Delhi is a Dream for Shoppers and Fashion Designers Alike

Drawing on India’s heirloom handicrafts, a new generation is redesigning Delhi as a fashion destination.

First appeared as “The Sari–torialists” in the December 2015 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

Navigating the narrow laneways of Shahpur Jat, I have to resist the urge to dive into every little boutique and jewellery shop tucked into its crumbling bungalows. The storefronts, alternating between ruinous and brand–spanking–new, house thriving businesses that make everything from tea to the embroidery that will appear on next season’s Prada. I’m following Rashmi Varma – a young designer who splits her time between Delhi and Toronto – through this urban village to her workshop to see her take on the modern sari, adapted from ancient techniques (manual looms and indigo dyes) and the best of Indian handicraft (hand weaving, dyeing and embroidery). Boys selling brooms off the back of their bikes cruise past us, their wares fanning out behind them like peacock tails. We head up some dusty steps and into her studio, then tiptoe quietly past the hum of sewing machines and into the back office. The room, wallpapered with a woodland scene, feels immediately and strangely familiar. “I blew up a photograph of my favourite trees,” she smiles. “They’re Quebec birch!” And so here I am, halfway across the world, standing in the middle of a Canadian forest, getting ready to try on my first sari.

May 27, 2020
Woman wearing a blue Ashdeen sari at Lodhi Gardens
A touch of blue from an Ashdeen sari at Lodhi Gardens.
The giant Hanuman Statue in Delhi
Open wide for the giant Hanuman Statue.
Designer Rashmi Varma on the streets of Delhi
Designer Rashmi Varma splits her time between Toronto and Delhi.

In the past few years, Delhi has nudged glamorous Mumbai and all of its star–driven, Bollywood glitz out of the spotlight as India’s style centre. An international group of young, ambitious designers is changing the stereotypical neon face of the country’s fashion hub and reviving handloom fabrics – experimenting with new textures and weaves, such as silk with cotton and wool with silk – that are impressing even the most ardent critics. The front row at Paris fashion week is raising its eyebrows. Varma’s fashion–forward creations are on exhibit at London’s Fabric of India at the V&A Museum until mid–January 2016. And Delhi fashionistas, who want to stay connected to their roots but are looking for a contemporary twist, are snapping it all up. Fashion–hungry visitors like me, here to see the sights and to shop, just might need to pack two empty Longchamp travel bags to bring everything home. (I did a pre–emptive strike in my wardrobe, best described as a cross between Jackson Pollock and Marimekko at a Gay Pride Parade, to make room for the necklaces and shoes alone.)

Jewellery shop Nimai is located on Shahpur Jat
Colourful embroidery can be found at the Chandni Chowk market
Small boutiques, like jewellery shop Nimai, line Shahpur Jat.
Chandni Chowk market puts a fine point on embroidery.

If Delhi is the fashion king, Shahpur Jat – literally, the Royal Town of the Jats – is where the royal fashion family lives. Just south of Delhi’s centre, this was a quiet farming community until the socio–economic decline of the late 1980s turned it into a crowded low–income neighbourhood. Wandering its maze of alleys, I see evidence of its 900–year–old history in the stretches of ancient fort walls covered in spectacular street art that loom behind the new cafés and PR companies. Drawn by low rents, a new generation of entrepreneurs supervises sparkly storefronts and serious showrooms among the chai wallahs. It’s behind one of these storefronts that I meet the charismatic Punit Jasuja, a real force in the transformation of the area into a design destination. (“Punit is Delhi’s matchmaker,” I’ve been told by insiders). I find him perched on the edge of an oversize armchair that competes for attention with the massive shawtoosh shawl coiled around his neck. The American event planner, interior designer and owner of Second Floor Studio has family roots in Delhi. He brought a little bit of SoHo to Shahpur Jat. The shop’s two storeys are all oversize Paul Smith stripes, bright, hand–painted cushions emblazoned with show ponies, and bold canvases hung on brick walls – 7,500 square feet of Baan bangles, Kardo shirts and pants (think Brooks Brothers with a twist) and a giant cardboard cut–out of Carrie (a.k.a. Sarah Jessica Parker). When I ask why he chose Delhi, the explanation is simple: “You can move mountains in India. It might take a lifetime to get a light bulb changed, but you can create a design hub in a few years.”

A fun array of items available at this Shahpur Jat shop
The shop brings some SoHo sensibility to Shahpur Jat’s urban village.

“It might take a lifetime to get a light bulb changed, but you can create a design hub in a few years.”

I find more of the fashion crowd in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi, a district populated by creative studios and stark, whitewashed residences, where designers like Rahul Mishra have relocated. Mishra, who in 2014 was the first Asian designer to win the International Woolmark Prize (which recognizes outstanding rising fashion labels) at Milan Fashion Week, pays homage to his years studying physics in India with “scientific fashion.” Standing shoulder to shoulder in his studio/showroom, I’ve got exclusive access to his new collection: five racks of merino wool pieces that I can’t stop running my hands over. I mentally zip myself into an ivory dress with bright yellow hexagon embroidery splashed across the chest, like a giant lotus sunburst. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I never will again: Each piece is one of a kind. The line – available at London’s Harvey Nichols, Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Milan’s 10 Corso Como, Colette in Paris and Noida, when you’re in the neighbourhood – is making fashion more relevant while safeguarding and developing the rich heritage of an ancient craft. Mishra is one of the most vocal supporters of the Indian handloom industry and craft community, initiating reverse migration by restoring jobs to more than 1,000 craftsmen who have moved back to their villages from overcrowded cities. “It’s a Gandhian idea,” he tells me. “When workers move to the cities from their villages, their standard of living suffers. I’m helping them get back to their villages and out of the slums, and, in turn, the city becomes less crowded.”

