Chino Mannikarottu, a doctor based in San Diego, California, had heard about Chendamangalam saris from an acquaintance.
Chino, whose roots are in Kerala, was fascinated by the idea of getting saris right from the weaver, in its most pristine form. That would have a lingering warmth, she felt, rather than getting it from a retail store. So she ordered Kerala saris for herself and her friends in the US.
But then, a devastating deluge struck Kerala in 2018, wreaking havoc.
Chino, who came to know that the floods did not spare Chendamangalam handloom units in Paravur in Ernakulam district, sought to join the efforts to revive them.
A fashion show staged at San Diego Malayalee Association's Onam programme this year was a part of that endeavour.
The event made the Chendamangalam saris, embellished with artistic designs, a huge hit among the Malayali community there.
Chino's prime objective was to support the Chendamangalam products.
"The least I could do was spread awareness as there are a lot of Malayalis here. That's how the idea of a fashion show came to my mind," Chino says.
The handlooom material from Chendamangalam has several outstanding features, including the exceptional quality of fabric.
"That it was handmade made it very special and personal. The fabric itself was so soft and easy-to-drape. I could, therefore, style it into different forms. It felt meaningful to popularise such a natural and organic commodity, a luxury that we cannot afford to lose," Chino says.
Pitching handloom products to the fashion design industry in the US was no easy task.
Several value additions including mural painting prints with themes like Pooram, snake boat race, Krishna's childhood, Kathakali, Nangyar Koothu, Radha-Krishna, and Mahabali had to be done.
Embroideries were worked out and blouses with modern cuts and designs were tailored to match traditional saris.
"The idea was to showcase the styling potential of something so traditional into something modern and for the show, we had six saris and a kid's outfit with various paintings," says Chino.
The Malayali community in San Diego was witnessing a fashion show for a social cause for the first time.
"Several people asked us about Chendamangalam handloom and mural art after the show, just as we had hoped. They were intrigued by the potential of adding fashion elements to make it modern,” says Chino.
Several mainstream designers are bringing handloom products to the spotlight. Initiatives like 'Save the Loom' augurs well for the industry, she says.
"As Malayalis residing far from Kerala, we can also join these efforts. In the US, especially, we tend to celebrate Onam much more elaborately every year, perhaps more than that in Kerala! So, if we decide to include even a small portion of handloom products in these celebrations, it would bring a major boost."
At the event attended by more than 500 members of the diaspora, almost all were dressed in Indian outfits.
"Several states in the US stage Onam programmes by Malayali associations. So, opportunities to showcase these products here are many these days, says Chino. The handloom sector has been battling a crisis for many years, she points out.
"About 10 years ago, we had over 2 lakh weavers in Kerala and now I read somewhere that it has declined to 20,000. This skill-set is something we need to preserve for our future generations," she says.
The workers in the industry have always been underpaid, she says and adds “A weaver used to get just Rs 200-300 for weaving an entire sari spending several hours! That is unacceptable. I believe 'Handmade in Kerala' could be a tag on our handloom products once they reach global market or global fashion," she says.
Awareness is the key. People have always accepted novel takes on traditional wear. Sustainable fashion is something we should strive for. Being organic, eco-friendly and climate-friendly are things that only handloom can offer.
Chino has been there in the US for the past 19 years and fashion designing and modelling are her hobbies.