Indian fashion is renowned for colour and extravagance, and Thai-based Indian designers are bringing a little of that excitement to Bangkok. Natnalin Thananan spoke to some of them
Bright orange and pink saris decorated with jewels of all shapes and sizes. Intricate, hand-woven fabrics in deep reds and greens. Not only is Indian fashion exotic and vibrant, it represents a country with deep roots and traditions. Traditional Indian clothes can still be seen in everyday modern life; from conservative yet colourful outfits for the office to bejewelled and sparkling gowns for social events. Compared to ethnic costumes of other cultures, Indian clothes are ever-evolving and changing with the times, keeping the tradition of wearing them relevant until today. For the Indian community in Thailand, it used to be accepted that once an engagement of a couple was announced, the bride, groom and their family members would fly to India to look for the numerous wedding outfits and accessories for the numerous upcoming celebrations. In recent years, however, they need not go so far; Indian clothing boutiques are blooming in Bangkok, which have been warmly welcomed by local Indians.
One of the longest-established Indian fashion boutiques in Bangkok, Ninas’ is well known in the Indian-Thai community for its elegant and stylish products. Neena Sehgal started her boutique more than 20 years ago in downtown Sukhumvit. “At that time there were general, traditional Indian clothes available in town, but we were one of the first to provide more up-market designs,” she says. The ambitious designer and businesswoman recalls playing in her family’s textile shop as a child which is what inspired her to get into the industry. “I remember visiting the shop and seeing the fabrics and garments,” she says. “I would sketch up designs and stitch outfits and that is when I became interested in this line of work.”
The Ninas’ range includes casual and semi-formal dresses and long gowns, all with a distinctly Indian touch. “Some of our designs have a strong East-meets-West feel to them, ” says Neena. Recently, two young designers have joined her: her niece Supriya Pawa, who studied at Raffles International College, and Accademia Italiana graduate Anchal Sehgal. The cost of an outfit is determined by the materials used, as well as the level of craftsmanship put into the details. Prices start at 12,000 baht, and can reach as much as 350,000 baht, but Neena says that is nothing compared to the amount you’d pay in India. “The quality of clothes made here is just as good, but the prices differ greatly,” she says. “In India it would cost a lot more.” One popular piece was worn by former Miss Universe Natalie Glebova in the Diwali fashion show in 2010. “The outfit was valued at about 400,000 baht and is made from silk and thread embroidery, with sequins and Swarovski stones,” Neena says proudly.
Although the pieces produced in Thailand are influenced by Indian trends, there are differences. Anchal explains that they adapt certain styles for the local climate: “Since there is a winter in India, clothes there would be made with thicker fabrics such as brocades and velvet, as well as heavy embroidery. We do different versions of these styles for clients here; it is still velvet but a lighter version of it.” As Neena displays a fusion bridal outfit, a lehenga skirt with a corset top, she explains more about the differences in styles in India and Thailand. “In India they would require something heavier,” she says. “It’s unthinkable to wear something as light as this in India. Here they would wear it.” Supriya says that there is also a generational shift at work. “Younger brides want a more modern, East-meets-West look,” she observes. “We now live in a much more diverse and international community and brides want to wear clothes that reflect that. Also, saris use to be something older women would wear, but we see younger women also wearing them now.” Neena adds: “They used to want heavy stuff for wedding receptions but now they want stylish and elegant dresses. Less is more.”
Ninas’ has a small tailoring unit here as well as a workshop in India that helps to create the designs. Most of the materials come from India, as they have to maintain the quality of such work as hand-made embroidery. The company has worked with more than 30 brides this year already and enjoys loyal customers from abroad as well. Supriya points out that Thailand is targeted as a top wedding destination: “A lot of people come here because it is cheaper, the weather is nice and there are so many locations to choose from. The industry is definitely growing for us here.”
Two sisters, Retu Sehgal and Archana Ghogar, started a small business nine years ago to help their mother cope with her loneliness after losing her husband. Little did they know that their hobby would grow into something about which they have become so passionate. Shagun is a well-established boutique, located on Sukhumvit, which imports Indian clothes and wedding attire from different regions in India. “We started selling just saris but we expanded because we realised the market here wasn’t so keen on wearing only saris; they were more into suits and lehengas,” Retu explains. The sisters made their shop into a multi-designer boutique with clothes from all over India. “We keep up with the trends and get a wide collection for our clients here,” says Archana. “Every part of India has its own look, and our clients like that we give them such a wide selection with many different materials.” Retu also points out that Indians still believe in wearing their traditional outfits. “A lot of other cultures have not adapted their fashions to fit with modern times. But Indian clothes are still worn a lot these days because we have improvised,” she explains.
In 2003 the sisters brought in a tailor from India who makes up outfits as well as doing alterations. “We make sure our clients are completely satisfied with the fitting,” says Retu. “If we can’t alter it here, we send it to India or back to the designers. The point of buying a designer dress is that is has to fit well.” The talented sisters try to give their clients an almost-couture experience by not selling the same design to different clients. “We understand that the community is small so we wouldn’t want our clients to go to an event only to find that another person is wearing the same dress,” Archana says with a smile. One of the famous brands they carry is Rabani & Rakha, which was featured in Indian Fashion Week and has dressed stars such as Victoria Beckham. “Other designers include Pankaj and Nidhi Ahuja, and Roopalamba,” says Archana. Shagun currently houses about eight designers, all of whom have shown at Indian Fashion Week.
Because there are so many functions in one wedding, the sisters cater to not only brides but the wedding party as well. “The price for a dress by an upcoming designer would start at around 7-8,000 baht,” says Retu, “but it can rise to 70,000 for the more renowned designers. The sisters observe that clients here are starting to understand that when looking for an outfit, the quality of the material, the cut and the workmanship all matter, and can affect the price. “It took a long time for some people to understand, but I think we have done a good job educating them about our business,” Archana says. “They now understand that there is a huge difference between hand-made fabrics and machine-made.”
