As a part of the Morning Lazziness series about strong women who attained success with their incredible ideas, I had the pleasure of interviewing three extraordinary women – Lata, Ramya & Kavea.
Lata Rao, a woman rooted in her tradition, loves sarees as most Indian women do. However, she took this love forward by sharing exquisite handwoven fabrics amidst her social network. Lata’s fascination was provided wings by her twin daughters – Ramya & Kavea. Taking pride in their maternal heritage, this visionary pair evolved and expanded these diverse drapes into the lives of modern saree-lovers.
Kalaneca (house of handloom) is an amalgamation of medieval traditionalism with designer couture – a melange of style & comfort that truly celebrates the creativity of native artisans & India’s multicultural feminine identity.
Let’s meet this trail brazing trio who are bringing alive the century-old handwoven saree tradition from Uppada (a hamlet in Andhra Pradesh) onto a global platform.
When did you discover these handcrafted sarees, and how did your daughters get involved?
We are based in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, since 1999. Being an ardent saree-lover led me to explore, along with my husband, our neighbouring village Uppada which has a rich legacy of Jamdani sarees that are grand yet light-weight. From 2000, I either escorted guests to the village for purchasing directly from the weavers or carried the weaves with me for family functions so relatives could shop. Realising that even though people knew about the weaves, few owned them, I decided to do my bit in introducing the weavers’ handloom story to the outside world.
It was purely organic that my daughters got involved with my idea. The beauty of a saree is that it’s a tradition that can be passed on for generations. Both of them always loved draping my sarees for family get-togethers; Kavea even chose to wear them for hosting shows. This shared passion led them to expand the narrative of one village & one town to more than 18 cities & 15 countries.
What made you convert the product into a venture?
Lata – My love for sarees was transformed into an enterprise through my daughters’ vision. What I saw as a chance to showcase the beauty of traditional weaves, they envisioned as a testimony of growth. I’d have probably touched only a few weavers, but soon we were impacting an entire community!
Ramya – Kavea and I enjoyed shopping for local weaves during our travels. People complimented our saree-draping, even approaching us for saree-related purchases. Taking these appreciations graciously, it seemed natural to take this forward in some manner. Around 2014, we conceptualised showcasing these fabrics on a digital platform. Not belonging to any business family, what started as an interesting hobby became all about acquiring tricks of the trade while being on the job.
Kavea – We started with a humble blog spot in 2014 featuring few designs that we sourced/handpicked from our weavers; out of 10 uploaded designs, 8 got sold out. After that we kept adding snaps, the sales figures also looked modest.
Soon, we branded ourselves as Kalaneca and got a logo designed. By 2015, our website launched, and we began advertising on it as well as Instagram. Still, we considered ourselves minor league players, with most sales happening through Instagram posts and word-of-mouth with high-ticket investments, majorly through silk sarees. It was only since 2016 that we progressed to designing sarees with our weavers.
Tell us the uniqueness of Kalaneca sarees.
Did you know, during the British era, the threads in Uppada would be sent across fitting into a matchbox!
Kavea – Kalaneca is born from the idea of celebrating The Art, The Artist, and the Artisan. One of our unique offerings is we’re one of the very few brands into authentic handlooms – our sarees are 100% real threads, 0% polyester. The designs are also created in such a way that we endeavour to preserve traditionalism while merging modern aesthetics to suit tastes across age groups. We employ master weavers under whom junior weavers function, a designer works on the customisation aspect.
Ramya – Every Kalaneca saree is created, keeping the colour palette in mind and then the design aspects. Our weaves from villages across India specialise in sitting on a manual loom and literally weaving every motif. We love to celebrate the fact that if every individual is unique, so are the drapes.
That’s the beauty of the thread-work, which reflects in grand designs while retaining the lightweight texture.
Describe the process from the creation up to the final delivery to the customer.
Ramya – Every saree is created keeping the customer in mind. 80% of our creations are inspired by multiple facets of our lives, such as travel diaries, nature, seasons, and 20% of the concepts on colour and design are shared by customers. For Kavea’s wedding, we chose a customised Raja-Rani design on the pallu created for the very first time in Uppada.
