Anaka Narayanan, Designer & owner of Brass Tacks, Real Leader Interview 28

Dhanya: I visited Brass Tacks when I was in Chennai, India last February. It was a cosy store with friendly store managers who let me take my route and helped only when I asked for it. I take immense liking to such stores, it being a rarity in Chennai. I have mostly encountered only pushy store managers who suggest every possible design in the store even if it’s not what I am looking for.
Following that memorable experience I found the Brass Tacks page on Facebook and started following them. I noticed how Anaka Narayanan, the designer and owner of the Brass Tacks clothing line gave importance to her team. I noticed how she did not hesitate to share the spot light with them! That quality urged me to talk to her under the Real Leader pretence! It turned out to be a lovely 20 minutes.
The interview was close to my heart because Anaka does what I hope to do in a couple of years myself. A small clothing line that makes well styled clothes rich in Indian textiles and makes its customers happy.
About Anaka Narayanan
An appreciation for textiles is in Anaka’s blood. In the year she was born, her mother co-founded a textile and garment business, and Anaka grew up surrounded by the texture, scent, and colours of natural fabrics. Balancing her love for traditional crafts with a desire for practical foundations, Anaka decided to pursue her bachelor’s degree in Economics in the United States. After college, she worked at an economic analysis firm in New York. Throughout this time she nurtured her dream of working with textiles in India and networked with people who were in the fashion and textile industry. Finally, towards the end of her second year in consulting, she decided to quit her job and take the plunge into the world of textiles and fashion.
Dhanya: What’s your story? From where you grew up till when Brass Tacks happened?
Anaka: I grew up in Chennai. I went to school here till my tenth standard and later went to a boarding school near Pune for my high school. I took a year off between high school and college, travelling and exploring the country. I worked with a couple of non-profits and indulged in a lot of theatre and volunteer work. After that stint, I went to the states to study economics. I took up a job at an economic analysis firm in New York and worked in that position for two years.
During those two years though I was thinking about Brass Tacks and about my clothing line here in Chennai. One day I decided that I needed to do it right away! I was very impatient to begin, now that I think about it. I think impatience has been my shortcoming while it is also something that drives me! I had the support of my parents, which was very helpful. They told me that it would be a lot of hard work but if it’s what I wanted to do they would be there! I moved back to Chennai in 2006 and started Brass Tacks in early 2007.
Dhanya: What is the story of Brass Tacks?
Anaka: My mum and her partners started a saree retail business when she was pregnant with me. I don’t know how she decided to have a family and start a business at the same time! I am the youngest of three and she decided that raising three kids was not challenging enough.
Growing up I was never told to learn anything about her business. I was never even taught about the textiles – what was cotton, kalamkarior ikat. However, my mum did bring a lot of her work home. Sometimes when I finished school early I would be at her office working on my schoolwork. I think I was surrounded by textiles the whole time. And I can say that her taste and sense has influenced mine.
I never really thought about it until I was in college and working in New York. It was the first time I was living off my earnings and loving my share of shopping! I found that I gravitated towards strong silhouettes, sharp tailored and well-cut clothes. Every time I would see a dress or a jacket that had a great drape, I would imagine it in an ikat fabric or an ajrak fabric. I would think of a natural textile that would look good in the same cut. That’s when I started to think about this idea.
It was a lot of personal longing as well. I longed to see clothes that were made out of these Indian textiles. I wanted to see well-styled fashion-forward versions of the existing Indian clothes. Then again, I had lived outside Chennai for 6 years I wondered if someone thought of this already in the mean time. I came back to Chennai for one of my vacations and scouted around for a bit. I was sure I’d find someone.
However, I found there were two ends of the spectrum. There were brands like Fabindia that provided good value for money but were not necessarily fashion forward. Then there were the high-end labels, which were fashionable but not necessarily well cut or affordable. I saw this huge void in between that was waiting to be filled! I am not trying to create clothes that are going to be the next fashion trend; I am not trying to create red carpet clothes. I am simply trying to create clothes with good quality fabrics and strong silhouettes. Every garment that we make has to be shapely. That’s really what Brass Tacks is about. My aesthetic sense is surely influenced by my mother’s taste in handloom textiles and sarees. While that is more of a personal connection, our companies are completely different.
Dhanya: Is Brass Tacks in other cities as well?
Anaka: My own store is in Chennai, but I retail through other stores in Bombay and Bangalore. We also have an online store!
Dhanya: What about your inspiration for your work? Why do you wake up everyday and go to your workshop..
Anaka: I think part of it is the impatience to get the idea out, part of it is because it’s my own business.I am not sure if I would be this excited if I was working for somebody else. It’s your own business and it’s your own baby. You are always emotionally tied to it. You are always striving for perfection even if you are not there. It’s always a work in progress. You always want to make it better. You want to see if you can create a system that’s foolproof with respect to administration and operations. You want to see if you can link in people who love creating.
