and placing orders. “We do not do mass-production,” explains Prema, “and some of my designs are unique in terms of fabric used and colour combinations, and often impossible to reproduce. Therefore I prefer to supply small boutiques with exclusive collections.”
Asked if she feels her lack of professional education and training in the field of designing has been a drawback, Prema explains: “I'm basically working and learning a lot at the same time. I have to do constant research, and find out how it all works, just to be able to delegate work to my employees, which wouldn't be the case if I had had professional training. Of course I do make mistakes, and sometimes I have to make many different patterns and samples before coming up with a final design, I have to go through a whole process to be able to come up with a creation of mine. But it's a challenge and it's possible. The big advantage I have here is that I have the necessary set-up and I am able to employ and work with professionals. I have a pattern maker, who can convey my vision into a very technical pattern, and from there it goes on to the production unit.
“Also, I don't actually think I could have taken care of the whole set up, sourcing all the fabrics, dealing with all my clients, if I had gone to a design school, and concentrated exclusively on sitting at my table and coming up with designs. But now I do feel the urge to learn how to do all that myself: not only the conceptualization of the design, but also the drawing of the pattern, the cutting of the fabric, and the actual stitching of the piece of clothing. So far, I never found the time to do that, but eventually I hope to have a better established set-up, so that I can delegate more of the work which I am at present managing. Then I will have more time to work on the designs, be creative and learn all I want to learn.”