The Enduring Cultural Impact Of Seematti's Iconic 'Queen Of Silks' Commercial

Image of Lisa Haydon with lion and cheetah next to her from her 2013 advertisement for Kerala-based textile brand Seematti
The 'Queen Of Silks' advertisement forever left an indelible mark in the minds of those who saw it.L:Seematti Advertisment R: From Beena Kannan Official Facebook Page, 2013

Growing up in a village in Kerala, my world of fashion was limited to the magazines we subscribed to at home and the rare chance to watch Fashion TV; the runway shows featuring the risque fashion of the early aughts were not something one could watch with family around. But the advertisements in Vanitha and Grihalakshmi magazines were those that I could look at freely for hours. And while there were a lot of ads that left a mark on me personally, I don’t think there is any that comes quite as close as the Seematti Textiles from 2013, which also left an indelible mark on the collective conscience of Malayalis as a whole. 

For as long as I can remember, i.e., the early 2000s, shopping for clothes was an occasional thing for most of us living in the smaller towns and villages of Kerala. It was an affair reserved for either a festival like Eid or a wedding in the family. It usually coincided with the return of many NRIs in the family, as is typical in Kerala. The trip to the leading textile showrooms was almost an adventure to a 7 or 8-year-old. So even for those who grew up in other parts of the world, the popular textile destinations are familiar names. Seemati or Jayalakshmi were the two defacto options in the big city of Kochi where we’d all go shopping as a group and it was a choice many pondered. It was like Coca-Cola vs Pepsi or to reference something a little closer to home — Mammooty vs. Mohanlal. 

My family would go to both places, but I have more vivid memories of Seematti. There might be a multitude of reasons for this. Ranging from the fact that they had a 16 and Under collection in the early 2000s, to how novel and contemporary their photoshoots and advertisements were. From those featuring Deepika Padukone before her movie debut, to those that featured actual students from schools around Kochi, the range they explored was extraordinary for the time. The magazines that I looked at frequently featured organic stories of how Seemati had featured ‘customers’ as models, while in the same breath also casting some of the biggest names in the nation for their advertisements. But none made as much of a cultural impact among the people as this Lisa Haydon ‘Queen of Silks’ advertisement from 2013. 

The Queen of Silk

While this writer’s resolution towards writing about fashion had concretised by then, it was still a defining moment. The still photograph of Lisa Haydon on the back cover of Vanitha magazine, captured by photographer Dinesh Madhavan and shot in Maasai Mara is what I first saw. Then came the advertisement on TV and in every cinema. As a result, the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya has remained in the average Malayali’s mind as ‘the location for the Seemati animal ad’. 

No matter how you look at it, the Seemati textiles ad featuring Lisa Haydon, conceptualised and directed by renowned filmmaker Rajiv Menon, met global standards. As someone who has created some of the most iconic ads of our time, this advertisement evidently bears the signature of his creative lens. The initial idea was to present Seemati as the ‘Queen of Silks’ and this was commissioned by Central Advertisement Agency in Kochi. A source who worked closely with the team told me how they went in with just this initial thread, inspired in part by Alisha Chinai’s ‘Made in India’ Music Video, but also how they aimed to position the brand and its founder — Beena Kannan — as the queen of silk. When this concept was taken to Rajiv Menon, as is his way, he made it his own. The advertisement became this one-minute-long narrative of the queen of silks prowling the wilderness of Africa with majestic wild animals, forever leaving an indelible mark in the minds of those who saw the advertisement.

Beena Kannan Official Facebook Page, 2013

Creative Styling & Cultural Impact

Something that always stood out to me about this particular advertisement was the draping, styling, makeup, and hair for the advertisement. These were key elements that set the advertisment apart stylistically at the time. Every person that I talked to for this piece echoed the same thought, in addition to the artistry of the overall concept and production.

For Hrishikesh Saji, a freelance fashion stylist and photographer of Kerala origin, this particular Seemati ad was a self-declared ‘core memory’. “This ad has remained ingrained in my memory due to its fashion-forward creative direction, unlike the typical wedding-centred ads we commonly encountered back then," he explains. "As a young boy from a small town in Thrissur, it provided one of my earliest exposures to the world of fashion and affirmed my aspirations in this field.” The Istituto Marangoni Mumbai graduate who recently styled and photographed for Stamp Duty at their All You Can Street show at LFW F/W ‘23 told me how this advertisement sparked a passion within him and solidified his desire to pursue a career in fashion. He went on to mention, “Lisa's striking face, the majestic styling with the lions and elephants, and especially the timeless styling of the corset-like blouses for the sarees, all of it captivated me.” It very apparently seemingly continues to.

A passionate fashion enthusiast and self-taught upcycler, Sreelakshmi E. is a media professor in Mangalore, who shares her upcycling experiments through her page SewWithSree. The Calicut-origin creative talked about how the ad’s artistry stood out to her and has remained with her. “From the wild animals to the music, everything just captured my attention." says Sreelakshmi. "It was something totally new at that time. Most importantly, I remember trying to know who the model (Lisa Hayon) was. It stood out for how artistic it was and has remained one of those ads that I have never forgotten about, even for a minute.”

And while we’d love to have all the information — including the details of the composer and artists of the accompanying jingle that has remained an earworm, we are still looking. Nevertheless, the cultural impact of this advertisement is undeniable. If you simply google, ‘Lisa Haydon Seematti Ad’ you would easily discover multiple uploads of the advertisement with a cumulative view count close to a million, all peppered with comments of those who are "watching this in 2021" and talking about how timeless the advertisement is.

In fact, the last comment on the most popular upload was merely made two days ago by a user, and mentions how "fresh and cool" the ad still is, over a decade later. And this writer has to agree. While times may have changed, the brand in question has changed with them to become more social media friendly and is still very much ahead of the curve in its field. The impact of the creative energy and forethought that went into producing this advertisement at such a massive scale is perhaps also what has resulted in it continuing to be a cultural marker of high fashion for a generation of fashion enthusiasts.

You can find out more about Seematti here.