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The Kochi Muziris Biennale is a good time for retail in Fort Kochi

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The fifth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) may have been postponed but the mood in Fort Kochi, host to the art extravaganza, is upbeat, and it is not just from the art perspective. “Every business in the area is looking toward the Biennale with hope and optimism. We need to make up the last two years which have taken a toll on businesses,” says Diya John, a Kochi-based designer who recently opened her second store, Salt Studio in Fort Kochi. 

New stores, pop-ups, revamped restaurants and menus — retail in Fort Kochi too is gearing up for the visitors the Biennale promises. Every space that can be used has been taken up. This year, interestingly, most are looking toward the domestic traveller as much as the international tourist because of the recession and flight fares. Expectations are, however, modest about overseas visitors.  

Diya, who stocks other labels alongside her’s, says, “The Biennale was a key part of my pitch to the labels I approached because of the opportunity it offers and the profile of the visitors. We get access to a wider, varied customer base which is well-travelled and one with exposure/awareness when it comes to fashion and design!” 

Shacks in Fort Kochi in the evening
| Photo Credit:
H VIBHU

Her hopes are pinned on visitors to the gallery on the first floor of the building on Quiero’s Street where her store is and proximity to Kashi Art Gallery, a Biennale venue. Diya’s permanent store is in Panampilly Nagar. She will be ‘testing the waters’ for the next six months, the time she has given the Fort Kochi store, to see how business is. Pero, World of Crow, Jodi Life, the jewellery label Tribe by Amrapali, Nappa Dori bags, Eka, and ILK are some of the labels that Diya will show at the Fort Kochi store.

Newer, evolving markets

“The labels also understand the potential of an evolving market, which Kochi is. It only makes business sense for them to tap into it and what better time than this!” Diya points out.     

Salt Studio

Salt Studio
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Among the designers, she stocks is Muvattupuzha-based designer Jebin Johny’s Jebsispar. His designs have been worn by Sonam Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Taapsee Pannu among others. The designer known for vibrant, Kerala-inspired prints on Kerala handloom retails at Rahel, Thiruvananthapuram, but not Kochi. Most of his business is online, and hence a shift in terms of the customer. He confesses he is 100% optimistic about the Biennale, “as an artist, designer and businessman!” 

Tracy Thomas put together a four-day pop-up, The Biennale Edit, where local designers and some from outside Kerala will exhibit. The pop-up opens on December 11, a day before the Biennale. Opening in the initial days is intentional based on her experience holding similar pop-ups, “the first few days are when a lot of people are here, especially those who are serious about art,” Tracy says. This time around, the pop-up will be at YWCA, Fort Kochi, a bigger venue than the previous years; this year, it is more than clothes. 

For Tracy this was an opportunity to showcase local designers and products. Kerala-based labels and lifestyle brands such as Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan, Green Heirloom, Kara Weaves, and Cocoa Palm Swimwear will be present alongside Flame Store (Goa), Peony, Azurina, O’Frida and in a first, a pre-loved label, The Pre-loved Co. by Viraja Shah. While she has worked with some of these brands before, for first-timers the Biennale was a huge draw. This is one of the first pop-ups of the Biennale season.

From Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan’s Origins in Kerala collection

From Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan’s Origins in Kerala collection
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

“In the end, it is about visibility and brand awareness for everybody and this is a good time to be here. We have paid attention to the price points, keeping it at under 10,000,” Tracy adds. 

Local showcase

The relaunch of Sreejith Jeevan’s (Rouka) resort wear line, Origins in Kerala, coincides with the Biennale. Sreejith, whose clientele boasts names such as Vidya Balan and Tilottama Shome, had been toying with the idea for a while and this seemed a good time as any to do it. 

Over the past couple of years, Rouka has been focussing on Kerala hand-loomed designer saris than garments. Besides the pop-up, he is also retailing from the Green Heirloom store at David Hall. Green Heirloom is a Kochi-based maker of kitchen and tableware.  

The Origins in Kerala collection, made of fabric woven in Chendamangalam, showcases the Kerala sensibility. “A more tropical every day. It targets the traveller who wants to take back something local and made in Kerala,” says Sreejith. This is an opportunity to explore the market for his line of garments. The collection will retail from his store and online.  

Kalki Koechlin in a Jebsispar garment

Kalki Koechlin in a Jebsispar garment
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Jebin has not designed a collection targeted at the Biennale crowd; he has instead curated a collection of 20-odd garments from his bestsellers. Diya has designed a collection that she believes would work for the Biennale visitor. She has designed a capsule collection of co-ord sets, tops, jackets and dresses while experimenting with the silhouette (more plus size options), prints and fabric using fabrics like khadi and linen to jamdani and even wool.  

Visibility, more footfall, access to a wider customer base…in the end it all boils down to business. At the end of a difficult two-and-a-half years, Fort Kochi has finally something to look forward to. Yes, the Kochi Muziris Biennale too.   

With a conscience

A special edition chocolate for the Kochi Biennale will be one of the highlights of the Kochi Muziris Biennale Shop at Aspinwall House, the main venue of KMB-5. Made in collaboration by Mason and Co, a Puducherry company, using cocoa from Idukki in Kerala, the product will be part of the curated mix of “conscious gifts that people from all over the world can buy,” says Kochi-based designer Annah Chakola who is helming the store. “This is the first time we are setting up a shop and not just a souvenir outlet,” says Annah, adding that the store will offer a glimpse of India that is not out there in the world yet. “We are focusing on handmade, artisanal and indigenous products with a little storytelling,” she says.

From the Biennale Shop

From the Biennale Shop
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

The products will be esoteric like a range of skincare products sourced from the forest. Called Forest Post, the brand is from Chalakudy, a Kochi suburb. Handmade Siddi quilts by a community of North Karnataka who have their origins in Africa will be on sale along with Annah’s own range of upcycled products like totes made with Kala cotton (organic cotton grown in Kutch). Catering to an international young and experimental audience the store will also have khadi kaftans and ceramic ware made by artisans in Shanti Niketan.

(Priyadershini S)



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