One of the first articles we ever did on Brown Girl was to highlight an aspiring fashion designer, named Malati Vasudevan. At the time, she had just finished up college and was navigating the fashion world, but I decided to interview her because like so many other Brown Girls, she was taking a career path that is not conventional in the South Asian community.
Almost six years later, it’s great to catch up with Vasudevan to see how she’s doing on the eve of the launch of her first collection under her brand Mala Vasu. I asked Vasudevan to reflect on her path, her dream and how it’s finally coming to life.
“When I first told my family my career choice of being a fashion designer, they assumed it would be a hobby rather than a viable career,” Vasudevan said.
“Even though they were uneasy in regards to designing, when it came time to apply for colleges my parents’ advice was to take on a dual degree of Business and Fashion. Their advice paid off. I was able to gain knowledge on the principles of business which has helped me so much in my venture.”
Mala Vasu started as a dream, and even with a degree in fashion and business, Vasudevan was unsure of exactly where to begin or how to make her dream a reality. It was her parents that gave her the support she needed in order to initially get her footing in the industry.
“Few parents I know would fully emotionally and financially support their only child in moving and living in NYC to pursue their dreams right after graduation the way my parents have. They have worked so hard to provide me with everything and more. Making my parents proud and being able to share my success with them is what inspires and motivates me daily,” Vasudevan said.
“It has also been amazing to have my parents who are always so excited and supportive for me to achieve my dreams. Faith, perseverance, and an unparalleled support system of family and best friends have helped me feel anything is possible.”
Vasudevan explains that moving to NYC and finding her footing in the world of fashion was a character building experience. She quickly realized that in order survive and thrive in the industry she had to be willing to give 200 percent. She had graduated when the economy had just taken a nose dive and the fashion industry was especially hard hit.
“Through one unpaid internship after another, I truly learned the meaning of ‘paying your dues’. It was a lonely struggle sometimes but my conviction in pursuing my dreams, and faith in the universe moving me towards it kept me afloat,” mentions Vasudevan.
Within a few weeks of starting her first job she was able to attend an event for the Council of Fashion Designers in America with her boss who was a member. The CFDA is the most elite group within the fashion industry and to be nominated and inducted into its ranks is a rare privilege and honor.
“Surrounded by the top icons of the fashion world it only reinforced my dreams to be one amongst them one day. As my boss and mentor once told me ‘I don’t know how to be anything else’,” said Vasudevan.
I asked Vasudevan what advice she would give other aspiring fashion designers.
“Once your goals are set, my advice is to always keep focus, surrounding your life with people that positively move you forward to achieving those dreams. Words cannot describe that moment you realize you’re doing exactly what the universe meant for you to do.”
Mala Vasu is a contemporary womenswear line that focuses on sustainable luxury and chic, striking silhouettes. Our inspiration comes from women who live life with their unique standard of individuality, quality, and responsibility, aiming to create a positive footprint in the world. Mala Vasu holds itself to that standard using only the highest quality organic textiles and skilled workmanship to create pieces that are not only intricately beautiful and unique but also ecologically responsible.
Our ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violent) silk is produced without killing or harming silk worms or any other animal or plant life. Our handspun fabrics are dyed using zero-impact dyes that are completely harmless to the environment. We believe beauty should exist inside and out, and the way we do business should reflect the pieces we design.
Much like the layers of a beautiful work of art, the vision of MV encompasses and embraces the same evolution and complexity. An idea is transformed into a sea of texture, shapes and color that narrates the inspiration behind each design. Building a luxury brand that promotes the well being of the planet along with social responsibility by using locally sourced and hand woven fabrics, helping skilled artisans keep traditional skills alive, and working only with like minded vendors are essential to our business philosophy.
Each piece in the MV collection is a labor of love and dedication; the collection is our story and work of art.
For the Singh family, Chandan Fashion has always been bigger than simply a bridal showroom. Located in the heart of Gerrard Street, a bustling Little India in Toronto, the bright blue and pink building can be spotted from a distance. Over the years, Chandan has garnered attention from customers from all over North America, even as far as California and Virginia.
For Chandan and Roop, who work alongside “Mom and Dad,” Chandan Fashion is a family business and a way to showcase the beauty of South Asian culture while playing a helping hand in allowing every bride and groom to feel special on their big day. Chandan is their legacy and one they hope to be able to showcase the beauty and intricacies of throwing that “big Indian wedding” on their new CBC show, “BollyWed.”
