The outgoing MD of this 85-year-old brand talks about how digitalisation, a sustainability strategy and ‘customer trust’ helped make Co-optex popular once again
IAS officer TN Venkatesh, 44, has been wearing colourful ikat and handloom shirts to work for some years now. It isn’t unusual to find his colleagues sporting them too. The outgoing MD of Co-optex, the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd (established in 1935), has always liked to lead by example. “My wardrobe changed. Barely 30% of it comprises formal shirts now,” he admits.
As a child, Venkatesh was surrounded by experiences that defined his love for fabrics. He remembers his mother wearing Devendra and Madurai sungudi saris, and the many textile mills he saw in Maharashtra (his father worked in the Department of Posts). In Bombay, he accompanied his mother and aunt on their sari shopping trips 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 also visited Solapur and Paithan with his father, where they saw 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 recalls.
Textile trails down South
And so, after stints as Pollachi sub-collector (2003-2005), Karur collector (2007-2009), and at the Department of Education and Commercial Taxes, he came 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.
He was posted in Pollachi from 2003-2005, and got an opportunity to work with the weavers of Negamam. “It was the first time I visited a weaver’s house. I tried sitting on the loom, and when I tried operating it, 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, adding, “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 did not mean just saris; possibilities included bed linen and home furnishing. “I learnt the difference between powerloom and shuttleloom, and why handloom still retains an aesthetic value.”
At Co-optex, he began by touring weaving clusters within the state and outside. “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 fact, Venkatesh focussed on bringing changes in loom design technique and design intervention. The result shows in the new colour and design palette of Co-optex.
In his personal capacity, he organised textile trails with handloom enthusiasts. “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 outside Tamil Nadu have always spoken with reverence for the state’s weavers’ ecosystem, he says. “Here, a predominant part of weaving is within the co-operative fold. Tamil Nadu supports close to 70,000 people in the weaving and pre-and post-weaving process. Sales can be seasonal, but work is perennial. The cooperative takes the risk of procuring and stocking stuff. I might buy a jamakkalam (floor mat) from Bhavani this year and sell it only next year. But the weaver is taken care of.” In Co-optex, 40% of a product’s cost goes to the weaver. This is also said to be the reason why there were few distress calls during the lockdown from Tamil Nadu’s weavers.
Among the things Venkatesh is happy about during his tenure is that he instilled in his colleagues a deep pride for the brand. “We expanded their knowledge base. From Thirubuvanam and Koorainadu to Dindigul and Paramakudi, they can now identify weaves.” He also conducted knowledge-enhancement sessions for customers across cities, speaking about textiles and motifs, followed by a sale. The last stop before 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 also introduced organic cotton saris, and priced them below ₹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 also gives the example of Nangal Nagar in Dindigul as proof of positive 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.”
From the bottom up
Under the state’s Handloom Support Programme, weavers have been trained in skill 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 instance, the Thillaiyadi Valliammai showroom in Egmore has seen annual sales go up from ₹4.62 crore in 2017 to ₹7.85 crore in 2019. In 2018, work began to renovate the showroom and its facade was changed using aluminium casting and fibre board to reflect what was being sold 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 also harnessed social media; the Co-optex page on Instagram has over 25,000 followers now. Most recently, he conceptualised the Handloom Cafe in Egmore, featuring handloom motifs and artefacts, and serving simple food and good coffee. “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 successful stint, he is grateful for the opportunity to have experienced up close a field that first charmed him as a child. And that while Co-optex is known for its bedsheets and towels, people are now aware that “it also makes brilliant saris”.