Ally Matthan: Weaver of India’s Saree Stories & Dreams
- Working Women
- 25 Nov 2016
Until the #100sareepact, those who knew Ally Matthan knew her to be one of the gentlest warrior spirits they had ever encountered.
Ally is equal parts creative and driven, an artist with a dream that has a deadline.
Fresh out of perfumery school in Paris, Ally beat her own path with a boutique enterprise in beautiful, natural smells (her company Areev), instead of falling in line with what could have been an easier career – the family’s gargantuan agarbathi business, one of the largest in the country.
She always knew she could and so she did, in spite of the odds and what others said could or could not be done.
Areev is now one of the most iconic names in the business of gorgeous fragrances with a presence in almost every boutique, luxury hotel across India, and the gifting option of choice for those in the know. And it’s all Ally’s baby. Started and continued in a modest factory in Domlur, she also opened her own store in the neighbourhood, and her tiny, all-woman team run both with love, care, and guts of steel.
From the CEO, Apoorva, who is in her mid-20’s and handles all the finance and admin (basically runs the business); to Kausalya, who brings with her a splendid lineage spanning decades in the textile industry, and spearheads marketing and sales; to Daisy, who first came to Ally as a baby maid for her now teenaged son, but whose heart wasn’t in it, and when prodded by Ally professed a burning desire to work in an office instead of a home, who runs production and manages their labour-force; to Ally, who proclaims that she is best left in the lab to create, ideate, research, and develop the business of beautiful smells... this is a company that has grown massively in the 10 years since their inception. But nobody realises that because their brand is subtle, under the radar, and far removed from the dinning clamour of the advertising world.
As a beginner in manufacturing, Ally faced numerous challenges, which she patiently and systematically eliminated.
She went to study abroad because she always thought she would work in her family business. Until she did, and realized that her personality and style of working was far too democratic to withstand age-old traditions and mores that exist in a well-established family operation. Where opinions from every stakeholder in the business had equal weight and measure, and getting things done quickly was not always considered the right way.
So she struck out on her own and soon realized that perfume school prepared her to create perfumes, but not to set up a business, a factory business, in India.
“In our line of work, to be considered a high-quality, export-worthy product, there are government licenses that need to be procured to run the factories, which most handmade bath & skincare producers operate without. That is a hugely male-dominated area and going to government offices and waiting all day to talk to ‘babus’, who may or may not give me the time of day, has never been my cup of tea. It is an area whose functioning I still find very challenging, and my license is coming up for renewal now!”
However, as is her gentle and resolute way, Ally has made everything that she wants to work, work. For her and the fabulous women who surround her.
Ally also has a son in his early teens and she never took a break.
She was back at work 3 days after she gave birth, and her office revolved around her and her needs. She says that this was easy because she ran her own company, but women who’ve given birth know that this is NOT “easy” by any stretch of the imagination.
This is a woman who has always been in it for the marathon, not the sprint.
So, she has recognized the value and importance of rallying support around her for a long time. Between her hands-on husband who has always had her back, and her mini-army of help at home, who she bequeaths full ownership of their job roles and responsibilities without inhibition, she is able to run home and work equally seamlessly.
A quick-fire round with her gave us these pearls of wisdom:
1) What is a habit or routine that you credit with your success?
Discipline and focus. I get up on time, I eat on time, I exercise, I almost never miss a day at the gym; I’m like this about EVERYTHING. I also never get sick.
2) What is the one thing that your parents did for you that most parents don’t do for their children?
Introduced me to sport from a very young age. I was a national level swimmer because I was the slowest runner among all my cousins. Sports brought discipline into my life.
3) What is the key to a successful career as a woman?
Learn to get along with people; it is essential. Work to your strengths and work them to theirs.
4) What is your advice to stay focused at work?
Someone once told me, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” This is my mantra. If you have a clear set of goals, you will wake up every morning thinking about it and everything you do is work towards realizing that goal within a set timeframe. No job is too small to be done because, in the end, the whole team is working towards the same goals. So, from meeting a CEO to sticking labels on products to cleaning a toilet – there is nothing that I, or any woman on my team, cannot do for Areev.