“BollyWed” follows this tight-knit family through the joys and difficulties of running a multigenerational business. Throughout the variety of clients, discussions of new generation business practices versus old generation, many lehengas, and plenty of laughs, this is one whirlwind journey through the marriage industry.
Brown Girl had the opportunity to interview Chandan and Roop Singh, who were incredibly down-to-earth and a joy to speak to. Here is the interview down below!
What was the inspiration for opening Chandan?
Chandan: My mom and dad started the vision back in 1984 — they started the business. I have a store in India that was started by my grandfather which my father worked in as well, so it is kind of multi-generational of being within this industry of clothing and fashion. My father had a dream of starting what his father did in India, in Canada. While visiting friends in Toronto, my father knew that the Gerrard Indian Bazaar was the right place for them to start, it was the largest Indian market in the Northern America area. He rented a space for two years a couple of doors down from where Chandan originated and then in 1986 we had the opportunity to purchase the corner unit and grow it from one floor to two, to now a four-floor showroom.
Roop: And it should be noted that 1986 is also the year that Chandan was born, hence the name of the store. Chandan Fashion.
Many cities have their own versions of Little India. What was it like growing up/operating in Gerrard Street East? What do you think makes Gerrard Street unique?
Roop: It is funny you say that because even now when we have people traveling to Toronto, checking out Gerrard Street is on their itinerary. So we get a lot of clientele that are visiting from out of town whether it be visiting for the day or weekend. Some of them will sometimes get a hotel nearby for about a week and do their entire wedding family shopping with us.
Chandan has literally grown up in Gerrard Street, but I grew up in Toronto as well. I spent a good chunk of my own childhood in Little India on Gerrard Street. Growing up in the 90s, it was the only Indian bazaar in the greater Toronto area, so anyone who wanted to meet members of their community, have really good South Asian food, shop for upcoming events, or celebrate Diwali or Holi, this is where [they’d] go. This is where my mom would take me on the weekends and I remember popping into Chandan Fashion when my mom needed an outfit. In that way, our childhoods are connected over Little India and I feel like a lot of first-generation kids will sympathize with me, when we wanted to feel a little bit at home, that is where we would go.
How did you get the “BollyWed” opportunity on CBC? What is it like working with your family? What roles do you all play in the business? How do we get to see this in the show?
Roop: It has been quite a journey. It wasn’t necessarily such a drastic transition because already the family was very close-knit in the sense that they are working day in and day out. We do our social media together and our buying together, go to fashion shows. So naturally things we were already doing as a family were just translated to the TV. That is what I love the most about the show, it is just an authentic following of what we do on a daily basis as a family and as a business. It has been a great experience and something that we are super grateful for. It was actually seven years in the making and I’ll let Chandan tell you how “BollyWed” came to be.
Chandan: It started out in 2014. I was at a wedding show and I was approached by the executive producer, Prajeeth and we shot a shizzle. He had an idea of a wedding show with a family narrative and I had been watching ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ extensively. I knew that there was this really interesting market and this fascination with South Asian outfits and bridalwear given that it was so colorful and the beadwork was so ornate. There was a lot more interesting subject matter, especially if we tie that into a seven-day-long wedding and you tie that into multiple events and families. That is more prevalent in South Asian culture: what the mother-in-law thinks, what the mother thinks. But five to six years went by and we got 22 rejections over that period by almost every network imaginable. I was always excited that we were getting rejected because I knew that eventually, we would get a yes. Eventually at the end of 2021, around the end of the COVID era, the production company reached out asking if we were still interested in the show. I said it was never a question of ‘if,’ it was a question of ‘when.’ From the get-go, I knew that this show would be picked up, I knew it would be a success. In March 2022 we got greenlit. We had this amazing journey of seven months of continuous filming. It has been an amazing journey to be able to represent South Asians on television in a way that has not been done before. I like lighthearted programming and I am glad that we were able to influence the show because of our lives and make it a lighthearted family show that people can watch. But we still get to have important discussions.
Roop: I love that Chandan mentioned this. We get to showcase a lot of pivotal subjects in today’s society. For example, we made sure that inclusivity was showcased across all 10 episodes and that is something that I give credit to our directors and producers, they did a wonderful job showcasing how inclusive not just us as a business, but as a brand and as a family we are. These are values that have been instilled in us, that when somebody crosses your threshold and comes into your store, it doesn’t matter what their background is, their color, or their orientation, that is irrelevant. It is something that we don’t factor in, we just consider that this is the patron, the client. There is no judgment — not in our store, not in our family. And I love that we were able to share that on a big screen for everyone to see. That was one reason why it was so important to do this, but the other reason has a lot to do with Chandan and his childhood.
