Options to classy clothing have never been so good as a growing number of boutiques deck Kozhikode’s streets

Abida Rasheed ambles into Abi’s Saree Sellers and the mood flips. Quiet business held to thumping Bollywood music is shoved aside by Abida’s charm. Instead, she self-assuredly addresses customers by their first names, cajoles them to take another closer look at the new stock, and assures it will be a perfect buy. She tells the undecided young woman that the kurta will go perfectly with the trousers bought on her last visit. For Abida, gourmet chef and boutique owner, business is personal. It has been so ever since she opened one of Kozhikode’s well-known boutiques 29 years ago. All the city had then was large shops with large stock of the same stuff. Sellers today is rambling; partitioned into many wings and two levels. Abida’s 24 staffers put together baby frocks, stitch house coats and palazzo pants and brighten up garments with embellishments.

“When I began, there were only two women who were into similar business here,” says Abida. Cut to the present and Abida can no longer mourn little company. If fashion is measured by exclusivity, Kozhikode today has much to be proud of. Boutiques have sprouted in street corners and far away lanes. Within the city, every other street to reckon with boasts a clutch of them. Scour the peripheries, and boutiques you find in thick residential colonies. Managed mostly by homemakers turned business women, boutiques work out of sprawling commercial spaces, so too annexes to homes. What they sell varies as much too. If some are contend to fish out unknown weaves from India’s hinterland, others believe in designing saris from scratch. Quite a few prefer to play safe, stocking a bit of everything. Boutiques have grown for the fetish for exclusivity has. If women stepped into boutiques for occasional wear earlier, now boutiques are the stop to classy, everyday wear.

“Our clients are mostly women above 20 and the ‘exclusive’ tag appeals to them,” says Shemna Sanam, co-owner of Pashmina, known for their salwar kameez materials and custom made bridal wear. Agrees Shyla, co-owner of Srishti. “A lot of our saris, designed in-house, are a hit among teenagers who want their clothes to stand out in a gathering,” she adds. “When we began, the idea was to bring something exclusive to the city, hence the hand-woven saris in silk and cotton,” says Lekha co-owner of Anneka.

The bulk the big stores stand for, in stock and design, is what the boutique-goers steer away from. The personal attention they get here is the bonus. “People need pampering,” says Abida. “Earlier people shopped in groups. Now, they come alone and are confused seeing the variety. They look for guidance and we give that,” she says.

Boutiques at every turn are not making the owners fidgety. Instead, they welcome competition. “One boutique cannot cater to a city,” says Abida. “To each his own,” says Shemna. At Pashmina, Shemna and cousin Shanitha Mansoor, stick to their strengths. “We don’t know sari, so we don’t stock it,” she says. “Our big hit is the Pakistani suits — comfortable, yet not expensive. We source our stuff from Mumbai and Kolkata. Our range begins from Rs. 300,” says Shemna.

At Anneka, long-time friends Lekha and Prasanna love the sourcing part. Their travels to Pattur, Raigarh, Champa, Sonpur, Phulia, Nellore and other lesser-known weaving pockets opened them to a new world. Since they buy most of their saris straight from the weavers, they saw their lives up close. “They would be working out of single room homes; there would be no place to sit, but the respect they give is immense,” recollects Prasanna. The two embark on their sourcing trips every 3-4 months. “We stock only silk and cotton hand-woven saris and dress materials and every piece is hand-picked. We keep only a few pieces of a design and nothing costs beyond Rs. 8,000,” says Prasanna. Their Kota, Pattur and Assam silks have a following, they say.

Anneka works out of a room in Prasanna’s house. “Our initial investment was under five lakh. There were lot of questions asked, beginning with our choice of place. But we were answerable only to ourselves as we did not depend on anyone to start this,” says Prasanna. After three years, they say, they have a loyal clientele. “The expectation of our clients have risen, so too our responsibility,” says Lekha.

Shyla and Latha are the women behind Srishti, among the newest boutiques in the city. “We began two months ago with 15 saris,” says Latha. Shyla’s long-running stitching business gave them confidence, so too the quick pace at which the saris sold. “We buy running material and create saris with the designs in our head. Customers also come to us with specific demands, the work they would like and the embellishments they want,” says Latha. The most expensive sari Srishti created so far cost Rs. 6,000.

While boutique owners say they have their niche, Abida says the scene was never pale. “The city was always open to new things. There was enough fashion absorption and people went with trends from Mumbai. Importantly, the market had money.” There were occasions to boot too. “Entertainment and parties were always on. I don’t mean the new generation parties, but get-togethers where clothes mattered,” she says. Abida sources stuff from cities and hubs, but gives them her signature. “That gives it exclusivity, a patching or a trimming. That’s your miracle.” She has also registered the changes. “Earlier, people bought stuff for an occasion. Now they buy a sari and wait for one,” she quips. “Shopping has become more recurrent. People know the trends, but are still conservative.”