What brand can combine the iconic Le Bon Marché and rhino poop paper? Read on, reader.
As many of you know, one of my favorite topics is entrepreneurship. Combine that with another favorite, France, and you’ve got a plethora of interesting people and subjects to delve into. I recently discovered the brand Jamini on Instagram and went completely gaga for the incredible patterns, designs, and textiles. Owner and founder of Jamini, Usha Bora, and I connected, and I found myself even more fascinated by this powerhouse of a woman and her growing Indian-French chic line.
In thinking of ways to describe Usha, I find myself drawn to the words peace, strength, and intensity. She radiates this through her ballerina-like grace and kind eyes, yet you know that there’s an explosion of power hidden just beneath them, ready to be released at any moment. When I walked into her beautiful 10e arrondissement boutique, Usha greeted me like an old friend, and I immediately felt at ease with her as she showed me around the stunning showroom.
There are so many beautiful things in Jamini that it was difficult to choose where to start. (This is not a bad problem to have.) I wanted to take everything home with me, and I’ve resolved that I will, little by little! The green Agni bag is now a staple in my wardrobe, as is a darling gingham headband that makes me feel a little bit like Rosie the Riveter, giving me extra pep in my step. Papeterie-obsessed, I added one of her specialty notebooks (read more below) to my collection. I flitted between cushions and scarves, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, and Usha laughed as I filled my arms with Jamini treasures. Believe me, this brand is one that you want to get to know.
Interviewing this woman was an honor. Usha’s story unfolds delightfully, and I think you will enjoy learning about her journey from Assam, India, to Paris, France.
1. What was it like growing up in Assam, and how has Assam influenced Jamini?
Growing up in Assam was wonderful. I grew up with the fragrance of fresh tea from the tea gardens around the house, of jasmine flowers, lush greenery, watching deer, rare birds like hornbills from my verandah, and I spent a lot of time in the forest of Kaziranga. Kaziranga is the home to many endangered species of animals like the one-horned rhinoceros amongst others. I was chased (almost to death!!) by a wild elephant, went tiger tracking, and had so many adventures in this gorgeous part of India. Assam plays a big influence in my life and therefore is very present in Jamini’s DNA. Our logo comes from the hundreds of lotus flowers growing in swamps all around my home, the woven line of scarves and home items come from tribal influences in garments the women of the region wear, and our famous paper is made from rhino & elephant poo from the forests of Assam! The new candle I am working on will be based on the fragrance of the world famous Assam tea!
2. You went from Assam to France; how was that transition?
I got an MBA from India’s top business school – Indian Institute of Management, in Ahmedabad (set up in in parternership with Harvard et designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn) and went to work in a big American firm in Hong Kong – Emerson Electric. In HK, I met and fell in love with a dashing Frenchman and came to Paris! I felt at home here almost immediately – the wine, the food , the museums, the music – everything was like a dream! The only thing I had a hard time getting used to was the weather – coming from a tropical climate, I had never seen snow before, and never worn a coat, or gloves…that had to change! And it took me a while to get used to the famous European grey skies. (editor’s note: I can relate!)
3. When did you decide to move from management to design?
After I had my first child, Deeya, I did a lot of hard thinking. I was working at L’Oréal Paris at that time. It became clear to me that I was not going to stay in a big corporation for very long – I had too much energy and was not really cut out for a very top-down hierarchical way of functioning. It was clear that I had to be my own boss!! So I had to find a way of doing that and decided to take the risk if going down a completely creative path – something that I always dreamed of doing, but never really thought about very seriously. Having a child makes you think about very important, profound things in your life, and you ask yourself hard questions. This is the moment when things became crystal clear, and I knew that I was going to leave the corporate life and take a huge risk by following my heart. I had no experience in design – only a passion for textiles and an eye for detail, and that’s how it all started!
4. What skills did you learn from your time at L’Oréal and other corporations that you have applied to your business?
I consider myself extremely lucky to have gone to the best schools and universities in India and Paris. I have a solid business background, great contacts, and enough confidence to recognize a good idea and make it happen. Understanding business risks and opportunities, analyzing financial requirements, professional methods of tracking results, marketing ideas, understanding the loopholes in production and quality control and addressing these issues – all these came from having worked with big corporations. I am so grateful to have had wonderful colleagues and bosses who trained the hell out of me and prepared me for the great big Jamini adventure!
5. How did your business start?
I worked as a product manager at L’Oréal, Paris for a few years, but I missed India terribly and had to create a work situation that would take me there often! So I started thinking about ideas and finally decided that I was going to start looking for beautiful things and try to use my wildly creative side to adapt them to suit French tastes. So voilà! I started scouting fabrics, embroideries and weaves for big brands like Agnès B, Dior kids, Bonton, and BA&SH. I did this for a few years, and it worked really well. In 2010, I decided that I wanted to launch my own line of accessories, so here I am!
6. Now let’s talk about the products. What can you tell us about the materials used in production?
All my products are handmade. I want to showcase the wonderful textile techniques from India and, above all, invite everyone to travel with me to different regions of India through my work! I have made collections using fabrics printed by wooden stamps from Rajasthan as well as products hand woven in Assam. I work with expert artisans with the hope that showcasing and promoting their work will allow them to pass on their skills to future generations. Jamini is also a family story. My father, after retirement, set up a small scale enterprise to make paper from Rhino and Elephant poo – this is the paper I use for our lovely notebooks. It is 100% natural and eco friendly and helps agains deforestation.