Chandan: So for me, I was born and raised in Toronto. I went to a very small school where I was the only South Asian for a long time in that school. I was the only Punjabi kid, the only kid with a turban, and eventually the only one with a beard, so I noticeably stood out compared to all my peers. My father with his best intentions sent me to a really small school, a private school, that he could not afford to pay for. Where at times the check would bounce every month, but he had a very strong belief that if he provided me a quality education [so] I would keep something really dear to him —keeping the belief in religion — I wouldn’t cut my hair, I wouldn’t cut my beard, I wouldn’t conform to society. He wanted to give me the best chance to succeed as is, [but] the unfortunate truth was I was bullied, I was picked on. I wouldn’t tell him, but people would grab my jurra, my turban, and my hair. And as a kid I would just let it go because you do not want to go home and tattle to your parents, but also because I knew how sensitive of a topic it was to my dad. And I think that my experience would have been different if people didn’t ask me every month, ‘How long is your hair? What do you keep under that?’ All these questions made me feel really uncomfortable, but the other kids also asked because they had never seen anyone like me. If I had grown up with a show like this, I would not have felt so alone, such a strong desire to belong. This is one of the reasons I really believed in the show, I really wanted to have representation. Even if there is just one other kid who watches this show and grows up in a suburb where there aren’t many South Asian kids; if he is able to turn the TV on and see my dad with such a thick accent — English isn’t his first language — but he still owns it so confidently. Or they see a guy like me with a turban and a beard and see that frankly he still has such a hot wife.
Roop: But beyond that, this gentleman with a turban and thick accent, they are such normal people. They love takeout, they like to play tennis, and they could be your neighbor. Other than their outward appearance, they are very much like you, very similar.
Your support in styling Priyanka for their drag performance was inspiring and refreshing to see. How do you change your styles/designs to foster inclusivity?
Roop: I think that goes back to what I was saying about how Mom and Dad have fostered this universal approach to our clientele. We do not look beyond their needs. I think it is also important to note that some people had thought that we had Priyanka come onto the show to make it more interesting, but their relationship with the store spans over the past five to seven years.
Chandan: Twenty years. Priyanka and their family have been shopping at the store for the past 20 years since they were kids. When Priyanka started exploring the world of drag, they came and said they needed a costume that they would be designing. It also wasn’t even any of my peers or me that made that connection with Priyanka, it was actually my dad, the older generation. He said, ‘Don’t worry beta.’ He actually corrected himself and said, ‘Beti, we will be there for you.’ And he got them a really nice sari and lehenga which they converted into a costume that won the first season.
Roop: And Priyanka put their own spin on it and created something amazing. Only because we were the designers of those pieces could we tell that that is a piece from our lehenga. They did such a fabulous job with it.
Chandan: I think we sometimes think of the older generation, like our parents, as being more conservative, but I think that it is a one-sided narrative. Not all of the older generation is as conservative as we think. And my dad just took it as a paying customer is a paying customer. It doesn’t matter what their orientation or beliefs are, and that just naturally unfolded into the story that we are sharing. He did not treat it as a big deal.
For our readers currently planning their weddings, do you have any pieces of advice on how to balance all the heavy details of wedding planning without losing sight of why they are doing it for?
Roop: One thing for the bride and groom is not to lose sight of themselves in all of this. I’ve been there and done that. You plan this extravagant seven-day affair, you have all these people flying out to your wedding, and you feel this really heavy responsibility to make sure that all these guests are taking time out of their lives to celebrate your union. And like myself — and I am guilty of this, which is why I want to tell my fellow brides — [you] tend to make it less about [yourself] and more about everyone else who is attending. And yes, of course, everyone is important and I owe them respect for joining us. But remember what you want in the heart of heart, if you want a small wedding, go for a small wedding. If you want a big wedding, go for a big wedding. If you want the seven-tiered cake, go for it, if you just want cupcakes, go for that. At the end of the day don’t forget what makes you happy. Don’t lose sight of it, just be authentic to yourself.
