Chandan Singh grew up at the height of Toronto’s Gerrard India Bazaar. Looking back, he knows he took it for granted. As a kid in the 90s it was always two doors down from the best dos and chaat papdi in town. For $3.50 a ticket, he could watch Bollywood blockbusters like “Ishq” at North America’s first South Asian movie theater, the now-closed Naaz Theater. His family never had to wait for international trade to appear in wholesale stores, BJ’s Supermarket down the block always had what they needed.
“This was everyday life for us,” he says, sitting down in an office inside Chandan Fashion, his family’s bridal shop. The office used to be his parents’ bedroom, when his father decided to build the family home upstairs from scratch, so they could work nine to 11 hours a day while looking after their children.
“All these storefronts were extended family,” adds his sister Chandni Singh of the historic stretch of Gerrard Street East from Coxwell Avenue to Greenwood Avenue.
Little India has seen many changes since their parents, Jatinder Pal and Sarabjeet Singh, known to all as Kuki and Sarab, opened the shop nearly four decades ago. Initially, the GTA’s growing South Asian population established larger cultural centers in places such as Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough. After them, yoga studios, daycare centers and coffee shops started popping up around the Singh family’s wedding dress shop.
Having found ways to thrive in the face of increased suburban competition, Chandan Fashion remains at the corner of Ashdale Avenue and Gerrard Street East. Along with businesses like Kala Kendar, MotiMahal and Sonu Saree, their store anchors the neighborhood to its past as it continues to grow. “It’s amazing how Gerrard India Bazaar still has that notoriety as one of the biggest South Asian bazaars in North America,” says Chandan.
Kuki and Sarab recall the excitement of the Gerrard India Bazaar in the 80s, from far and wide. People from New York, New Jersey and even Virginia would cross the border for the novelty. The market has often been a must stop for those visiting Niagara Falls. “Gerrard Street gave people a sense of home,” says Sarab. “When people came here, they felt like they were in India.”
While many South Asians in North America no longer have to travel to other cities to buy groceries or watch Indian movies, the Singhs have discovered that people are still willing to travel for quality clothing. Chandan’s biggest sale was to a bride who flew in from Houston in 2017 — a whopping $35,000. “She bought her clothes before the event, her wedding clothes, her mom’s clothes, her sister-in-law’s clothes, her brother’s clothes, her dad’s clothes, the bridal party, her bridesmaids, her cousins,” he says. “She shopped for four days in a row and bought everything.” The journey took much less time than a flight to India would have. And since Chandan Fashion manufactures and ships all of their pieces from India, she was confident that their product would be of comparable quality.
The store regularly serves customers from all over the country and beyond. Currency from around the world — Trinidad, Botswana, Brazil, Guyana, Japan and elsewhere — is taped under the store’s glass counters, a project that began on opening day in 1984, when Kuki and Sarab accepted a lucky note from a customer.
Chandan says they attract their wide customer base in part through Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. “We can target ads to the female population between 24 and 35 who are interested in India, Bollywood music and designers.” Sometimes the children of former customers will discover the store in this way, which will make their parents nostalgic. “They say, ‘I know that place! I was there 30 years ago. It would be cool to see how it is now,’ says Chandan. “Then you see the second generation coming.”
The Singhs always tried to stand out. Fast–On 9/11, many businesses in Little India were struggling due to fewer customers from the United States. After studying marketing at school, Chandan came up with the idea of painting the once peach-colored building bright pink and blue. “Now, when the tram comes, people stop and take pictures here,” says Kuki.
The store’s vibrant exterior reflects Kuki’s own history of eccentric style. Kuki favors wearing matching turbans and suits of every color of the rainbow, complete with a sharply folded pocket square. “He is the original face of the store,” Chandan he says. “He was a brand back then.” Chandni says people come to the store just to see what Kuki carries and end up staying for the masala chai offered to customers on arrival.
For customers browsing their collection, Cookies often orders samosa chaat from across the street, just as his father had done in the Punjab, in his own shop. “That’s our culture: building relationships,” says Kuki. “My client always comes first.”
In earlier years, this meant that Kuki and Sarab would fly to India up to five times a year to meet with their suppliers, inspect each piece and make selections based on what was in fashion. “A Bollywood film would come out and mom would already have things here,” says Chandni.
“Customers would come in six months later looking for that trend,” she explains, noting that before the Internet there was a lag between trend cycles in India and Canada.
In this day and age, demand may be fast, but so are the means of production. “There is no delay,” says Chandni. Chandan and his wife, Roop, are often on the phone with suppliers the night a Bollywood star gets married to pre-fill the requests they will receive the next morning. Now they can do all their shopping online and visit their manufacturing facilities via video call. The store also offers textiles that cater to different cultures, South Asian and others. “We have clients from Ethiopia who will come and buy fabrics to make their own cultural dresses,” says Chandni. “We carry things for everyone; that’s what keeps us in demand.”
However, having a store on the east side of Toronto brings its own challenges. As the GTA grew in population, commute times drove away shoppers coming from places like Peel Region. “We’ll have eight or nine appointments booked in a day and, unfortunately, a quarter of them will cancel after looking at the traffic,” says Chandan. To alleviate this and add space for more inventory, the Singhs are opening a second location in downtown Brampton at the end of February. CBC’s reality show, “Bollywed,” premiering Jan. 12, will follow the family’s decision more than 10 episodes and give insiders check out the Indian wedding industry.
Chandan will work at both locations, but as a board member of the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA, he will continue to assist with events such as the annual Diwali Mela and the South Asian Festival. “Mom and Dad will stay here. This is their OG location, their baby,” he says. “They’re going to make sure the home base here is as solid as it has been for the last 38 years.”
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