Outside the Brass Tacks picture, with textiles there is so much going on in India as well. I participated in a garment exhibition in Coimbatore a couple of weeks ago. It was such a cool experience. I got to meet other designers from all over the country and they are all doing such interesting work. Last week we had the World Craft Council’s golden jubilee celebrations here in Chennai. They had their summit and exhibitions in town. There was so much stimulation and inspiring ideas there. To have all of that around you it’s pretty easy to find inspiration! The energy to run to your workshop and create is just there.
There are so many people who are in the same industry and doing this under harsh conditions. For an urban designer with access to simple infrastructure that we take for granted like an air-conditioned office, good roads and Internet it’s a lot easier.
Dhanya: How does a typical workday pan out?
Anaka: I usually spend the first couple of hours working from home. I am a morning person and when I wake-up my mind is clear. I also find it conducive to concentrate especially when I need to work alone. Even though I have my own space at work it’s really hard to get uninterrupted time. So I usually do most of my creative work and design planning in the morning. I try not to answer too many e-mails or take phone calls during that time.
I go to the workshop after that and spend my time there. A lot of it is actually trouble-shooting, anybody who runs a business will tell you that. A lot of the time is spent solving problems and guiding people. I spend a lot of time talking to my production manager about the schedule and status of the different products. I spend time with my pattern maker viewing the next set of styles. I go through the samples and give them feedback.
I come back to the city after that. I drop by at the shop depending on how much time I have left – it might be just ten minutes or a couple of hours. That’s my schedule from Monday to Friday. I spend all my Saturday time at the store. That’s when most of our customers drop-by and I think it’s important to get first hand feedback from them. I also think it important for them to see the designer and understand my take on the brand.I used to spend a lot of Sunday time doing creative work but I have taken a break from that now. I don’t work on Sundays anymore.
Dhanya: I have seen you giving importance to your team. They are part of the system and they do help you put everything together..
Anaka: They really are a crucial part of the organisation. I was telling you how anyone running their business would tell you that they spend time troubleshooting. When so much of your business depends on people and people skills, you spend a lot of time putting the perfect team together. Be it hiring people, training people or figuring out ways to retain people.
Sometimes I think to myself ‘Wow I have people who joined Brass Tacks five years ago and who are still with me’. They are key people whom I can depend on. These are people I can call up in the morning and say ‘I can’t make it to the workshop today can you run the show for me’. I know that it’s in good hands and that I can trust them. I am so grateful for that.
It really is true what I say on Facebook – that they make it happen. I can sketch and order fabric but who’s going to make it a reality? The Facebook thing is also a celebration of the cool team I have. They understand my short temper, they understand my high standards and my pickiness with small details. They also understand that that’s what makes Brass Tacks what it is.To have a team like that even if it’s small is really precious. And these are fun people too. I thought it would be nice for the customers to see the people behind the brand!
Dhanya: What are some of the learnings that have stood out so far? You have been at this for more than 5 years now..
Anaka: When I started a business people always told me it would be hard work. I think hard work is actually an abstract word. At least it is for me after running a business for so long. Hard work to me means there is going to be a lot of time spent with it – I personally never had a problem with that. The hard part is the kind of work you have to do. The sort of problems you face with when you run a business are relentless. It could be a tailor issue today and a sales issue tomorrow and a rent issue the third day. It’s really hard to cope with that side of running a business.
I always try to stick to a few things that make me happy and give me a breather from all the tension. I find these things giving me energy and motivation to work despite all the things that need my attention. You need them to remove you from work and give you a time-out. It might be as simple as sleeping enough or watching a movie or making time for friends. It helps me get perspective and not get cynical about everything. I think that’s something I made a mistake with in the first couple of years. I always said I was too busy.
Time with people is so important because I work so much in isolation. Even though I work with a team of people they are working for me as well. I miss out on the peer-to-peer interaction and networking.
Dhanya: If there is one piece of advice or a couple of things that you want to share with the readers, what would it be?
Anaka: Like I said, finding the time to do a few things that you enjoy so that you continue to keep standards high, constantly push for improvement, motivate your staff. And that can be really hard.
When you have bills to pay and you have expenses coming in, you still have to go to work everyday and smile and motivate everybody else. They can let you know that they are down, but you can’t let everyone know that you are down.
You choose to do what you love doing and people are naturally good at what they love doing. However, It’s naïve to say that every single day of my life I want to do only that. I actually don’t spend that much time designing. It probably constitutes 20% of my time. The rest of the time goes in management, operations, marketing and scaling the business. My one piece of advice would be to motivate your team to keep standards high but in order to be able to do that you should also be able to stick to a few things outside work.
Thank you for sharing your passion with us Anaka! We love entrepreneurs who respect their people.
Real Leaders Team,
Dhanya, Eb and yours truly..