TN Venkatesh: The man who scripted Co-optex’s turnaround

The outgoing MD of this 85-year-old model talks about how digitalisation, a sustainability technique and ‘customer trust’ helped make Co-optex well-liked as soon as once more

IAS officer TN Venkatesh, 44, has been carrying vibrant ikat and handloom shirts to work for some years now. It is not uncommon to seek out his colleagues sporting them too. The outgoing MD of Co-optex, the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd (established in 1935), has at all times appreciated to guide by instance. “My wardrobe changed. Barely 30% of it comprises formal shirts now,” he admits.

Early influences

As a toddler, Venkatesh was surrounded by experiences that outlined his love for materials. He remembers his mom carrying Devendra and Madurai sungudi saris, and the numerous textile mills he noticed in Maharashtra (his father labored within the Department of Posts). In Bombay, he accompanied his mom and aunt on their sari procuring journeys to Dadar and Chembur. “I noticed floral and Mughal motifs that I would recreate on paper, the screen prints of Garden Vareli… that is where I developed a fascination for textiles. I wanted to know how these fabrics were made,” says Venkatesh, who additionally visited Solapur and Paithan together with his father, the place they noticed paithani being woven.

At 16, he moved to Delhi, and explored the emporia on Baba Kharak Singh Marg. “During our holidays, we would travel to the East and my mother would pick out Bengal cottons from Gariahat. I decided that when it was time to work, I would like to deal with such weaves,” he remembers.

Textile trails down South

And so, after stints as Pollachi sub-collector (2003-2005), Karur collector (2007-2009), and on the Department of Education and Commercial Taxes, he got here to Co-optex in 2014. “It was a godsend. Pollachi and Karur opened my eyes to the possibilities of the state’s textile traditions,” he says.

It gave him the chance to work with the weavers of Negamam. “It was the first time I visited a weaver’s house. When I tried operating the loom, I realised how hard one had to press the pedal. And they did it continuously for days. It is such a tough process, but something they’ve kept at, handing it down from generation to generation,” he says, including, “Rarely do you see outsiders take to weaving. It is actually impossible for someone who has never been part of the pre and post-weaving process to suddenly learn how to weave.”

In Karur, he realised handloom didn’t imply simply saris; potentialities included mattress linen and residential furnishing. “I learnt the difference between powerloom and shuttleloom, and why handloom still retains an aesthetic value.”

At Co-optex, he started by touring weaving clusters throughout the state and outdoors. “I developed great respect for weavers who translated motifs on to fabric. I’ve visited 25 clusters in the country so far, because the best education is spending time with the artisans.” In reality, Venkatesh focussed on bringing modifications in loom design method and design intervention. The end result reveals within the new color and design palette of Co-optex.

TN Venkatesh with Sufiyan Khatri of Ajrakhpur in Kutch

In his private capability, he organised textile trails with handloom lovers. “All I had to do was leverage the one thing Co-optex had in abundance: customer trust. The colourful butterfly logo is symbolic of the vibrant weaves of the state and our fairtrade policy.”

Designers from exterior Tamil Nadu have at all times spoken with reverence for the state’s weavers’ ecosystem, he says. “Here, a predominant a part of weaving is throughout the co-operative fold. Tamil Nadu helps near 70,000 individuals within the weaving and pre-and post-weaving course of. Sales might be seasonal, however work is perennial. The cooperative takes the danger of procuring and stocking stuff. I would purchase a jamakkalam (ground mat) from Bhavani this yr and promote it solely subsequent yr. But the weaver is taken care of.” In Co-optex, 40% of a product’s value goes to the weaver. This can be stated to be the explanation why there have been few misery calls through the lockdown from Tamil Nadu’s weavers.

Being sustainable

Among the issues Venkatesh is completely happy about throughout his tenure is that he instilled in his colleagues a deep satisfaction for the model. “We expanded their knowledge base. From Thirubuvanam and Koorainadu to Dindigul and Paramakudi, they can now identify weaves.” He additionally carried out knowledge-enhancement classes for patrons throughout cities, talking about textiles and motifs, adopted by a sale. The final cease earlier than the lockdown was in Bhubaneswar. “We would do sales of up to ₹11 lakh. My colleagues saw that engaging with people helped. It was a trickle-down effect,” he says.

During his tenure, Co-optex additionally launched natural cotton saris, and priced them beneath ₹5,000. But the transition took time. “In 2015, weavers at Vadambacheri near Sulur, Coimbatore, agreed to do the first batch of 10 organic cotton saris after we spent two days convincing them. It did so well, we developed similar clusters in Salem, Paramakudi and Dindigul.”

He additionally provides the instance of Nangal Nagar in Dindigul as proof of constructive intervention. “In 2015, the weavers were doing art silk [bumper cotton] and sales had dwindled because powerloom replicas were selling at a fourth of the cost. This cluster of 130 weavers transitioned to mercerised cotton. From two-three saris a month, a couple can now make about 20 saris in the same period. Their income levels have shot up 2.5 times. When you systematically work on a product and market it well, you will reap benefits.”

A façade of the Co-optex showroom at Egmore

From the underside up

Under the state’s Handloom Support Programme, weavers have been educated in talent upgradation. Venkatesh says he believes in a system that “evolves from below”. “The main stakeholders — the weavers and designers — were involved in decision making. We modernised 50 showrooms in the last six years, and the improved ambience has made a difference,” he says. For occasion, the Thillaiyadi Valliammai showroom in Egmore has seen annual gross sales go up from ₹4.62 crore in 2017 to ₹7.85 crore in 2019. In 2018, work started to renovate the showroom and its facade was modified utilizing aluminium casting and fibre board to mirror what was being bought inside. “We changed the elevation to represent a floral jacquard weave and the shuttles used in weaving. This was our premium store and I wanted a different aesthetic for it,” says Venkatesh.

He additionally harnessed social media; the Co-optex web page on Instagram has over 25,000 followers now. Most just lately, he conceptualised the Handloom Cafe in Egmore, that includes handloom motifs and artefacts, and serving easy meals and good espresso. “Once colleges open, I hope more youngsters visit. Even now, we sell about three saris at the cafe every day,” he says.

As Venkatesh steps down from a profitable stint, he’s grateful for the chance to have skilled up shut a discipline that first charmed him as a toddler. And that whereas Co-optex is understood for its bedsheets and towels, individuals are actually conscious that “it also makes brilliant saris”.

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