Once a part of the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh's fashion has a vast and substantive history and heritage. Along with the Bengali mainstream, the plethora of ethnic minority communities in this country also have their own traditional clothing, which adds volume to our national diversity.
Khaidem Sithi, a young member of a Manipuri community, and a student of MFA at Jagannath University, had a little clothing family business in their hometown, Sylhet. Last year, during the pandemic and related crises, Sithi decided to take the business to the next level by launching it online, starting Engellei's journey.
The name Engellei comes from merging the words 'Engel' and 'Lei.' In the Manipuri language, the term 'Engellei' means the month of June, and 'Lei' means flower. So, Engellei represents 'The Flower of June.'
As Sithi started this business in June 2020, it was named Engellei.
Engellei is a unique and authentic brand that sells Manipuri clothing. They solely use natural hand-loomed fabric. Engellei primarily uses two types of materials – silk and cotton. The silk fabric is very thin and delicate, worn by royalty; hence it is named 'Rani,' which means queen.
Sithi believes these beautiful ethnic clothes are underrated and unhighlighted. As a result, few in our society are aware of Manipuri clothing.
"Our products have age-old heritage and tradition. We even ensure the best quality possible. But little do people know about it. Ethnic clothes need more branding and focus as they can bring new dimensions to your closet," said Sithi.
Traditional Manipuri garments for women include a shawl for the upper body known as Innaphi, a wraparound cloth more like a skirt known as Phanek. Phaneks and Innaphis encompass the Manipuri style of dressing and culture. Engellei sells both Innaphis and Phaneks along with Manipuri Sharees.
The Engellei clothing line solely caters to women, but they have plans to introduce men's clothing as well.
The saree price ranges from Tk 21,00 to Tk 14,000, while Innaphis' price range starts at Tk 800 per piece, and can go up to Tk 6,000, depending on the threads used and specificities of the fabric.
Engellei's one of the best-selling products is the Rani Innaphi. It is a supreme piece of clothing characterised by the exceptional quality of silk used and its intricate weaving patterns. Meitei women wear pure silk Rani Innaphis with a phige phanek (a traditional lower garment), but nowadays, women wear this garment at weddings. Therefore, the Rani Innaphis are a significant part of a Meitei Bride's trousseau.
The Phanek is much more than a clothing item to the Manipuri. The Phanek embeds tradition, history, and beliefs. For example, if the children are tied with a small piece of their mother's Phanek, the locals believe they will be safe from danger in the absence of their mothers. Hence, they preserve the Phaneks of pregnant women.
Phaneks are generally embroidered with five specific patterns, and each of them has a story to tell. For instance, the parrot beak pattern is a gentle reminder of the parrot's voice. It encourages girls to talk soothingly like a parrot. The fish eye symbol is inspired by the fierceness and sharpness of a fish. It advocates women to be bold and to fight back.
Engellei is primarily an online business store, which has one physical shop set up in Sylhet.
The most exciting part of Engellei is that they sell rare clothing and share the history behind them as well. As a result, customers tend to have a sense of satisfaction.
"I always try to write interesting facts about Manipuri culture and fashion in the product's caption. For example, once my model was wearing a flower in the picture, I noted how Meitei women wore flowers on different sides to distinguish their marital status. Unmarried women would wear it on the left side and married women on the right," said Sithi. "After that, every time I uploaded review pictures of my folks, my audience tended to comment with logical guesses on their marital status, and it was entertaining."
Being a family business, everybody from Sithi's family has a role here. But the planning and executions are done mainly by Sithi and her aunt.
"I am genuinely grateful to my Kaki (paternal aunt). She has been a constant support in the whole journey since the beginning," Sithi said.
Engellei takes a while to deliver their products as they produce the fabric by themselves. The manufacturing process is reliant on sunlight, so weather plays a significant role. But the quality of the product is what makes the wait worth it.