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Designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal’s multi-disciplinary space RAHÉL in Thiruvananthapuram offers not just an immersive shopping experience but is also a must-visit for textile enthusiasts. 

Alan Alexander Kaleekal
Alan Alexander Kaleekal

As one makes their way through a mini-tropical-forest, a 100-year-old heritage space boasting signature Kerala architecture greets you. At one glance, RAHÉL sits well within the idea of a store; a thoughtful curation of local designers and a spectrum of textiles sourced from all over India. But on closer look, exquisite details emerge. It’s more like sifting through archives of India’s rich textile heritage. Beautifully woven gossamer sarees of Bengal, organic tussar drapes of Jharkhand, and traditional ikats from Pochampally and Puttapakkam sit against a spectrum of homegrown labels from all over India.

Image: Courtesy RAHEL

It is designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal’s keen eye for curation and commitment to visualising a modern Kerala that lends RAHÉL a distinctive character. From small labels specialising in artisanal silver jewellery to those contemporising traditional Balaramapuram weaves to young designers providing clothing solutions for the differently-abled, there is an eclectic but strong mix of designers available at the store. 

Kaleekal, a design graduate of Studio Berçot, Paris, made his debut at Lakme Fashion Week’s Gen Next in 2015. It was then that Bandana Tewari of Vogue India brought to his notice the limited visibility of the interesting design talents from Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. This prompted Kaleekal to set up a base in Thiruvananthapuram not just for himself but to also create a platform for other designers. Besides managing his eponymous label, Kaleekal launched RAHÉL in 2018.

Image: Courtesy RAHEL

Within a short span of time, he mapped out a plan to support local designers. For him, it is beyond the labels; he aims to help local designers collaborate with weavers and craft clusters around the country, adding a new facet to their design and bringing a pan-India appeal to their work. Kaleekal, who has regularly worked with weaving societies in Koothali, Kannur, Kunjipalli, and Maniyur, is aware of the value design interventions add. And through his store, he wants to ensure that discerning consumers of today show a continued interest in the otherwise traditional products. 

Lifestyle Asia India caught up with him to understand what makes RAHÉL an ideal space when conversations are intensifying around being more vocal for local. 

On what makes RAHÉL unique 

Image: Courtesy RAHEL

The goal was to build an experiential space housing multiple design domains; a fashion and design studio, an art gallery and a space for art installations, a library and an adjoining reading room, home décor and interior design solutions, and an experimental lab kitchen with a garden café. Essentially, a place where the retail experience is as important as the product. 

Geoffrey Bawa’s tropical modernism and the idea of staying true to one’s surroundings were very much our guiding principles while restoring the 100-year-old heritage space. Each aspect of the property was carefully put back together following local traditions, with locally available materials.

On RAHÉL being a platform for talented local/ Kerala-based designers

Image: Courtesy RAHEL

For design to grow, there has to be a design community, support systems that feed off each other, and encourage new designers to come to the fore. 

While curating local brands, we do give importance to how well they hold up against national level designers, both in terms quality of design and the finish of the products. Each brand has to have an authentic story and selling point that makes up the brand identity and sets it apart from the hundreds of other competing brands in the market. A contemporary design aesthetic and a relevant design narrative are key elements. 

On a few designers at the store who stand out

One of my first finds was Abharnapetite by Chanchu George, who is a brilliant silversmith. The entire brand is a single person job, and each item is painstakingly handcrafted by the designer herself. How precious is that! Another best-seller at the store is the brand Keyah by designer Peena Roy who specialises in handcrafted sarees with custom-developed block prints. Their modern organza sarees featuring hand-painted details are a favourite among our customers.

Image: Courtesy RAHEL
Image: Courtesy SJ/JS Couture (RAHEL)

The brand ANKA by Usha Balakrishnan is a contemporary retelling of the age-old Balaramapuram weaves, and their work is popular among the design crowd that frequents our store. Exquisitely crafted pieces from SJ/JS Couture by Smitha Jacob and Jeeva Sajeev are also standouts. Their debut collection showcased at our store took almost 2 years to develop. One half of the collection was woven in Balaramapuram and the other half in Benares, with some sarees taking up to 3.5 months to weave completely by hand.

Joe Ikareth is another brilliant designer who does very interesting designs with local fabrics. His innovative Move Ability Clothing range provides clothing solutions for the differently-abled, an answer to their need for ease in dressing and undressing. 

Image: Courtesy RAHEL
Image: Courtesy AbharnaPetite (RAHEL)

We have also showcased more established Kerala designer brands like Rouka by Sreejith Jeevan and Mantra by Shalini James, both of whom have a strong national presence and have showcased at fashion weeks in Mumbai and Delhi. Sreejith’s work incorporates esoteric local stories and tongue-in-cheek motifs that initiate an interesting design dialogue. Shalini, on the other hand, has been pioneering block printed fabrics for almost two decades. They have both been spearheading the relief efforts to support the Chendamangalam weavers who were badly affected by the Kerala floods. 

On other offerings at the store

Apart from clothing and jewellery, one of my top picks would be chocolates. The chocolate brands such as Naviluna ( by Chef David Belo ) and All Things Chocolate we stock are all handmade artisanal products that have a Kerala connection. These brands used Kerala origin cacao beans grown in Idukki in the Malabar forests with other locally sourced produce to make great chocolate bars.

Image: Courtesy RAHEL
Image: Courtesy All Things Chocolate (RAHEL)

One of South African chef David Belo’s offerings includes a delectable single origin chocolate bar made entirely from Malabar cacao beans. We also stock many home decor/lifestyle products, and collectables gathered from travels across the world, glassware from Murano and Vienna and hand-painted serve-ware from Turkey, Morocco, and Bangkok. T.E.A.K, one of our local brands, makes beautiful home decor products made from repurposed and up-cycled teak wood.

On why Thiruvananthapuram is the perfect base 

Had we opened the store anywhere else, I would be telling the story of contemporary India on a larger scale but not of a city as such and not with such familiarity. A lot of the nuances of the local customs and cultural markers would have been lost in the conversation. There is no other place I know better and no other place I can be as vocal about or lend as authentic a voice to.

On being vocal for local 

Image: Courtesy ANKA (RAHEL)
Image: Courtesy ANKA (RAHEL)

The history of our weaves and fabrics is one that needs retelling lest it is reduced to just stories for future generations. The provenance of our garments and clothing culture is invariably a story of our selves, and it can only be retold through revival and patronage. For that to happen, it is not just designed that needs to be updated, but consumption needs to be equally self-aware and socially responsible. If we as consumers fail to support and nurture our local talents, we fail as a society in the upkeep of our crafts and artisanal know-how.

All images: Courtesy Rahel

Anupam Dabral
Sr. Associate Editor
It was while studying fashion journalism at London College of Fashion that Anupam developed a keen interest in the anthropological aspect of the discipline; for him, fashion only makes sense when seen in the context of its environment. He is always on the hunt for great stories, and in his spare time binge-watches films/shows starring Whoopi Goldberg, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.