Jhalani’s luxury cashmere label, Janavi, retails out of 100 department stores worldwide, like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus in the US, Harvey Nichols and Liberty in London, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and China.
‘Top Notch’ is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion’s elite and erudite club.
Most founders of companies are a type. They are usually male, backed by legacy money or then a fantastic college degree. Jyotika Jhalani is the rare one who breaks that mould. At 57, she is among India’s leading producers and exporters of cashmere shawls. Her label, Janavi, retails out of 100 department stores worldwide, like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus in the US, Harvey Nichols and Liberty in London, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and China. It aims at raising Rs 500 crores in the next five years.
Jhalani’s story is as special as she is unique. She left school at 15, as academia didn’t interest her. But at 18, she landed a job handling information and public affairs at the World Bank, where she stayed for the next 10 years. Marriage and two children later, she participated in an exhibition in Reno, Nevada, on a lark, selling shawls from Kashmir. “I grew up in Kashmir, we wore shahtoosh (shawls made of the Tibetan chiru, now an endangered species) all the time, not even pashmina. The pashmina boom had just begun in the 1990s. Everyone internationally was wearing pashmina. The exhibition did very well and that encouraged me,” Jhalani remembers her halcyon years. “I didn’t want to do run-of-the-mill stuff. We grew up with a penchant for painting and colour and embroideries. I especially loved embroideries—at the time pashmina was 30 percent silk and 70 percent pashmina so it was rather thick and could carry the threadwork. Of course, we kept refining it over the years.”
Embroidery on cashmere, a very soft wool, is indeed hard to do. But Jhalani had decided that she wanted to take this luxurious Indian item and make a global name for herself. “India needed to be represented better. Labels showing off items that were made in Italy or France [were front and centre], but labels that said ‘Made in India’ were pushed at the back of the racks. I had befriended Fulvia Ferragamo [the daughter of the great Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo]. I started providing shawls for them. Then I went to Chanel, Dior, Armani, Missoni and Etro — oh, I was thrilled.”
The Janavi label was born with a rather personal story. “My kids said to me, ‘Mum you do all this great work but when you die no one will know what you do’. They were right; anyway I was so overwhelmed by all the contracts that were coming in, I had to give my business a name. ‘Janavi’ is another name for the river Ganga. A river forges its path ahead, and it’s what I do too,” Jhalani laughs. Her son will be opening Janavi in Mexico this year.
Janavi is now known the world over for the finest cashmere shawls, in gorgeous colours and with elaborate but stylish embroideries. Their lace shawls, first made for Valentino, are a connoisseur’s must-have. “Everyone copied these after I started selling a lot of them at Harrods in 1998. We also sold them for Armani, Ferragamo and Oscar de la Renta. Of course, we were under contract then and couldn’t talk about them.”
Janavi is 25 years old and present in several top departmental stores across countries. Was the idea of an Indian luxury product difficult to sell then? “No, because the product sold itself. When someone sees our product line, you’ll see why. There’s always a market for beauty, creativity and love. We are a very unique company and we create magic on cashmere,” she avers.
Kashmir and cashmere are both very close to Jhalani’s heart. “Kashmir is not a political space for me, it’s too personal. Everything about it is heavenly, and my work progresses in capturing that.” She says she is incredibly close to her artisans. Janavi employs 400 people at their Noida factory. “All of them are Muslim and all of them are my family.” She says she is a great enabler of economic equality too. “My handbag masterji, the guy who stitches the purses, takes home Rs 1.25 lakh per month. But the business development manager, who has a degree, gets paid Rs 80,000. The college graduate asked me why, and I told him if the masterji wouldn’t make the handbag, what would he sell? I am not a graduate too, and I believe creativity and hand-skills are priceless.”
Jhalani is starting a weekend school in Noida for the children of her employees. Each child who attends will receive training in their traditional embroideries, the skill of their forefathers, but also computers, including CAD. Additionally, they will be paid Rs 5,000 per month for each child who attends, even if they have four kids. Janavi’s attempts at building human capital with this effort are commendable.
Jhalani has collaborated with Kiera Chaplin, where the musician granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin and the great granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill has created an art deco narrative around which a line of shawls is made. “We have another collaboration with Andrea Bocelli coming up, as well as one with the Zurich Opera. And then, a partnership with Loro Piana, one of the finest cashmere clothing companies in the world,” Jhalani shares.
Janavi has also expanded into Home and Baby verticals. “I love doing interiors. We did cashmere blankets for Hermes and Armani. Our cushions became very popular for their fauna embroideries, even monkey motifs. The Baby line was a natural progression when I became a grandmother,” she smiles.
Janavi is testament to women entrepreneurs achieving great success by mixing the personal with the professional. “I run my business through an emotion, not an excel sheet,” Jhalani says.