Depending on the design’s intricacy and weaving process, any plain silk saree takes 2-3 days to create. A customized saree employs 3-4 weavers working across 35 days to weave a grand jamdani silk saree, as it undergoes an elaborate method where we are directly involved for the bespoke/personalised interaction.
Once the team receives the sarees from the weaver, a thorough quality check is conducted, followed by packaging in beautiful handmade cloth bags along with handwritten notes for customer dispatch. Each customer is kept informed regarding schedules on weaving time, dispatch, and delivery.
We’re associated with professional courier partners to ensure smooth and fast delivery of our sarees across India by offering free shipping and with international brands for overseas delivery within 10 days.
How has the product evolved over the years?
Ramya – With customers experimenting in colours and styles, our premium silk sarees have witnessed an evolution of sorts in terms of colour combinations as well as designs. A colour blend that sounded unimaginable before is now effortlessly woven. Initially working with typical patterns, over the years, we’ve come up with new-age motifs, polka butis, and forest-themed sarees.
Uppada always had silk saree with borders, but at Kalaneca we broke that image by introducing plain premium silk sarees in rare colours like cerulean, forest red, and olive green; hence there’s been a huge transformation in the colours too.
We earlier partnered with a Mumbai NGO engaging disabled women making recycled paper bags. Since last year, The Yellow Bags, Madurai creates handwoven cotton bags offering better protection for our sarees. This change garnered rave reviews; now, we’ve initiated recyclable plastic bags to further safeguard against climatic conditions/rains.
How is workflow managed between you three and the weavers?
Ramya – Mom and myself interact closely with the weavers to discuss new designs and colour combinations. Over time, she’s built an amazing rapport with these talented weavers, acting as the Kalaneca catalyst entrenched in our belief-system – we aren’t in the business of just selling sarees; it’s about relationship-building. I manage brand strategy affecting collaborations/partnerships while keeping a close eye on the numbers; Kavea handles shipping & packaging along with customer queries,
Lata – We feel happy to stand testimony to our weavers’ growth. Many of them started off with one loom going on to erecting more, even increasing the number of weavers. Others opened their own shops in the hamlet, which is immensely satisfying to witness.
Ultimately, even though based in different parts of the country, we three are aligned to each other’s tasks. Pre-Covid, we’d personally visit the village, now conversations have moved to telecalls/WhatsApp. Being technologically savvy, Ramya & Kavea interchange responsibilities if required while controlling the final execution.
Mr. Murthy gaaru, a master weaver says (translated from Telugu):
“My association with Kalaneca has been for many years. Both Ammagaru (Lata Rao) and her daughters are very kind people. They are taking our work to different countries, so we are very happy that we all are working hard. There is something special about putting the threads on the loom and creating something that’s actually handwoven.”
What about the digital space? Do you have a team to manage that?
Lata – Entire social media strategy is driven by Ramya & Kavea. As trained Kuchipudi dancers, their videos showcase expressions and movements. They experiment with the six yards and upload varied styling videos (podcast – six yards and six questions) to spur conversations and are extremely hands-on with Insta stories/reels. I recently opened my Instagram and LinkedIn account; I am learning from the current generation who’s more enterprising than me. I write poems and infuse Telugu in the content when needed. Recently, we celebrated the corporate women narrative #wearyourpower on LI.
With me as the founder, Ramya, and Kavea as co-founders, our digital marketing & social media team consists of 6 members, a small yet effective crew that rolls out initiatives post a thorough ideation session.
Have you ever disagreed with respect to Kalaneca’s representation?
Kavea – Absolutely! One of our channel partners featured our designs on their prolific website, the way it was showcased on their models literally made us go pale. They were just marketing sarees while we were all about celebrating them. Our insight on this is evident in our photoshoots wherein the model isn’t just posing; she’s breathing a certain personality. So, we decided to remove the photos after a year as they didn’t gel with our thought process.
Ramya – Our current website is the 5th iteration from its inception. The earlier designers created something that never aligned with our brand ethos, nor did it suit our sensibilities. In October 2020, we modified our narrative right from the photoshoot to the website look. A former designer kept insisting on a typical photoshoot, but with our new team on board, we spent close to a month debating on colour palettes and shoot concepts, finally choosing locations across Andhra’s forests and beaches. The end result was worth the effort.
