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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

A sleeveless, intricately pleated blouse has been tie-dyed using betel nut juice so that its salmon hue is run through with diagonal cream stripes. It’s fresh-faced and contemporary. Far more traditional, yet still tailored, is a knee-length, ocean-blue kurta—the cloth woven with a West African technique called ikat. Both pieces were created by Anaka Narayanan ’04 for her spring 2008 collection, and they represent two ideas that guide her design aesthetic. The pink blouse is versatile, she says, just as appropriate for work as for dinner out, offering “self-expression for different occasions.” The kurta, in handwoven doria cotton, is a case of a traditional fabric inspiring a silhouette, a common occurrence in Narayanan’s textiles-obsessed world.

Narayanan’s company, Brass Tacks (as in “getting down to brass tacks,” she says, “which means getting down to basics”), makes clothing that blends traditional textiles with contemporary styling. Narayanan stays away from “bling” like heavy embroidery and beads, often favored in high-end Indian apparel, in favor of clean and simple lines. Fabrics—handwoven silks, cottons, and linens—are chosen with local weather in mind, and the proportions come from studying Indian women, she says, who tend to be narrower in the shoulders and wider in the hips than Americans. (See Narayanan’s entire spring 2008 collection at www.brasstacksmadras.com.)

Narayanan, 27, launched the company in her hometown of Chennai in 2007. After graduating from Reed with an economics degree—with the intention, she says, of working at a think tank or a nonprofit, “dedicating my life to economic development projects”—she spent 18 months at NERA, an economic analysis firm in New York City. But a trip home to India after graduation had stirred a dream to work with the textiles that had surrounded her in childhood. After NERA, she interned with two New York fashion designers for three months and then returned to Chennai (formerly Madras), the city of eight million where she was born and raised.

While Narayanan doesn’t consider her work to be directly inspired by American fashion, she notes that “the attention to the fit of a garment is a very Western thing.” And a few of the pieces in her most recent collection—such as “Dekalb Avenue” and “Fort Greene”—are named after the streets or neighborhoods in Brooklyn where she lived for two years.

Narayanan designs all Brass Tacks clothing herself while managing a production staff of seven. To sell the fashions, she opened a store in a busy Chennai residential neighborhood, where she spends four to six hours a day training sales staff, cleaning, replenishing stock, and other such nitty-gritty tasks. Her fashions are priced between Rupees 600 and Rupees 2000, or $15 to $48.

“By American standards this is probably very inexpensive for clothes that have been handwoven and that are quite exclusive,” she says. “But in Chennai that is still considered fairly expensive.”

Brass Tacks is her only venue for selling her collections—they aren’t available online—but Narayanan hopes to eventually place them in other small boutiques and to open a second store in India. Her business model is motivated by the same passion for economic development that has propelled her since high school. Before attending Reed, Narayanan spent a year working with rural development nonprofits in India, farming and teaching English. While an undergraduate, she won a McGill Lawrence Internship Award to work at the World Bank investigating caste differences and their effects on civic behavior.

With her own business, Narayanan hopes to positively impact India’s economic development by drawing attention to the rural artisans who supply her fabrics and textiles. “Any business is a part of the development chain,” she says. “The one thing that I hope to accomplish, with time, is giving my artisan suppliers a good understanding of international standards so that they can work towards improving their quality and commanding a higher price for their fabric.”

—Tara Wilkinson

reed magazine logoSpring 2008