A designer by designSmall town entrepreneur making fashion accessible to every woman
A small Tarai town is not the first place one would expect a fashion designer establishing a thriving business.
But Keshar Kala Thapa is a proof that with determination all Nepalis can design their own successful careers.
Growing up in Rupandehi district in the central plains of Nepal, Keshar Kala was obsessed with clothing and fabrics from a young age. She turned the pages of fashion magazines, fascinated by what the models wore.
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In a household with five children, Keshar Kala’s mother purposely did not buy a television set because it would hamper their studies. But for Keshar Kala, this meant more time to devour the fashion magazines.
After her mother finally relented and brought a tv when she was in the tenth grade, the program that Keshar Kala would be glued to would be the Miss Nepal contest.
“On magazines and on tv, I was spellbound by the clothes people wore, the ramp they walked on. I did not want to dress like them, but wanted to create something even more elegant for others to wear,” recalls Keshar Kala.
The family had a small sewing machine in which her mother sewed shirts and skirts, tailoring all their school uniforms herself. Sometimes all five siblings would have to wear the same matching clothes that their mother stitched.
“I did not like our matching outfits, I felt like I was a sheep in a flock and yearned to wear more original clothing,” remembers Keshar Kala.
After high school, Keshar Kala found out that fashion designing could actually be a viable profession. She begged her mother to enroll her in an institute in Butwal, and even attended classes for a month but had to discontinue due to financial constraints.
She went back to school and graduated with a business degree. Then she gave fashion one more try. She went to fashion school, trained as an apprentice, and then branched out to open her own boutique. Four years ago she registered her training institute.
“My friends and family were a bit wary about my decision at first. They couldn’t understand why I would sew clothes when I have a college degree,” says Keshar Kala. “People still do not understand that this can be a viable profession.”
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Keshar Kala now wants to use her skills to train other women to make them financially independent so that fashion is more accessible to Nepali women. She owns and operates Saffron Boutique and Training Center with her husband, Tej Bahadur Kala in Tilottama.
“Every designer wants celebrities to wear their clothes and that would always be an honour, but what I find really fulfilling is designing for everyday women,” she says.
At the training center, students enroll for six months at a fraction of the price of many other institutes in the area. The couple makes sure each student has their own sewing machine so that they do not have to waste time waiting for their turn working on fabric.
“The environment here is different,” says Aashu Thakuriee, who completed her training from Saffron two years ago and has been working with Keshar Kala. “I like the way she approaches teaching. She creates a comfortable environment for students.”
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While Keshar Kala is busy instructing the students, Tej Bahadur takes care of their son, picking him up from school and preparing dinner. He is also in charge of all the social media handles of the business and coordinates all the client orders and deliveries.
Tej Bahadur went to South Korea in 2015 as a migrant worker and saw how people of all ages embraced fashion and how quickly the trends changed. He recognised the opportunity in Nepal and when his contract was up in 2020, instead of looking for ways to stay on in Korea, he returned to help his wife in the business.
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Keshar Kala’s business degree has been helpful in managing the venture, she makes calculated risks when investing in fabrics and sourcing them, keeping track of inventory and accounting. The couple go to Sunauli in India, source locally in Butwal or make a trip to Kathmandu to buy their own cloth, but Keshar Kala says that finding good quality materials are still difficult.
The couple now wants to expand the business and create clothes that can compete with the imports from other countries. They also want to ensure employment for trainees who cannot afford to set up their own business and make designer wears available for women locally.
Says Keshar Kala, “Fashion enhances the inner beauty of people. And everyone from housewives to professionals deserve to feel beautiful.”