Fast-forward through all her business successes in manufacturing to the year 2015... After a Christmas-time discussion about how many sarees she and her friend owned and how little they actually wore them, compared to their mothers and grandmothers who lived & breathed in those yards of exquisite weaves and colours, Ally and her friend started a pact.
The world now knows it as the #100sareepact.
In a couple of months of starting the hashtag, women the world over had taken it and run with it; dragging sarees out of the closet, wrapping them on with delight, clicking selfies, sharing them on social media, and telling the story of every saree the way it had to be told – personal to the wearer, made personal to the beholder.
I remember meeting Ally at a dinner party soon after #100sareepact had begun trending, where she was lamenting the dozens of bags from leading saree stores in Bangalore lining the hallways of her home, with notes from the store owners begging her to wear them, or distribute them to be worn and shared on social media, with the accompanying hashtag.
“This is NOT a business; it’s a fun thing to do with my friend! I already have a business! Why can’t everyone understand that??”
But, life chooses us.
Ally learned this about midway through the year of #100sareepact, when she was on a tour of small, little-known weavers’ village in Andhra Pradesh – Puttapakam, the home of the telia rumal saree.
This saree is woven from organically, laboriously tied and dyed yarn according to a predetermined geometrical design. Each warp and weft thread is individually positioned on the loom before weaving, so it is crucial for the weaver to ensure perfection. Weaving a telia rumal needs a great amount of practice and perfection for the warp and weft to be meticulously converted to an artistic design. The number of motifs makes it more complex and difficult to weave. It takes over 2 months to weave a telia rumal saree, and none of the weavers are school-educated in mathematics or geometry, but they execute highly complex geometrical graphs, which are used to design and craft the saree throughout the weaving process.
While walking through the village after viewing the looms and learning about the saree, Ally and the woman she was with realized that they were being followed by 5 men. So they started walking faster. The men did too. Then they started running and the men called out to them to stop. They asked if they could take their picture. Ally and her companion were very suspicious, but quickly concurred that maybe having their picture taken would get rid of the unwanted attention faster.
Ally’s companion was wearing a telia rumal saree, and Ally herself had a telia rumal blouse piece irreverently flung around her neck, as a scarf.
After they had posed for the picture, the man who had taken it looked at it on his phone and then fell at their feet crying, and blubbering, in thanks. He had made the saree that Ally’s companion was wearing and that day was the first time in his entire weaving life that he had seen one of his creations worn by a person.
Because their work never remained in the village. It was too expensive for their women to afford; they wore polyester sarees. These weavers earned Rs. 30 a day. Their creations left their looms and their soil and went away into the big wide urban world to be worn by other women with bigger purses, who could purchase them.
This was his opus. And there was not a dry eye left after it.
That was when Ally knew that her playful New Year resolution had taken over her, over the women wearing the sarees, over their selfies abounding on social media, over the hashtag #100sareepact. It meant so much more than that, and she had been called.
So, she stepped up.
The Registry of Sarees is an e-commerce site that showcases gorgeous sarees for sale from successful weaver houses, whose proceeds go towards funding small, lesser/little-known weaver villages across India. This raises these weavers’ daily wages from Rs. 30-50 a day to upwards of Rs. 150 a day, enabling them to lead lives of dignity and progress, and pass on their legacy to their children, and stop that rural bleed to the cities to find better-paying jobs.
Ally and her team have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into their new, parallel venture because the 100 Saree Pact consumed their lives with its stories. The stories of women and men who wear and weave the yards of fabric that illustrates perfectly India in her myriad, diverse & colourful glory. They are learning how to run this new business because they're good at running businesses but to operate on this scale with such far-flung co-workers and vendors, is new for them. But they will figure it out, as they always have. And the mind-bogglingly talented weavers and designers of India's sarees will be the better for it.
Every woman on her team is committed to her dreams; whether personal or professional, and in working together they help each other achieve them, day after day.
We should all take a leaf from the book of Ally Matthan and the resilient women who surround her, in our own restart journeys. Find, value, respect and retain our sisterhood of support wherever we can, because once tapped into, it is the most powerful reservoir of potential that exists, for women everywhere.