“That is so pretty! Saving this! Ah! Look at the colours! Saving this one as well!”
This was both of us, enraptured on seeing the #Azhagi profile on Instagram when we heard that the interview with MADHU REKA (M.Sc. Software Engineering, 2008-13), the founder of the online design brand, was on. We were an hour early to the venue on a sunny Sunday morning and used the opportunity to exchange our stash of saved posts. A little later, the very sweet Madhu walked in with her husband. We picked a nice cosy spot, ordered food and jumped right into the interview.
Madhu is the brain and all the beauty behind the brand #Azhagi, a home for customised, hand woven sarees and dresses. Both the website and the Instagram page are such sights to behold, with beautiful colours and collections. But what catches anyone’s attention first is the interesting yet chic name. The story behind it is just as interesting.
“I believe that the brand name and logo play an essential role in achieving reach and to seek attention. They should aptly convey what the brand represents. Keeping all this in mind, we brainstormed for a long time to land at the right one. We wanted a name that was a perfect blend of both traditional and contemporary styles, whilst fulfilling my love for the Tamil language. By the end of the search, we pieced together “#Azhagi” - hashtag was just what we wanted as Instagram was the talk of the town then and Azhagi - well, the word says it all! Even today, the name is what draws in a lot of customers when we set up stalls and pop-up stores in exhibitions. Our logo resembles a peacock and the tamil letter 'அ', which stands for Azhagi”, recollected Madhu Rekha.
Our food arrived while we were chatting about our time in college - well, her time in college and our lack of time in college. She walked us through her journey from the campus of PSG to becoming the person behind the brand and it was extremely enticing to trace it with her. The decision to get going with #Azhagi was not an impulsive one. Madhurekha had the idea growing bigger and bigger in her heart and mind from her 11th grade. Growing up, she had always loved dressing up herself and others. She remembered being excited to doll up her friends for Login and other college events. After finishing her degree at PSG, she worked as a UX designer in Hyderabad for one and a half years and gained immense learning in customer satisfaction and experience.
“I learnt a lot from the job but I soon realised that corporate was not my happy place. I quit and enrolled myself for a fashion management course in NIFT, Kannur. Looking for some experience in the retail sector, I took up a job in Decathlon and the exposure I received is irreplaceable in my journey. After my marriage, I figured it was time to put the idea into action and started with patchwork sarees, the then-newest drop in the saree world. We built the brand slowly step by step from the logo, website to the products. And now here we are after 4 years!”
When asked if we could get a behind-the-screen glimpse of products from #Azhagi, we were in for a colourful odyssey. “We start with a concept on which a collection is based. For instance, the summer 2021 collection is themed as "thePostBoxSeries". The significance of this launch is that it marks the beginning of Silk Sarees from our brand. But instead of making that the face of the product, we bring in the theme which adds life to it. We also ensure picking of relevant product names. The sarees launched during the month of ‘Margazhi’, were named after Raagas like Aarabi, Kalyani and Sahana. Once the theme is set, we move on to the colour palette. This is chosen either based on the theme or the season of the year. Next, inspiration comes into the picture. Inspiration would include ideas like floral or polka dots, after which the motifs are designed. Then we decide which among the numerous crafts like embroidery or block print to use. All of these are intricately integrated to make samples. While the above mentioned steps take care of the designs and prints, fabric samples are also curated parallely, depending on the needs of each of the collections. We work with weavers from places which are known for the various fabrics respectively, a couple of them being Mangalgiri weavers from Andhra Pradesh for cotton, weavers from Kolkata for linen and so on.”, she elaborated. She also pointed out that freelancers were hired only for the designing process as and when needed and that there weren’t any full time employees in #Azhagi.
There’s something about the sarees from #Azhagi that lures us. The perfectly chosen colours, fabric and aesthetic shots scream ‘elegance’. “The decision of choosing between products that I’d like to make and products people would like me to make wasn’t an easy one. I went ahead with the former since it paves way to an effortless way of delivering my ideas, without compromising on authenticity. We try to make the packaging as sustainable as possible with measures like block printing on newspapers. Being an e-retail space, it is vital for people to feel a connection with the content of the brand. The first few shoots for the ‘Summer memories’ collection were done at Karaikudi. The idea behind this collection was to capture the essence of the activities we are involved in during summer. This led to the shots capturing cousins/friends enjoying popsicles and playing Pallankuzhi. The sisterhood portrayed in the evergreen film ‘Kandukonden Kandukonden’ sowed seeds for the theme of our latest collection, thePostboxSeries. It came out really well, didn’t it?” she explained and we couldn’t help but express our love for the theme as well.
After an engineering degree, one may get the idea that their options are streamlined and shelf their passion for later but eventually end up not getting to it. We asked Madhurekha what it took to go for the leap and if it was hard for her to go from a stable IT job to a career in fashion and business. “Like I said, I always knew that this was what I wanted to do in life and even though my parents were a little apprehensive at first considering the amount of effort required to make it in the market, it was not hard to get them on board. This was the scenario for me, it could be different for others. If you’re someone with a plan to switch the course of a career and start anew, I’d say it is important to be mentally prepared to face anything and everything. Only if you are sure about your plan and idea, will you have the strength to convince others around you. Also clarity in what you want for yourself goes a long way and I am not talking about a complete road map with specifics, just a 50% idea of your plans would be fine. When it comes to qualification, a management degree could act as a catalyst in the journey, but it is not a necessity. Since running a business involves money, knowledge about basic accounting is what matters. Last but not the least, marketing makes a huge impact too.”
“The shift from IT to a job in fashion may seem a little extreme but I would say the IT phase of my life helped me a lot and I do not regret it, everything added up to something useful. Working as a UX designer helped me look at everything from the customer’s perspective and made it super easy to work with web developers during the building of the website. Maybe I missed the regular flow of money from a corporate job a little when I opted out, but it was all worth it in the end.”
“Besides I will never want to exchange my life in PSG for the world. I had the time of my life there and made great friends with whom I spend most of my weekends with in Bangalore to date. The hostel stay was a welcome change after all the day scholar-ing I did in school. When I have a tough job at hand, I think about the nights I stayed up debugging and finishing packages and immediately the job looks way easier.”
While returning home after one of the most enjoyable, yet inspiring conversations with Madhu, all we could talk about was how she manages this long chain of responsibilities by herself, right from meticulously grooming the venture to handling the social media account and personally attending to customers, not to mention the sarees on our wishlist. It was indeed astonishing! Determination, passion and support from kith and kin clearly goes a long way.
Team Bridge would like to thank Madhu Reka for taking the time to talk to our correspondents for this interview.