7. In a previous conversation, you mentioned the artisans who make the Jamini products. How did you find out about them, and what skills do they bring to the table?
The artisans with whom I work are experts in weaving and printing. I grew up in a region where weaving is economically very important for women. It allows them to have some degree of freedom (in villages where they would normally stay at home and not have any source of income) and also be less dependent on agriculture and the vagaries of the monsoon! These women have looms at home and work at their own pace. The skills they learn are passed down from one generation to another, and the designs and patterns are influenced by tribal practices and social conditions. They are a huge treasure trove in terms of anthropological information. I try to do my little bit to preserve their know how and adapt it to appeal to a modern and discerning market.
8. What were your first products when you opened in January 2013?
I made a range of scarves using a lovely hand woven quality of cotton (khadi), and it was a huge success in Japan! That encouraged me to try new things and increase the product range.
9. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur in France! Tell us a bit about your entrepreneurial journey.
No, it isn’t! You are right. I have been extremely lucky to have met wonderful people who have supported and encouraged me. I think it’s very important to have a very positive attitude and not necessarily take things for granted. The French like to play by the rules, but when pushed, they are actually quite open to new ideas. For example, the store space that I wanted to rent was initially not worth my applying for. This space is owned by an offshoot of the Mairie de Paris (SEMAEST), whose objective is to change a certain number of Paris’s neighborhoods. In the 10th arrondissement, they specifically wanted to avoid textile companies (because this area of flooded with wholesalers of t-shirts, etc.). So when I sent my application in for Jamini, they said, “No!! No textiles!!” I persisted, sent them the story of the brand, a link to my website, development plans for the future, etc.! They came back [with] a BIG yes! Not only that, they help and encourage me every day and try to do their best to talk about me in the media. So my advice to all aspiring entrepreneurs is – DON’T take the first No for an answer. Push the limits and boundaries. The French are not necessarily used to that – it’s such an Anglo-Saxon thing! But they are not all that averse to it either. So with some persistence and a little bit of luck, one can do a lot of things here!
10. What are some of the challenges and benefits of being an entrepreneur?
The challenges are mostly financial – mainly taxes, hiring policies. France is really not an easy place for hiring people. The rules are really complicated and extremely disadvantageous for entrepreneurs. The benefits – so much creativity and inspiration all around! Ideas come easily, creative people are so easy to find, a million projects could be born every day! My favorite thing about being an entrepreneur is having the freedom to try new ideas. Being able to trust my instincts and taking the plunge!
11. Your boutique is located on 10 rue du Château d’Eau, 75010. What influenced you to find a storefront versus being an online business?
I was actually looking for an office/showroom space when I moved to the hood in 2013. I saw the space and applied for it (story above), and when they said yes, it was so exciting! I love the 10th. It’s full of energy and creative people from so many countries. It’s really like the East Village in New York. Creativity is spilling out on every street – bakeries, florists, trendy stores, you name it. I am delighted to be here – I’ve met the most amazing and incredible people in the one year of our existence! Its very important for me to be able to physically showcase my products. The details, the tiny imperfections are so important to be able to understand the precious nature of what I make. It would have been very very difficult to do this 100% online. My e-shop is starting to work very well because customers (like you) who have touched and felt my products are now talking about them and creating a big buzz on social media! But the first step had to be a physical presence for the range.
12. What I find absolutely fascinating is your rhino poop line! How did it come to be?
My grandfather was the conservator of forests in the state of Assam, where we grew up. When he died, my family wanted to do something meaningful to keep his memory alive. He was so passionate about the forest and spent every second of his life trying to protect it. So my dad came up with the wonderful idea (it has never been done before) of killing two birds with one stone! His idea was to tackle the HUGE poaching problem of rhinoceros and deforestation at the same time. By converting poo to paper, we save trees and employ women from the villages surrounding the forests. We educate them about poaching and provide them with a livelihood that in some way discourages them from looking for other (often illegal) forms of earning revenue. My family has also set up a foundation that awards two prizes every year to the brave forest guards to fight against the poachers. This year, one of the winners was a woman whose husband, a forest guard, lost his life trying to kill a poacher.
13. Are there any new products coming in soon or collaborations in the works?
I am a desperate dreamer! Always pushing myself in terms of creativity and challenges. I am launching a line of jewelry with beads from India but assembled here by French artisans, a candle based on fragrances of tea and ginger in collaboration with a niche perfume manufacturer based in Paris…and hopefully opening a second store next year. (Editor’s note: It’s opening in September on rue du Notre-Dame-de-Lorette in the 9th arrondissement!)
14. What are your personal favorites at the moment?
The handwoven cushions are my absolute favorite at the moment!
15. Where do you see Jamini in 5 years?
I am looking for funding to open a second store in Paris next year (opening on rue de Notre-Dame de Lorette in the 9e arrondissement in September 2015!) and in 5 years will hopefully have a complete lifestyle brand based on French chic and Indian elegance that you will be able to find everywhere in the world! We are [now] at the Le Bon Marché starting this summer, and that will hopefully open the doors to the best stores worldwide as well. The adventure is just beginning!
Jamini by Usha Bora
10 rue du Château d’Eau
Jamini has many points of sale all over the world; have a look and see if you can find Usha’s products near you.