From a very young age, Rifat Jahan Lopa liked to design her own clothes. Ready-made clothes never suited her style and even if she bought any, she always tried to customise it.
"A stitch here, some embroidery there, a bit of chumki (sequin) – I would always add my own touch to the clothes", she said.
In 2016, she started her online page 'Sootlee' to sell jamdani sharis. However, she could not continue working with jamdani because after exploring the market, she realised both quality control and pricing were not in her favour.
In 2019, her sister and her husband convinced her to restart her page. This time, Lopa decided she was going to establish the brand Sootlee and operate the business seriously.
"I never wanted to buy things from the market and sell them as my own. With around Tk50,000 I started, and have not looked back since," she shared with us.
Although Sootlee has other handloom products, it is best known for its kalamkari items. With its multiple shades of brown and beige with occasional splashes of dark red, blue or green, kalamkari has a different, sophisticated appeal. The hand-painted or blocked patterns are almost like artworks.
Lopa has turned this soft patterned cotton, which is mostly loved by women as sharis, into kurtis, kamizes, blouses, and even overcoats.
In fact, her kalamkari overcoats were one of the bestselling clothes this winter. "We have sold hundreds of pieces."
Why did she choose kalamkari of all the fabrics, we asked the designer? "This fabric was always my favourite, but I could not find proper ones in Bangladesh. But I always knew I wanted to do something with it," she replied.
Her love for kalamkari took her to some of its factories in India where she learned some of the techniques. "One of my uncle's friends had kalamkari factories in Andhra Pradesh. I asked him to teach me how to make the fabric."
But making this fabric in Bangladesh was difficult and expensive. "Per yard cost was quite high and it was not feasible to continue. Now I import the raw materials and do the rest by myself."
At present, Sootlee's team consists of four people and there is a small factory. Lopa handles the social media accounts and sales all by herself.
Price range of the kalamkari blouses start from Tk900 and go up to Tk1,200. The sharis are priced between Tk2,000 and 2,500. Patchwork stoles are priced between Tk1,200 and Tk1,280. The kalamkari overcoats cost between Tk2,200 and Tk2,300. Customers can order at Sootlee's Facebook page.
"Usually our products are delivered within three to four days. However, kalamkari sharis take about a month as the making process is quite long," she said.
Although Lopa works at Independent Television, her brand Sootlee is her passion and she wants to expand it in future. Her words of advice for entrepreneurs such as herself are, "An entrepreneur should truly love her/his venture, they should be really passionate about their business."