A shoe store in the Dilli Haat market
Second Floor Studio’s Punit Jasuja
Put your best foot forward at Dilli Haat market.
Second Floor Studio’s Punit Jasuja sees a bright future for Delhi.

Less crowded is not the feeling I have on the way to Lodhi Gardens. “The secret to driving in Delhi is a good horn, good brakes and good luck!” says my driver, delivering me safely to the gates. Calm urban oases like this one unexpectedly abound in this city with its population of over 11 million: 80 acres of gently sloping lawns, dotted with tombs (no–big–deal architectural works from the 15th century) and shaded by palm trees, where locals practise yoga in the morning and families spend afternoons picnicking and playing soccer. And because it’s an area not overrun with tourists, it’s also the perfect spot for street fashion: Young men in smooth leather jackets with popped collars strum the guitar while young ladies wearing embroidered crop tops paired with batik–inspired long skirts lounge on the lawn. A couple of girls in neon–green and burnt–orange saris with bangles all the way up their arms chase after me – insistent on covering my hands with henna. (Eventually, I relent and marvel at how quickly and deftly one of them winds an intricate arabesque design up my arm with the dark brown liquid.) As I wander down the garden path, I spot couples holding hands, heads pressed closely together, and soon realize that Lodhi Garden is also a fashionable spot for teenage canoodling.

Two men adding embroidery to a fabric in Delhi
Local handcraft traditions are making a comeback.
A woman stands in the lavish bright hallway of the Dusit Devarana hotel
The hall at the Dusit Devarana hotel will light up your life.

I dedicate my last day to following in the footsteps of Delhi’s local designers with a stop at Chandni Chowk (pronounced “chan–dinny–chalk”). One of India’s largest wholesale markets, it’s where the fashion crowd goes for design inspiration and where shopaholics go to die. Asif, the tall, elegant Lodhi Hotel staffer who’s graciously offered to guide me through Old Delhi, navigates the narrow paths like a boss. (It’s his neighbourhood, after all.) When he notices I’m having trouble staying on course, he shouts over the heads of about 10 people – “Just think of the streets as a moving river!” – and so I go with the flow, drifting past baskets filled with spices, brides being fitted in fluorescent–coloured saris, shops stacked with fabric of every colour right up to the rafters and stalls of wall–to–wall bedazzled shoes.

People picnic on the lawn in front of the Sheesh Gumbad
Take your pick of picnic spots on the lawn in front of Sheesh Gumbad, within the 80–acre Lodhi Gardens.

Asif takes me to Fatehpuri Masjid, a 17th–century mosque where the faithful – Muslims, Hindus, Christians – come to pray together, side by side. “Old Delhi is one of the safest places in the city,” he explains. “Everyone knows everyone, and we take care of each other – no matter what god you worship.” On our way out, we cross paths, improbably, with his brother. I shake hands, clutching my shoes in my left, as they quickly catch up, flanked by red sandstone walls, towering minarets and a prayer hall with seven sprawling arches that will never go out of style.

A window view of the busy Shahpur Jat
A taxi driver stands next to his tuk-tuk
The streets of Shahpur Jat have become the hub for Delhi’s design scene.
Take a spin with one of Delhi’s tuk–tuk taxi drivers.

Which brings me back to shoes: After hours of floating past the book and silver markets, I’m convinced that you can buy absolutely anything in Chandni Chowk. I loop back to the Kinari Bazaar, where there’s a pair of orange slippers with little gold bells that have my name on them. Then I fall right back into Delhi’s version of Riverdance, following the current as it pushes me into back lanes where ornamental lace and rope is strung across the haveli walls, almost breaking under the weight of sparkly, glass beads and appliqués embroidered with hundreds of tiny crystals. As I reach the outer lanes of the bazaar, the crowd disperses, and I see the pavement below me for the first time – a glittering stretch of sequins like a scattering of fairy dust.

Delhi by Design

These creative entrepreneurs are bringing India’s traditional textiles into the future.

  • Olivia Dar At this eponymous shop from a Christian Lacroix–trained designer, look for embroidered cuffs (think necklace meets collar) and accessories inspired by 10th–century tribal beading.

  • Banaras Ekaya The boutique sari emporium, which caters to the modern woman, is inspired by both the traditional (brocade) and the avant–garde (bold geometric patterns printed on georgette and chiffon). CEO Palak Shah took over from her father and grandfather.

  • Second Floor Studio In addition to this concept store/retail space, Punit Jasuja also does event planning, interior design and jewellery design. Launching a tea brand in India? He’s your man.

  • Nep Sidhu An artist who splits his time between Toronto and Delhi, Sidhu completed “Malcolm’s Smile”: large–scale prayer rugs commissioned by Seattle’s Frye Art Museum for the Genius / 21 Century / Seattle exhibit.

  • Ashdeen Ashdeen Lilaowala’s saris are reviving a traditional Parsi Gara embroidery. Lilaowala travelled through Iran and China to trace the origins of the intricate craft, resulting in next–level saris that are bringing elegance back: a cheeky flash of skin winking through folds of heirloom–worthy satin, stitched with cascades of flying cranes.

  • Rashmi Varma In addition to working on a namesake clothing collection, Canadian–born Varma collaborates as a costume designer with directors like Deepa Mehta and actors like Waris Ahluwalia.