In 2015, we featured women of different sizes and complexions – PR professionals, singers, dancers as our models, besides us modeling too. Many people questioned why we weren’t using skinny, stunning models. We went with our gut-feel to present real sarees on real women, not wanting to make it another fashion statement. Knowing that popular brands follow us today, those very people altered their views, eventually appreciating our work.
Mention milestones in your journey.
Ramya – One of our first milestones at Kalaneca was when one of our customers believed in our Jamdani designs and got a design customised. This was 2016 when no other brand was focussing on sarees’ customisations, and we were freshly into the online space, so it meant a lot. In 2017, we created an entire trousseau for a bride in the US with around 140 sarees. That laid the foundation of our bespoke collection, all because of a need in the market. We also resonated that when every individual is unique, why not their sarees?
Times of India covered us for trekking in our sarees and our mother ziplining in them! Telangana Today did a full spread on our weaves. Being recognised by reputed publications as a brand bringing forth authentic handwoven sarees was a highpoint.
It’s a landmark moment for us every time we’re able to influence not just the lives of our weavers but also the minds of the people to view a saree as a versatile fabric and style it as a fabric of freedom.
What are the challenges you’ve faced in this sector?
Kavea – A big challenge is explaining the difference between handloom and powerloom sarees. The customer has been pampered with machine sarees for so long that when they receive a handwoven saree with a weaver’s gum mark, they think it’s a coffee stain or a defect. Colours merging in the pallu is also an indicator of the hands weaving one colour over another, but it’s annoying to continuously clarify to customers that they’re holding an authentic handwoven saree.
Pandemic brought its own set of challenges/opportunities. The safety of our weavers was a prime concern, and it was a testing time to ensure weaving on the loom never stopped as we strived to present these yarns to the world.
The supply chain took a massive hit, so we had to pivot ways of handling end-to-end unscathed delivery. We’d bagged multiple orders from one of our bestsellers Zari Sheen, and our delivery promise is 3-5 days, but the packages got misplaced, and the sarees had to be weaved again, resulting in a delay. However, we’ve been blessed with understanding clients, and we could resume business once the 1st wave abated.
How do you balance work & personal life? Who’s been your support system in this journey?
Lata – I come from a farming background, and my husband is a Naval Officer. Discipline is a way of life for us, enabling harmony between professional and personal life. My expectations from life are also minimalistic, so I don’t overwhelm myself. My partner has been especially supportive during urgent dispatches from Kakinada, driving me to the villages and making it less strenuous.
Kavea – I wish I could be as disciplined as them! My work gets 80%, and my personal life is only 20% of my time, so I avoid fighting and go with the flow. My husband Arjun is super-supportive and my biggest cheerleader. Days when I am traveling and hosting shows, Ramya and mom take over. Like a trinity, we attempt to balance it out.
Ramya – I am also lucky to have a family and my husband Shashi, who believe in seeing me at my best. I work with an MNC handling an entire team. So, to manage Kalaneca, we work out a weekly/daily plan to avoid hassles later. Right from orders to weaves to social media posts is discussed over a morning call and then delegated appropriately.
Lata – Our well-wishers and customers are our biggest support systems. As a family, we can always back each other, but a genuine appreciation from relatives, a shoutout by friends, or a large purchase for a celebration, puts the sales numbers into perspective.
Advice for readers on taking the entrepreneurial route.
Kavea – Believe in your product and start the business with basic seed money. Don’t bother if someone in your space is hogging the limelight, as every brand’s journey and offering is unique. The online world judges you by the number of followers instead; keep a focus on the sales.
Ramya – If you’ve chosen to take up this path, then enjoy the ride and concentrate on growth every single day rather than the external noise. Don’t get bogged down by competition; alternatively, seek out opportunities to collaborate.
Lata – At my age, I can say nurture relationships because people are at the heart of every business. It can get tiring when you start late, but when a customer shops from us and drapes our saree with a smile, it just makes it all worthwhile. I have a long way to go, still don’t mind taking baby steps as long as it’s contributing towards a larger impact.
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7th August is designated as National Handloom Day; the same day in 1905, Gandhiji started India’s Swadeshi movement.