What started off as an idea during a trip to Sylhet, ended up becoming not just a notable saree brand in the country, but a platform that tells stories – stories of the person that designs them, and stories of those who weave them.
"It was late January in 2014 when I was going to Sreemangal with my friend Zakia. She often praised me for wearing sarees. During the trip, she suggested that I begin designing them," remembers Sabiha Akond Rupa, the founder of Menka.
Rupa learned a lot about the scarcity of brands in Bangladesh and the consumers' growing interest in imported clothes. She also spoke to her elder sister who is an entrepreneur.
"I always used to wear warm, earthy toned cotton sarees. I guess I had an advantage as both my mom and sister cherished designing, particularly my mom, who stitched intricate nakshi kantha designs," she said.
Her friend took her to Monipuripara where she saw many weavers assemble cotton sarees.
Awed by their work, she bought four sarees with the little money she had with her at that time. Later, she borrowed some money from her father and bought a few more.
Within the next two days, she opened her Facebook page and named it "Menka".
In Hindu mythology, Menka or Menaka is considered one of the most beautiful of the heavenly Apsaras.
She named her brand Menka so that whoever wears her simple, deshi, cotton sarees will think of themselves as the most beautiful women, and while wearing the sarees, they would be parading their most confident self.
Rupa wanted to revive the long-forgotten culture of Bangladeshi weavers through "Menka".
She felt that somewhere among western influence, our handloom artisans are getting lost and she wanted to help these people from the marginalised communities.
She believes that if we do not practice what we teach, we will never be able to pay back the ones who are giving service to our society.
"Before completely setting up my business, I studied the market for two years. I needed to know about the space to manufacture authentic handloom cotton sarees, so I sourced the vast majority of the threads from different regions of Bangladesh, particularly from the northern part," she said.
She handpicked products from wholesale saree vendors in Sylhet, Tangail and other parts of the country.
Initially she sold five to six sarees only.
Most of the visual marketing ideas were born in her bedroom.
Here she would also do the greater part of editing, take photos, and creating content for her page. This is also when her skills as a writer, having been working as a journalist, came to the fore.
The designer said, "I was consistently enamoured with writing, and being a journalist and a writer for Dhaka Tribune, it was my work to compose articles for my magazine. I knew immediately that I had to create a personal space to exhibit my emotions via writing."
Personally, Rupa's collection of sarees provide her comfort in times of anxiety and restlessness. She feels an instant connection with her sarees; they make her happy. She wanted to express these emotions while promoting her products online, and so she started writing.
Her first album on Facebook, "Rupar shareer golpo" highlighted her personal emotions. This was also the time when she was going through the turmoil of her divorce.
She felt indomitable and put all her energy and time into her business.
"The pure khadi hand spun yarn that I used was collected from Murshidabad. In 2016, when I was living alone in Bashundhara R/A, I wrote my plans and used Menka to mirror my works, as if it were my own baby. These were elite designs as they were in limited editions," said Rupa.
Every saree that she plans, has a story, or a composition behind it, depicting her inner most feelings from everyday life.
Her sarees are generally eco-friendly and in light colours, even the dyes used for shading are sans concoction.
"I know it is a slow fashion, but I will never use chemical-based and non-environment friendly methods of production. This makes Menka exclusive compared to other brands."
She added that although this adamant, environmentally conscious attitude creates lower demand, she is willing to bear it for the weavers and the society.
So how does the company survive?
Rupa said, "I never wanted Menka to be just an online saree brand. There are two purposes behind it – the artisans weaving my sarees, and their devotion and faithfulness towards Menka, which also drives me to be more passionate."
One of her strategies is that she keeps her productions away from the mainstream market. She does not go for commercial campaigns or PR packaging.
Her clientele growth has followed an organic path, both in the country and abroad.
At present, the Menka team comprises only Rupa, and her communication manager Proma.
During the pandemic, Menka was closed for five months. Then it slowly started opening from August.
On adjusting to the new normal, Rupa said, "It was challenging in the sense that my weavers are from marginalised communities, they are the most afflicted individuals in these challenging times. They had my orders in hand and they went ahead to provide me with designs even during this pandemic. We will continue to create more work for these artisans and hope that the country soon realises their importance."
Finally, we wanted to know if there were any upcoming surprises we could expect from Menka and a bit about her "Silsila" collection.
"I had many plans but the pandemic has put everything on hold," lamented Rupa.
She launched her Silsila collection to revive the memories of the era, the youthfulness, and the inspiration behind one of her mother's 40-year-old sarees.
"Every mother is beautiful, and this 'Sisila' collection is not only about celebrating them, but we are paying back 100 per cent of the profit from this collection to our weavers- to help them sustain their livelihood in uncertain times," Rupa said.
Photography: Sheikh Suraiya Rehnuma
Models: Mithila, Samin, Farzana Sobhan, and Maleena