It’s been a satisfying journey for designer-entrepreneur Jesmenia Zeliang, who has successfully taken her Heirloom Naga brand from the small villages of the Northeastern state to the biggest lifestyle stores around the globe
The Northeast’s distinctive red, black and white woven fabrics have, for centuries, been fashioned into sarongs and shawls. Nobody bothered to go beyond that, until some 30 years ago, when designer and entrepreneur, Jesmenia Zeliang, brought them right to the forefront of the global cultural map.
Indeed, many of us may not know her or her brand by name, but we have often seen, and purchased, her products from leading stores such as Shyam Ahuja, Fabindia, the Central Cottage Industries Emporium and Contemporary Arts & Crafts. And abroad, she counts big names like The Conran Shop, Crate and Barrel, Wisteria and Massimo Dutti as her long-time retailers.
Her USP? A celebration of the age-old textiles of her rural homeland, but at the same time, catering to the needs of hip, urban homes. Perfectly in place in any part of the world.
All her striking cushions and throws are woven in the traditional colours of the region, using the traditional loin loom or back-strap loom, a domestic fixture in most tribal homes across the Northeast, and celebrate the traditional geometric patterns that blend so beautifully with the monochromatic and neutral hues. The brand’s latest collection, ‘Nyeblao’, for instance, is inspired by the tattoos and other symbols associated with the eastern Nagas.
Hailing from the Dimapur district of Nagaland, Zeliang has always found herself deeply drawn towards the rich tradition and folk tales embedded in her surroundings. Growing up in a community that weaves its own fabric, not just promoted her love for the rich culture, but also nurtured her curiosity for fashion.
So much so that she decided to give it a go in 1992 as a small backyard project with just five women. She called her label, Heirloom Naga, and the first samples were put up in a display window at New Delhi’s famous market complex, Santushti.
The success of this prompted her to approach brands such as Fabindia and Cottage Industries Emporium, and to travel further afield to Mumbai where the famous Contemporary Arts & Crafts store started stocking her ware. In time, she began exporting abroad to the big brands mentioned earlier. To great success, might we add. It is this success and appreciation that has prompted her to go a few steps further.
“After a stint of close to three decades in the industry, I am finally intensely involved in building a craft centre in Dimapur that will showcase retail textiles and crafts from Heirloom Naga and my other hard goods company (www.caneconcept.com). This is to keep the commercial aspect going. The other, bigger aim is to showcase textiles and other exquisite basketry and indigenous crafts that I have personally collected over the years,” she explains, adding, “The idea is to sensitise the public, particularly the young people, towards appreciating and endorsing handmade goods, which we believe is very crucial to keeping our cultural legacies intact.”
Not just that, the centre will also include other verticals such as R&D and training centres, workshops, design studio, a hostel for designers as well as a food gallery. As Zeliang concludes, “Through weaving, we want to continue showcasing the cultural aspects of the communities that we work with. Today, conscious customers are opting to work with indigenous people increasingly, and we feel incredibly happy that our labour of love is impacting several livelihoods.”