Western and traditional South Asian weddings have their differences—if you’ve been lucky enough to attend the latter, you know the vibrant, song-and-dance-filled, and multi-day affairs are hard to top—but they do have one thing in common: the bride’s search for the perfect dress. From embellished saris to intricately embroidered lenghas in jewel tones of red, green, and gold, the options are endless.
And while Metro Vancouver boasts one of the largest South Asian populations in Canada, it wasn’t until recently that brides-to-be could access designer South Asian bridal-wear in the region. “There are a lot of Indian stores that sell Indian clothing, but they either design it themselves or they buy from a market in India where anybody and everybody can go and pick up clothing and sell it,” Rita Johal, co-owner of House of Raina (111–8028 128 Street, Surrey), tells the Straight during an interview at the boutique.
So when Raman, Johal’s daughter, had trouble finding attire that suited her tastes leading up to her nuptials last year, the duo decided to open their own store that would help other Vancouverites access one-of-a-kind and well-crafted big-day attire that melds Western and South Asian influences. Think of it as the Nordstrom or Holt Renfrew of Indian designer clothing—or as Johal says of the shop’s labels: “This is more like Gucci or Prada, as opposed to high-street brands.”
Opened in February, House of Raina is home to fashion houses such as Payal Singhal, Rohit Verma, and Tarun Tahiliani. One of the boutique’s newest additions is Shyamal & Bhumika, an Ahmedabad-based bridal-wear and couture label founded by husband-and-wife team Shyamal and Bhumika Shodhan, who are often touted as the “Vera Wang of Indian fashion”.
We caught up with Shyamal during a recent visit to House of Raina to chat South Asian bridal-wear trends, the art of handmade, and how social media has changed the game for brides-to-be.
Georgia Straight: Tell us about the pieces you’ve brought to House of Raina.
Shyamal Shodhan: We have a really nice mix of various styles for each part of a traditional Indian or South Asian wedding.
There are typically four to five functions, starting with the engagement and then something called the mehndi, where the bride’s friends and family put henna on. Then there’s the sangeet, for example, which involves musical performances—that’s where the Hindi film industry comes into the picture. And then there’s the wedding ceremony and reception.
We have picked out pieces from our latest collections to cater to all of these functions, so that everyone can try those looks on and find something that suits their colour, size, and religious requirements. We also offer customization services.
GS: What makes Shyamal & Bhumika’s designs different from others in the South Asian bridal market?
SS: The mixture of different embroidery techniques, materials, and motifs is something that sets apart. The intricate designs that we have are very difficult to do and very time-consuming. It’s heavy on investment as well, because it’s all handmade.
For our garments to come out this way, they need a number of skilled people and a very good creative director and fashion designer on board: we have all of that happening in one building. It’s a collaboration between our artists and us, and what we are thinking of, what they are coming up with. It’s quite unique, the whole process.
GS: How have you seen preferences for South Asian bridal wear shift in recent years?
SS: I think, previously, the Indian or South Asian bride abroad didn’t have much of a choice. She would have to travel to India and get something that was available there—and that would always be a last-minute thing because they wouldn’t be able to see it before—or she would have to buy something that’s available here but may be from a few years back in fashion. There are very few stores, and they’re usually selling commercial merchandise rather than stocking designers.
Now, because of social media—Instagram, Facebook—brides are very much in touch with what the hottest trends are back in India, what garments they should get, and what the latest collections are from designers. They know what pieces they want, and they screenshot pictures of them and e-mail these to us. They have access to a lot more.
GS: What sort of traditional elements do you like to maintain in your garments?
SS: Craft is the most important element that we like to maintain, whether it’s hand-weaving, printing, or embroidery. The craft by hand should be there; we feel there should be a human touch to it.
It’s very important that all our artists understand and value the power of work by hand. With these techniques, every piece that’s created is different; you don’t have to feed anything into a machine. You don’t have to make a minimum quantity; you could make a unique piece every other day if you wanted to.
So we should value that, and the skills that our artisans have. And we should respect the artisans so that the next generations are equally interested in this beautiful craft.
GS: What Western design elements do you see trending in South Asian bridal-wear?
SS: The cold shoulder and the Victorian ruffle. We also see some Western influence in the shapes and silhouettes of the gowns. Sometimes, merely the aesthetic is very sort of Western.
GS: You’re often compared to American fashion designer Vera Wang. How do you feel about this assessment?
SS: Vera Wang started designing when she was 40 years old and became a legend in the bridal-wear industry. To be compared to names like that, we are honoured. But we are not just designers making couture and bridal wear: we also have a very, very big responsibility to keep the art alive and the artisan going—and to take the crafts of South Asia to the rest of the world.
Even if you’re not from Indian culture, you can appreciate our garments for their balance of colours; you can see that they’re well designed, you can see that they’re thoughtfully done. And you can see that an Indian bride would love to wear it.