Shagun recently did a fashion show with the up-and-coming designer Pavni. “We do an exclusive one every year,” explains Retu. “This year we did a total of 23 outfits, with clothes from five designers.” As for future plans, the sisters are looking to explore the market for non-Indian Thais, and are currently working with some designers to create dresses that are Western with an Indian influence. “We want to offer Indian-inspired designs for every occasion,” Retu says.
Madhu and Pavni
Established almost 20 years ago, Madhu is one of the first local Indian boutiques in Thailand. “My mother Madhu started off holding an exhibition every six months and her designs were received well, selling up to 30 of her outfits the first time,” recalls Pavni Kalra, who also has her own eponymous brand. “Within a couple of years she opened her own space and two years ago I joined her.” Her path as a designer wasn’t always set in stone however; she studied economics in Chicago, but after working as an intern in a financial research company she decided to switch careers and study fashion design in Bangkok. “I felt stifled in the financial sector and decided to go back and do what I was meant to do,” Pavni smiles. The mother and daughter designers target very different clientele. Pavni mostly makes ready-to-wear clothes, while Madhu specialises in custom-made orders. “My mum has a really loyal set of clients for whom she does on-order outfits,” says Pavni. “We know our clients pretty well and run our business in a very homestyle way.” While Madhu caters to the older generation, Pavni has a strong young adult following, which reflects in their different price ranges. “My dresses could cost from 4,000 to 6,000 baht for teenagers; for young adults it might be in the range of 10,000 to 12,000 baht while my most expensive design to date is about 70,000 baht,” she says. “That would be an average price for my mum’s collections so you can tell we have different clientele, although I would like to try to break into that market as well.” Pavni works to create pieces that are within her client’s budgets. Her designs combine Western wear with Indian details and definitely cater to a more urban, worldly young crowd. Although very different in their approach, clientele and styles, the two work well together; last year, the mother-daughter team supplied some dresses to a boutique in Kolkata and they are planning to do another collection in December.
Like the other boutiques in town, the materials they use are mostly from India. “Half of the embroidery is ready-made from India because it lowers the cost and the quality is better, but we also make new embroidery for clients that are our own unique designs,” Pavni explains. The boutique has a seamstress here who does hand sewing, as well as some freelance tailors. Pavni not only sells unique designs but also looks after her clients. “All clothes that I sell can be fixed and altered for life,” she says. She identifies a surge in ready-to-wear Indian outfits in Thailand: “The younger generation isn’t as comfortable with tailored clothes as the older generations; they prefer to try on their clothes right away.”
When asked where she gets her inspirations, she says she gets inspired by things she sees, places she visits and also by her moods. “There was a phase when my designs were strong and punk, but these days I use a lot of purples and pinks,” the young designer explains. The talented fashionista also says that Indian clothes are more fun than Western wear. “You can play around with a lot of colours. With Indian clothes you can pick two contrasting colours and mix them together by using embroidery and other details to make them go together.”
June Fifth by Bonny
A glamorous and stylish lady, Bonny Sethi was always interested in clothes. She worked briefly in the fashion industry in New Delhi back in 1992 but had to put her aspirations on hold when her husband accepted a position in Thailand. Since then, she has been busy raising her daughter and was also a teacher at an international school for many years before coming back to her original dream: to design clothes. She started off by holding an exhibition here and there, then set up a studio called June Fifth by Bonny (the date being her daughter’s birthday) in March 2009.
A self-defined traditionalist, her designs are intricate and elegant, with emphasis on texture, embroidery and colours. Her team of seven tailors help her create her designs locally, with the exception of some hand-made embroidery that has to be sent from India, as do most of the fabrics. “I adapt my designs to the norms of fashion today, in the sense that I use fabrics and embroidery that are trends now,” she says. “However, I am still a hardcore traditionalist. I feel India is so beautiful and rich in culture. I don’t mind adapting to the modern traditions, but sometimes I just feel traditionalism in Indian fashion is rapidly vanishing. We have to strike a balance or we are going to be completely camouflaged by Western influence. Saris are rapidly vanishing. And it is a shame because the sari is one of the sexiest, most beautiful outfits ever designed.” She particularly admires the Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherji, a traditionalist in his use of fabric and embroidery. Despite her conservative tendencies, she is not opposed to stepping outside the box if the occasion demands. “Reds, oranges and pinks are the usual colours for brides, but I’ve dressed up the bride in some unconventional shades such as deep wine, cream, gold or even green and yellow,” she says.
She sees designing unique pieces for a client as very important. “I try to buy just enough fabric for one outfit at a time,” she says. Her prices range from 10,000 to 200,000 baht. She also feels that Indians living in Thailand are starting to accept local designers’ works. “Although most of the Indians here will continue to go to India for wedding wear, they are starting to trust designers here more,” she observes.
Bonny plans to start looking for outlets abroad to carry her designs and is also planning a fashion show in the near future, in addition to starting a new ready-to-wear line for dresses that use a lot of Indian embroidery and details, but are less formal. So far she has created outfits for around a dozen brides in the past two years. “I feel honoured to have these ladies trust me with the look for their special day,” she says. “It’s been encouraging and heartwarming to see them smile when they come in for fittings and on the big day.”
57 Soi Ruamchai, Sukhumvit Soi 15
A7, Admiral Suites, Sukhumvit Soi 22
20/30 Soi Prommitr, Sukhumvit Soi 39
June Fifth by Bonny
11D, Regent on the Park III, Sukhumvit Soi 39