Chandan: Oftentimes in the wedding industry, people are really looked down upon. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are spending so much for this wedding!’ Or, ‘You are obsessing over these details!’ If it is important to you, it is okay. I would not let judgment get in the way of doing what you want whether it be a small intimate 20-person wedding or a having a 1000-person wedding. This is your moment. The biggest thing I hear is, ‘Oh, it is only for an hour.’ But, if you have a photographer, nothing is for an hour. It is for a lifetime. Those moments last a lifetime. If it is something that you hold near and dear to you, you will cherish it. I wish people would stay true to themselves.
Roop: Yeah, agreed. Be mindful of what sparks joy in you and let that be your compass. The most important piece of advice though: At every function please request that your caterer create a to-go container of the meal at the event for you and your partner to enjoy after because often, and it is so sad to hear this, the bride and groom will eat last at their own event or not at all. And you spend all these months planning [an] extravagant menu and then you don’t even get to eat your own wedding cake. Hah! That happened to us!
Do you have any future plans that you feel excited about sharing with Chandan?
Chandan: Yeah! I would say concrete plans are in the pipeline. In the first episode of ‘BollyWed’ [you] see that we come to the realization that there is just not enough space and we would love to expand into another space.
Roop: And this is where you get a lot of the new generation, old generation beliefs. Because mom and dad believe that the family should stay very close-knit and together to run the one location. And Chandan has the belief that [the] true success of a business is when it is scalable, and has multiple locations nationally, globally even. In Episode 10 you get a conclusion, but we will let the readers watch it for themselves!
You can now watch the inaugural season of CBC’s “BollyWed” on CBC TV every Thursday at 8 p.m. EST or stream it for free on CBC Gem! And that’s not all from the Chandan Fashion team! They’ll soon be featured in an Instagram LIVE chat with Brown Girl Magazine, so stay tuned!
Making conscious decisions can, and should, go hand in hand with wearing fashionable pieces of clothing. Fortunately, South Asian fashion is making huge strides in the sustainable fashion department, and ace fashion designer Anita Dongre is at the forefront of this change; she’s so dedicated to making environmentally friendly choices in her collections.
Brown Girl Magazine has previously had the honor of featuring her Grassroots Collection; today, we sat down with Dongre to chat about her new vegan luxury line.
Her love for animals is parallel to her love for fashion and she does not sacrifice one or the other. From handcrafted purses to belts, the new collection is made of recycled materials and leaves a smaller carbon footprint.
What inspired you to “go vegan” both personally and product-wise?
I have always loved animals. When I was 13 my best friend talked me into being vegetarian and there was no looking back – Sangita and I continued to work together and since then we have both also turned vegan. When I started my business, I wanted the brand to be an extension of my personal philosophies so being a vegan brand was a forgone conclusion. My personal philosophy is to live a mindful life with kindness. This philosophy extends to respecting all life [so] we have chosen not to use leather for our line of accessories. For years I have wanted to create a vegan line of accessories that was high on quality, fashion, and kindness, and technology has only recently caught up with that desire.
Women have always expressed themselves through what they wear. In today’s time, carrying a bag that reflects their core personality is the default, and yet until recently, there hasn’t been a leather replacement that is cruelty-free and kind to the environment. With material sciences finally having the answer it was imperative to design an accessory line that women, like myself who care both about fashion and a world of kindness, could carry with pride.
What material is used in this new line? Why did you choose it?
With MIRUM® we found a partner who creates this beautiful, plastic-free material that mimics the touch, feel, and age of leather without cruelty. The line also features bags made out of recycled glass beads. We’re careful about delivering high quality [products] and both these materials deliver to that benchmark while being plastic-free.
How many pieces does this new line have and what is the importance of the animal symbols of each?
This collection is inspired by nature, my eternal muse. The Swan mini grab bag draws from a swan’s graceful silhouettes; the birds of a feather cross body bag borrow bird motifs that you see across my collections; the haathi belt uses my favorite — the Indian elephant, [which] is a symbol of strength and humility — every piece in this line of accessories is an elegant statement in conscious luxury living. The Anita Dongre brand has stood for elegance, timeless classics, and sustainability. We have always stood for handcrafted luxury while being mindful of the purpose it serves. These same principles extend into this collection of conscious, plastic-free, vegan accessories. While the shapes of these bags are distinctive, they are also functional – a design approach that extends across all Anita Dongre products.
