Kara Weaves | Small Business Success Story & Interview

May 06, 2016

Kara Weaves and its products have been time and again featured in popular media/magazines:
Martha Stewart Weddings, Real Simple, Better Homes and Gardens, Design*Sponge, Apartment Therapy, House Beautiful, etc. 

Some of Karas biggest clients:
Anthropologie, School House Electric, Calypso St Barth, Williams Sonoma, AHALife etc.

Kara Weaves: Website | Instagram | Facebook

Over the years, not only have I had the privilege of working with and learning from many successful women, but also have been lucky enough to watch and learn from a distance, the journey of a few successful women entrepreneurs (admire all they do while also aspire to become one myself, one day!). And one such woman is Chitra Gopalakrishnan, a passionate entrepreneur (might I also add multi-talented) and her Kara Weaves

When I launched this blog about 4 months ago, my intention was (and still very much is) to write about all things I am extremely passionate about. One among which is also to highlight and talk about the best of the best work some of my friends do, and this post (hopefully series) is one such attempt. Though I first spoke to Chitra about this post back in January, I couldnt have thought of a better day than my Birthday to publish it (I am sentimental that way!). The more I learn about Chitra and Kara Weaves, the more inspired I feel. And today, I bring to you a snapshot of my chat with Chitra (and co-incidentally, Chitra was mentioned in creativemornings Instagram feed just this week). Hopefully, not only will you fall in love with Karas products and designs but you will also leave inspired after reading this interview/post!!! 

Read along to win a giveaway and discount...

Kara Weaves is a social enterprise creating fair-trade certified handwoven textiles. We partner with local weaving co-operatives in Kerala (India) to design contemporary home textiles. Each product is made from a very ancient local fabric called the "thorthu" that is hand-made at traditional wooden looms. 

Hi Chitra, can you please give my readers and me a quick introduction about yourself? 

Hello everyone! My name is Chitra and I am one half of Kara Weaves. I co-own this fair-trade textile company with my mum Indu. She is an anthropologist and I am a graphic designer, and together we design textiles made traditionally at wooden looms near our village in Kerala, India. We like to think our work exists at the intersection of design, tradition and ethical business practices.

A bit about us: 
Its pretty surreal and fun to be working with my mum daily. In the beginning we used to call each other by our first names while at meetings to not blindside clients with our personal relationship. But now Im pretty comfortable calling her amma in the midst of a business meeting, and actually love telling everyone that we are a mum and daughter pair. I think this comes largely from the warm response we have had each time anyone found out we were a family business. But unlike traditional family businesses, we were not formally trained to do this nor did we plan to do this: we ended up here due to an urgency to preserve this craft-form and our love for these beautiful and oft-overlooked textiles.

Tell us what Kara Weaves is in your words? (Like everything )

Kara Weaves is a fair-trade* certified social enterprise that works with a disappearing group of handloom weavers in Kerala. We started in 2007 as a 4-women partnership between my mum Indu and her friends. I was involved from the start on the branding, photography, website, product design writing and marketing, but only as a consultant as I was a full time grad-student and then a professor. In 2011 I joined Kara full time and took up some more roles in the administrative section of our company as well. Our ex-partners are still our very close friends whom we consult with on a regular basis about our work.

Our product section was, at first, very very large as we experimented with these textiles. After we started marketing it and realized its huge potential, we scaled it all the way back to just one type: towels. Since then we have slowly brought back items in an effort to be more intentional about our target audience and the growth of our company. We currently have 3 segments: Kara Home (bath textiles, table linens, bed linens, furnishing fabrics), Kara Beach (fashion accessories, resort-wear) and Kara Baby (layettes, blankets, wipes). The Beach and Baby product lines are our newest, and I believe in the next few months youll see a lot more of them up on our website or with our stockists. The Home textiles line has been seen previously at Anthropologie, Calypso St Barth, Williams Sonoma and several other smaller but unique stores across the US, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Kuwait, India, Canada and Europe.

We believe in making textiles that will easily integrate into your active and busy lifestyle, and be with you forever. A bath towel that is also a beach towel, a beach mat, a scarf, a wrap, a sarong, a baby blanket, a table cover, etc. If your life includes travel, tea parties, kids or all or none of that, this textile finds ways to be useful around you. It is made of a strong yet breathable weave, which lasts for years and takes on many many roles, as it has traditionally in Kerala homes.

Few of our USPs:
  • We work uniquely with co-operatives where each member weaver or tailor has a vote in how its run, has insurance and retirement funds and most importantly: a fair living wage.
  • A majority of our products are Zero-Waste products meaning there is no waste materials being produced when the item is born.
  • Unintentionally our office staff is all women. This might be the nature of our work or the interest shown by our local community. We love this co-incidence!
  • We are our main product testers and toughest critics. We stand behind all the products we make, as we have used them and truly believe them to be practical, beautiful and ethical.
  • Fair trade certified products. 
  • Handloom Mark certified, i.e. verified and certified by the Government of India to be authentically made by hand on traditional wooden looms.

What was the inspiration behind Kara Weaves?

It all started when we realized that the same co-op that my mum Indu had interviewed for her book in the 80s had now almost shut down due to a lack of clients. The weavers had moved to other professions and were hesitant to pass this skill to their children, encouraging them to take up other jobs. This really forced us to re-think our roles in our professions respectively: as a soon-to-be retired anthropologist (my mum Indu) and a soon-to-be design faculty and graphic designer (me). We decided that using our skills we needed to find a new market, make new products and generally change the perception of what people thought this textile could do. The main reason we focussed on this group of textiles was our desire to see innovation in the design, marketing and reach of the product within India and the rest of the world. 

How does Kara Weaves compare today to when it started?

