When I walked into Chandan Fashion, an Indian boutique in the heart of Little India, a warm, familiar feeling seeped into me. The sweet smell of burning incense mixed with the tangy spices of butter chicken, the hustle bustle of boutique workers, the blur of vivid colours; it all reminded me of my childhood in Delhi, with its smoke-filled air and the busy streets. The owner Sarab Singh reminded me of my grandmother, who used to dress me up in her saris when I was a toddler. Singh and her husband have been in the retail business for over 25 years, dealing with intricate, traditional Indian clothing.
Before I left, she wrapped me up in a gorgeous purple and gold sari and told me to come back any time I wanted. I felt at home.
How did you get into the business of selling saris?
My husband had the same kind of business back home so when we came to Canada, we decided to start the same business.
How has your mother influenced your dressing style?
I am from the east of India so that’s their culture, hence, I wore most of the normal styles they wore. When I was in Grade 10, I remember, I used to get really excited when my mother let me wear saris. I even wore one to my graduation. It used to be a big deal to wear saris and it was very exciting for me, you know?
How do you wear you saris?
I use a lot of pins inside to hold them together from the starting point to the end. When I make the pleats, I make sure to put a nice pin in to hold the pleats together. I put another pin on my shoulder to attach the beginning of the train to my blouse so that my hands are free.
What are some of the materials used to make saris?
A lot of different materials can be used: silk, polyester, nylon, rayon, cotton, all manufactured in India. I prefer georgette because this material pleats better, and silk is nice for special occasions and parties.
Do you like how the saris used in Bollywood movies nowadays have a lot of sex appeal, or do you prefer other styles?
I prefer regular, old, traditional saris because they are evergreen and will never go out of fashion. Simple styles are the best. But sexy or modern styles or saris will only be trendy for a few months or a few years before something new comes out again, and the style that is current will go out of fashion. Maybe my age is a big factor as well. That is probably why I like simple saris. My style has also been passed onto my 21 year old daughter. She wears saris and looks very nice in them. I would definitely pick classy saris over fancy ones.
So, do you think modern generations are into saris?
Modern generations are definitely into saris, yes. I sell a lot of saris to younger generations. I even sell them for prom. As soon as it’s prom season, I put all my sari-inspired pieces out on display. My daughter went to a private high school and wore a really pretty sari for her own prom.
Do you have a lot of non-Indian customers?
Toronto is a very diverse, cosmopolitan city, so I definitely have a wide variety of customers who buy traditional clothing from me. I think my customers find it a little dressy. They like to wear saris because they think they’re vibrant. They say, “We are tired of monotone colours all the time.” They think we have a very colourful selection of saris, which is completely true. All the different colours we have on our saris complement each other and never look tacky. It is our culture. People wear them to special occasions and weddings. I once had a lady from Jamaica come into my store and she wanted to wear something traditional for her own wedding. She wanted to buy a traditional lehenga and I custom ordered it for her from India. It was a gorgeous, hand-beaded, white lehenga, custom fitted to her size. And after the wedding, she brought in some pictures and said, “This is your lehenga. Thanks for making me look so stunning.” She definitely got a lot of compliments which made me really happy. Indian clothing is definitely becoming more popular all around the world. I realize that India is a third world country and the bad parts of the country are always highlighted. But now, I think that India is waking up and is definitely better than before. I think traditional clothing lets people escape from the bad parts and focus on how vivid and rich our country really is. If you have money in your pocket, come with me and I will show you all the good parts of India.
photography // Laura Tuttle