How to promote sustainability in India versus let’s say New York City:
India’s lived culture is based on the practice of sustainability. From clothes that would be passed down to siblings and then cousins to eating seasonal fruits and vegetables, our practices until recently have always defaulted to conscious consumption. It’s exciting to see the rest of the world adapt to that way of living and [it’s] a good reminder for us Indians to go back to the way we were raised.
Anita Dongre allows her consumers to choose ethically-sourced pieces while letting them embrace sustainability as a part of luxury fashion. Soon enough, such cruelty-free products will be synonymous with India’s (and the world’s) top fashion couture brands. This is definitely not a step, but a huge leap forward.
Photos in the featured image are courtesy of Anita Dongre.
While growing up, the only complaint I had when wearing desi clothes was that the embroidery on the fabric would always end up scratching my skin. As beautiful and intricate the details were, putting on an embellished blouse meant wearing an inner or a comfortable t-shirt underneath. Fortunately now, many South Asian brands are changing the game; focusing not only on the quality and intricacy of the embroidery, but also on comfort and wearability of the blouse itself. One such small business is Khushey.
Khushey is a one-stop shop for “buttery soft” performance blouses that don’t compromise on comfort for fashion and pair just as well with any of your mom’s saris as they do with your newest lehenga. In an interview withBrown Girl Magazine, founder Neha Seelam talks more about what inspired her to launch Khushey and what the brand has to offer.
Why did you want to start a brand that specializes in South Asian/Indo-Western blouses specifically?
I wanted to specialize in blouses because blouses are really the only part of Indo-Western clothing that I found a specific ‘problem’ with — one I thought I could solve. I absolutely love everything else about our clothing — with the variety of patterns/styles/cuts available, I feel that you can easily find the perfect piece out there.
But the part of South Asian clothing that my friends and I found to be a perpetual challenge was the blouse. They’re usually gorgeous, but by the end of the day you can’t wait to take them off. Also, it’s so hard to find a fit that looks seamless and beautiful — usually the chest, underarm or sleeve just wouldn’t fit the way you want it to with the heavy material and traditional tailoring.
I wanted to start off with basic colors but in shiny/formal-looking material that I could mix and match with all the different colors and styles of South Asian clothes that I already have in my wardrobe. The goal is that the blouses can be used multiple times with different outfits, are ideal for long nights of partying, and feel great against the skin.
What’s the story behind the brand’s name, Khushey?
The English word “cushy,” which means comfortable, actually originates from the Hindi word ‘khushi’ (happiness). I thought that the origin story was very sweet and resonated with the idea of comfort and happiness I had for my label. That’s how I chose the word Khushey — slightly adjusting the spelling so I could snag the right URL!
What is your number one priority when it comes to your blouses?
Formal wear that’s actually comfortable! I would love for women to be in the moment at their celebrations, and not feel constrained, itchy, or uncomfortable in their blouse.
South Asian women! Customers, from recent graduates all the way to stylish moms, have loved the product — especially moms since they typically value comfort and movability if they have to chase down kids at events!
How do you think Khushey allows South Asian women to embrace their love for South Asian fashion?
Over the last decade, I’ve seen women repurposing crop tops from Zara and H&M as sari blouses, and while I think that’s awesome and creative, I wanted to create an option for South Asian women where every detail was oriented around recreating the perfect sari/lehenga blouse. The shine is intended to be appropriate for formal wear, the cuts were inspired by some of my favorite blouses from when I was younger that wouldn’t have bra straps showing from underneath and were versatile for saris or lehengas, and the embroidery is intended to add a desi flair.
You’ve mentioned sustainability on your website. How are your blouses sustainable?
I plan to donate five percent of profits every year to a sustainable organization. Once I get enough interest from the public, I would like to fund new product lines that use eco-friendly materials that were prohibitively expensive for me to launch with. But I am eager to incorporate recycled spandex/nylon and metal into my pieces once I can afford to!
What sort of designs do you plan on incorporating into your label in the future?
I’ve thought of so many designs that I can build on. Starting with colors; I’d like to have all of the major colors available in my basic sleeveless blouse and then create a more modest version of that blouse with a variety of basic colors as well.
I’d also love to expand the patterns and embroidery options on the blouses. I hope to create seasonal collections that enable me to tap into the vast array of style/color inspirations that South Asian wear includes.
Khushey promises to offer comfort and style, all packaged into one performance blouse that you can reuse with a variety of desi outfits. Like Neha said, ditch your Zara crop top for a design that actually complements your desi look. Make sure to keep your eyes out for her latest designs!