We are a lot more intentional with the products we now make and the businesses we collaborate with. In the beginning because everything was new and this type of work with this textile was not being done anywhere (which is still the case), we tried a lot of different things and made hundreds of product prototypes. Having had more than 8 years of retail experience with end-customers now, we are able to create products with a more specific focus.

I am sure it is not all sunshine and rainbows, can you share some of the challenging aspects of running Kara Weaves? 

Our primary concern when we started was to ensure a steady flow of orders to the co-ops we support. With every wholesale order, media coverage, we are able to provide this. But this is an ongoing process and something we are always working on to ensure stability in the work-flow.
Another area we are actively working on is to add more talented people to our team. Especially in the areas of business development and textile design, we are always always on the lookout for talent. So if youre our person and reading this, email me!

During such trying times, who do you turn to for advice and what is your motivational pick-me-up?

We have a fantastic team of advisors, both formally and informally that we turn to. Some are family, some are local business owners and ex-collaborators, some are friends. Here are some names, in no specific order: Rajendra Menon, A.R Sathish, Suryakala Sathish, P Gopalakrishnan, Ramesh Menon, Vasudev Narayann, Lakshmi N Menon, Sandhya Menon, Sreedevi Narayanan, Elke Heilemann, Jennifer Williams, Maria L Martin, Prashant Mali, Revathy Asha Menon, and so many more!

Can you tell us more about Karas global showcase(s)?

We started our brand as an online store that sold to people around the world, and we still proudly have our store up and running. As we grew we started to work with other businesses to scale up in a meaningful way. Our very first significant buyers were (and still are) from Anthropologie, then at Calypso St Barth, Williams Sonoma, and many more listed here.

We love taking our work to different trade fairs around the world. Not only does it give us good visibility for our work but it's also always an eye-opening moment as we see how the local culture reacts and embraces our textiles in unique ways. We were recently in Berlin for the sustainability segment of the Berlin Fashion week (a sneak peek here) and are looking forward to being there again in June. In August we are going to be at the New York Now fair at Javits Center and are so excited to be meeting up with our buyers at these events. As I mentioned earlier, our wholesale portfolio is a lot more varied than the collection in our online store. We do this as an ability to increase the reach of our products and grow in a meaningful way for our brand.

What other businesses and women are you inspired by?

Im a huge fan of the Tattly and Creative Mornings co-founder Tina Roth Eisenberg, the good earth founder and brand, the words and images of Nirmala Mayur Patil, Joy Cho of Oh Joy, Grace Bonney of Design Sponge, Emily Henderson, Noor and Nur of Ecru Kuwait, Studio Mucci, almost every single one of our fabulous buyers …. this is pretty much an endless list that grows daily.

What is your advice for someone who wants to take the plunge and start their own business? 

I dont know enough about giving business advice, but here are thoughts that helped us:
Does your idea/product/service fill a missing gap in an existing market? Do the research thoroughly and sincerely before you say yes to this question.
Do you have a positive gut feeling about this? Having an instinct about things or people is paramount to the best research and never underestimate your minds ability to know what is good for you.
Plan in bite-sized amounts. Instead of saying Im going to build a greeting card empire, just focus on making one really amazing card. And take it from there.

 What is in the future for Kara Weaves and Chitra?

Were hoping to stay small but grow big through collaborations with artists and businesses. I say this about staying small since we really want to make sure our social objectives of supporting and preserving the handloom industry are always the core of our work. I genuinely believe collaboration and not competition is the future of good business. When we team up with others and each put our core skills on the table, we are bigger than the sum of our parts, and can benefit our community  more than we can imagine. Ok, so that sounds so clichéd when I typed it out, but thats exactly whats on our mind at Kara.

 Lastly, what other products are in the pipeline for Kara?

As I mentioned earlier we have 3 segments: Home, Beach and Baby. In the past we have focussed exclusively on Home textiles. Since January of this year we have slowly expanded our work with more products in fashion and for kids. We have had such a good response from customers with our clothing collection that we are excited to add more variety to it. With baby textiles, we are soon launching our collection of multi-purpose baby blankets, towels and layettes too which I just finished designing and am so excited about! Our online store will see the addition of some of these new products. 

The fun thing about being a small and agile business is that oftentimes our final collection will have a few new (and amazing) products that we did not initially plan for, but end up making anyway. Case in point: when we made a whole slew of shirts and blouses in our fashion collection. We intended to do only kaftans, but realized how incredible the pieces looked as tops to pair with jeans or shorts. So yes, for now our plan includes baby textiles and clothing, but there may be some small new surprises in that mix! Stay tuned…

I am obsessed with my Infini multi-use scarf (beach towel, picnic mat, wraparound, sarong, table cloth, summer scarf, table cover) from Kara, can you tell!? ;)

Chitra, can I just say one more time that that is super-impressive! Thank you so much for sharing titbits about you, Kara Weaves, and for all the inspiration. Wish you guys all the more success in the coming years, much love…

20% Discount on any orders
Kara Weaves has graciously offered to provide a 20% discount to my readers on all purchases, use code SVEETESKAPES at checkout. 

Kara Weaves is giving away this beautiful dip-dye muslin scarf to one lucky winner, giveaway information is available on my Instagram post

* A fair trade certification implies that the entire supply chain of a products creation has been verified and certified to not include child labor, unfair wages, bonded labor, unsafe working conditions and any unethical work practices. We are based in one of the very few pro-labor states in India, which by definition fiercely protects the rights and conditions of workers. Add to the fact that we work only with weaving co-operatives (where each member weaver has a vote in the running of the organization), and you have yourself a default fair-trade setup. We were still keen to get certified, so since 2013 have been certified members of the Fair Trade Forum of India, which is the India chapter of the World Fair Trade Organization. 

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”.

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