21 Oct 2016 21:15 IST

Nalli’s strength lies in the warp and weft of tradition

Nalli Silks showroom in T.Nagar, Chennai   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Sourcing silk from 30,000 weavers and selling 1.5 m sarees a year, the brand reinvents to retain appeal

The year was 1951. Legendary Carnatic musician MS Subbulakshmi walked into the Nalli store at T Nagar, in Chennai, with a blue thread in her hand and an unusual request: she wanted them to fashion a saree of the same colour for her to wear at a concert. Though the colour was not commercially available, Nalli rose to the occasion. Its weavers experimented with various dyes till they got the exact shade she had asked for. And that is how the famous ‘MS Blue’ colour was born. It still continues to be in demand at Nalli!

Nalli Kuppusami Chetti, a weaver from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, started his business selling sarees from door to door. He would visit Madras (now Chennai) at least twice a week to sell sarees, disembarking at Mambalam Railway Station, which was one of the reasons he chose T Nagar, instead of the then-famous commercial area Mylapore, to set up shop (and house) in 1928. T Nagar, a largely residential area, did not even have banks at that time! In hindsight, it could be said that he made T Nagar what it is today — a destination for silk sarees.

 

Much before this, he had made a name for himself with his superb weaving skills: he was chosen to weave a special silk shawl/ saree to be presented as a souvenir to King George V on his visit to Madras in 1911. He came up with a rich weave called ‘Durbar Pet’ or ‘Coronation Border’. It can still be ordered by special request at Nalli.

Experimenting with colours

Always one to experiment, as early as 1921, he made the shift from vegetable dyes to chemical dyes, in the face of weavers’ reluctance. The dyes were supplied by CIBA, Switzerland. When the weavers observed that the dyes affected neither the shine nor the yarn strength of the silk, their initial hesitation disappeared. The mixing of dyes also resulted in multiple hues and colours.

Initially, he operated out of his house in T Nagar, but by 1935 he had opened his first small showroom in the same area. It was soon doing good business. It even braved the 1939 World War II scare, remaining open while all other stores either shut down or relocated. People from all over Madras made their purchases there during this period, etching Nalli forever in their minds as a symbol of the city’s courage and defiance.

By 1951, Nalli had shifted to its present location in T Nagar. The founder’s grandson Nalli Chinnasami Chetty entered the business in 1958. In a bold move, he decided on a ‘no discount’ policy, showing both his willingness to stand behind the quality of Nalli’s products and his commitment to the customer to always offer goods at affordable prices for different economic groups. It was an unheard of decision for those days and times but brought the Nalli name added trust.

Nalli scored on two other points as well — timely delivery and additional yardage (9.75 yards against the usual nine yards).

Wedding destination

By the 1970s, the ‘Nalli’ brand had become synonymous with genuine and pure Kanchipuram silk sarees. It became the place to head to for wedding sarees and dhotis (even today, 50 per cent of Nalli’s sales come from wedding purchases) making their claim of “Every wedding deserves a Nalli” true. People travelled from smaller cities and towns to Chennai to buy silk sarees and dhotis for weddings and other important occasions. The store was soon doing excellent business, but further expansion came only in 1985, when Nalli opened a second store in Madurai.

Today, Nalli is the only player in the silk saree segment to have a national presence. There are 30 outlets across eight cities in India including Chennai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Mumbai. After Chennai, Delhi is Nalli’s biggest market. There are two stores abroad — in the US and Singapore. Nalli is hoping to enter Sri Lanka soon.

Nalli was probably the first store to give the customer information on what it sold. As the silk saree market was flooded with fake silks and duplicate zari, Nalli took pains to educate the customer through exact labelling of its products — as pure silk, polyester, pure (silver and gold) zari, tested (copper) zari, and so on.

 

It claims to be the only store that turns over its inventory 12 times a year — which means they add new stock every month, as opposed to other stores that do it once in three or four months. Aware that fashion trends repeat themselves every 30 years or so, Nalli has used technology to track design and pattern changes over the years, record the same and retrieve them when necessary.

Comfort and trust

All Nalli sales personnel have instructions to treat every customer, regardless of his/her economic status and the purchase value, with the same courtesy and respect and the willingness to display anything they ask for.

Perhaps these are the reasons Nalli can boast of having even fourth generation family members of erstwhile customers coming to the store for their purchases: it is a family store and the comfort and trust level is high.

Of late, however, experts are wondering whether Nalli has limited appeal among the younger generation, who are going in for trendier clothing, and associate Nalli largely with ‘wedding silks and dhotis’. This was probably what prompted the next generation of the Nalli group to make their name associated with more than silk sarees even as its fame spread with expansion to other cities.

 

Each and every Nalli store in the country now offers not just sarees/textiles from the Southern states but fabric sourced from across India. The range available is extraordinary. Nalli now stocks sarees in materials other than silk; dress materials and readymade clothes for men, women and children; and a special line called ‘Etnische’ for women between 18 and 24. The second format store ‘Nalli Next’ caters to working women with higher-end apparel and accessories along with furnishings. The latest ‘Lavanya Nalli’ — named after and run by a fifth generation family member and first woman executive of Nalli — is a high-end store catering to modern women. Nalli has also ventured into the jewellery scene, hoping to capitalize on the combined ‘silk and gold’ wedding purchases.

Online portal

Nalli sources silk from about 30,000 weavers across Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka. The group sells about 1.5 million sarees a year. Of late, however, the prices of raw materials have spiralled along with labour costs and, accordingly, the volume of sales has decreased. Another worrying trend is that of weavers abandoning their traditional vocation for less labour-intensive but more lucrative pursuits.

The present Chairman, Nalli Kuppusami Chetty, is a philanthropist, author, music lover and a member of several fora, both in industry and music circles. He won the Padma Shri in 2003. He takes an active interest in the welfare of the weavers (and their families) who have contributed to Nalli’s success and his employees. It is said that employees at Nalli outlets are not asked to retire at a specific age; it is up to them to decide when they would like to be pensioned off.

Nalli runs its own online portal, where it sells its branded products. For a brand that is so well-known, it spends little on advertising, preferring word-of-mouth publicity to spread its fame.