MMillennials, or even their mothers, may never have heard of “Bleeding Madras.” But it was the catchy name of a fabric that seduced the trends of the world in the Swinging Sixties. He had a breathtaking journey from a South Indian village to living rooms around the world, much like our protagonist’s own trajectory. Like him, the tale is an example of SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) long before it became a management mantra. But the story goes beyond simple similarities. Captain Nair is history.
His marriage to Leela had taken him from managing war rations to selling textiles. Remember? With the hand of his daughter, AK Nair had handed over the sales agency of his Rajarajeshwari Weaving Mills to his son-in-law. It was in this capacity that Krishnan first showed his marketing skills. He based himself in Bombay, targeting the crowded and chaotic alleys of the historic Mulji Jaitha market, considered Asia’s largest textile trading centre. He periodically returned to Kannur to collect more samples.
His skills managed to earn him a good sum. Not princely, but more than his army pays for. This allowed him to give a pretty good life to his beloved Leela and their two sons, Vivek, born on January 3, 1952, and Dinesh, who emerged on Christmas Eve three years later. But the order didn’t always arrive on time, even though it came from his father-in-law’s mill.
So here is a little story. Leela was pregnant for a third time and decided to have the baby in Bombay rather than her parents. The delayed commission meant there was no money for the nursing home. Too proud to ask his father-in-law, Krishnan went to a client he was quite close to. RK Seth easily fixed it. The little girl did not survive beyond a few months, carried away by smallpox. Krishnan kept his debt to Seth in his memory and repaid him two decades later when the cloth merchant fell into dire straits. By then, the lowly sales agent had become India’s largest ready-to-wear exporter to the United States.
His experience in selling hand loom and power loom fabrics made Krishnan realize the importance and potential of India’s ancient weaving tradition, once coveted around the world, prompting him to offer advice for the promotion of the loom to Morarji Desai, then Chief Minister of Bombay.
This led, first, to the All India Handicrafts Board and, much later, to a similar body for looms, both of which would be taken to unprecedented heights by Pupul Jayakar, the Tsarina of Arts, handicrafts and rural textiles. For Krishnan, from there it was a logical step to bring ‘Made in India’ to the world.
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In 1958, he had joined an official trade mission to survey the American market and decide on a strategy to captivate this No. 1 consumer. The homework had already been done when the influential American textile importer William Jacobson visited Bombay the same day. year and called on the Commissioner of Textiles, T. Swaminathan, ICS. The commissioner directed him to Krishnan Nair. Weighing the options, our man selected and showed the buyer a lightweight cotton fabric with bright tartan-like checks, worn by the Kalahasti women of Tamil Nadu.
Deftly touching the fabric, Jacobson asked what was special about it. Krishnan sweetly deployed his USPs. It was woven with 60 threads for the warp and 40 threads for the weft. His vegetable dyes used laterite stone, indigo blue, turmeric and local sesame seed oil, which gave the fabric a distinctive scent. He added that it was already a hit in West Africa where it was used to make flamboyant dresses for weddings and other celebratory occasions.
Krishnan then produced his weakness trump as a strength. The fabric should be washed gently and separately in fresh and cold water; with each wash, the color “bleeded” – creating a different type of tile. The possibility of a “new” garment with every wash excited Jacobson, and the two struck a dollar-a-yard deal. An immediate 10,000 yard shipment has been ordered. Brooks Brothers picked up the whole lot and tailored it into sporty jackets, shirts and shorts under its iconic menswear brand.
The shelves were emptied within a week. Laid-back post-World War II baby boomers couldn’t get enough of “Bleeding Madras.” But that didn’t happen before a crucial oversight left many faces red with anger and embarrassment. In the “excitement” of his discovery, Jacobson had “forgotten” to mention the very important “care” instructions to Brooks Brothers, who therefore did not mention them on the labels of the finished products. All hell broke loose because customers found their colors “bleeding” not only onto the tiles of the fabric, but also onto other garments that were unintentionally washed with them.
Imprints flew massively and quickly, chasing non-fast colors. Krishnan’s expensive lawyers cleared him of all the mess because the fault clearly lay with Jacobson, who admitted him as such. The case ended with the US importer paying Brooks Brothers damages and a deft marketing stunt. The formula “weakness in strength”
was posted by Madison Avenue maven David Ogilvy, who coined the slogan “Guaranteed to Bleed”.
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Naturally, all the other ready-to-wear brands followed suit and incorporated it into their summer collections. Seventeen magazines provided the ultimate endorsement with an eight-page spread on ‘Bleeding Madras – India’s Handwoven Miracle Cloth’. Clever Krishnan would praise the qualities of this textile but would never reveal the details of its manufacture. He knew the dangers, even back when GI stood for “government issue” or “general issue” and not for the intricacies of labeling “geographical indication” or, for that matter, the “glycemic index” of foods.
Here is a prescription. Nair, Jacobson and Brooks Brothers may have created this 1960s American fashion sensation, but the lowercase use of “madras” as a generic name for a lightweight cotton fabric had a much older provenance. Although less historic than the Spice Route, European maritime nations had also coveted India’s legendary textiles. Not just Dacca “air woven” muslin, but the more durable calico. The Dutch came first, but like everything else, the East India Company beat the others. The firm had been established in 1599 on Leadenhall Street in London and, from an office just “five windows wide”, would command an empire as political as it was mercantile. As William Dalrymple recounts in The anarchy“He has accomplished a work such as in all the history of the human race no other commercial company has ever attempted, and such as surely none is likely to attempt in years to come.”
This excerpt from “Capture the Dream” by Bachi Karkaria is published with permission from Juggernaut Books.