Over the decades, there have been several subtle, yet significant modifications to the design of the shari - the signature attire of Bangalee women.
For instance, during the early 1980s, sharis used to be only 11 yards long, with no blouse piece attached to the fabric. More importantly, embellishments were limited only to the border of sharis.
Fauzia Amin Neena, the mastermind of Kanishka, was the one who introduced the exclusive 12 yard shari, woven by her in-house artisans. Established in 1984, Kanishka is a pioneering name in the shari industry of Bangladesh.
"Back then, taant shari was very basic, with minimal work in its borders. The body and anchal [free end of the shari] were mostly empty [void of any work]. I wanted to revamp the taant shari by incorporating intricate motifs all over it," Neena told The Business Standard.
However, at the time, the necessary handloom and expertise were not available to execute her plan. Neena had to hire a Benarasi weaver who could innovate and experiment with new techniques to weave beautiful patterns in taant shari.
"If Benarasi shari can have elaborate and sophisticated anchal and body, why not taant? The weavers refused to believe in the concept, but I was stubborn. I had to give my vision a life," she added.
A humble beginning
Kanishka is Neena's (an Eden College graduate) passion project, who wanted to support the struggling local artisans.
"After the Liberation War, the country's economy collapsed, which continued for a while. In the early 1980s, our local weavers were in really bad shape, which I personally witnessed through fieldwork. I felt obligated to do something for their welfare," recalled Neena.
Besides, Neena always wanted to nurture her creative side. She loves taking inspiration from nature and incorporating them into fabric through different motifs and patterns.
With her family's support, backed by the hard work of her loyal artisans, she launched the brand through an exhibition in her house and invited a few influential people of that time.
Within an hour, her collection was sold out, and she could not believe her eyes. She then decided to start the business in a proper way by renting out space for an outlet.
Challenges that come with being a woman
Starting a fashion business, under a woman's leadership, was not a walk in the park back in the early 1980s. Obstacles were aplenty and Neena and her team had to weather out ferocious, gendered storms at every phase of the business.
"When I decided to open my first outlet, nobody would rent out any commercial space to a woman. I had to rent a garage space from where Kanishka started operating," she said. To showcase the sharis, Neena needed mannequins at her shop during a time when mannequins were not quite easily available.
"I had to go to Tati Bazar and convince the idol artisans to make me some dolls [mannequins] for my shop. Initially, they could not understand what I wanted. When I finally got my hands on the dolls and displayed them in front of my shop, it was a scene for the masses to behold," she recalled.
Even now, those mannequins are displayed at Kanishka's outlet.
Even though in a short time Kanishka became a beloved name among the youth and everyone wanted Kanishka's sharis, nobody agreed to be a model and do a photoshoot for the brand.
"It was the era of conservatism. Women in front of the camera were considered taboo, and I could not persuade anyone to do the shoot. But I refused to give up and became the model myself," she said.
Neena's bold decision received unsolicited attention from society and not everyone could accept it wholeheartedly. A group of people threw molotov cocktail bombs at her shop to protest her decision. Fortunately, no one was injured in the attack.
For more than three decades, Kanishka retained stupendous popularity across the country. Within approximately five years since its launch, the brand opened two more outlets in the capital's Gulshan and Banani in 1990.
The brand name rose in popularity, spread far and wide. Customers included everyone from media glitterati to political persona, from simple housewives to the fashion-conscious youth.
In the early 1990s, Kanishka had an artisan troop of more than 300 people, mostly women. Neena and her team participated in countless exhibitions at home and abroad and gained overwhelming appreciation.
"We used to make only 20 pieces of a particular design and sell them on a first come first served basis. Hence, jostling crowds were a common scene at Kanishka. There were times when Mirpur road faced congestion due to our customer traffic," Neena said.
A dried-up market?
Although Kanishka still has a loyal clientele who regularly buys from them, the overall demand for its products has significantly declined. Over the years, Neena had to shut down two out of three Kanishka outlets.
The last standing outlet remains open at ARA centre of the capital's Dhanmondi, but it too faces the risk of closure.
"Back in the day, shari used to be our staple wear, which now has become occasional wear. Naturally, demand has dropped. Besides, the youth are more inclined towards Western wear," she said, adding, "Indian shari also has a solid fan base among the youth, which makes life for outlers solely based on local fabrics like taant and silk difficult."
To date, Neena still designs all the items of Kanishka and she remains hands-on with her business operations. For instance, she is in charge of her manufacturing unit in Tangail. Neena believes that if the government takes adequate measures to promote shari as formal office wear, the glory days of shari can be revived.
Besides the flagship taant sarees, the brand also sells salwar kamiz, shawl, fatua, jewellery items, home decor pieces and other handcrafted products. The price range of these products starts from Tk70 and goes up to Tk40,000.