From bell bottoms to actress gowns, meet Chennai’s original trendsetters

K Shankar has been styling generations of Chennai women for over 70 years. This Madras Week, the family looks back at its legacy

K Shankar has been styling generations of Chennai women for over 70 years. This Madras Week, the family looks back at its legacy

In a small room where there are more tailoring machines than people, Anand Rao Khemkar sits recalling how his father, dressmaker K Shankar, used to pack his tools to obey the summons of the late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. It was par for the course for someone who over the years has included Sowkar Janaki, Swapna, Rati Agnihotri and even the Vitthalacharya family.

For people who know how long K Shankar Dressmakers has been serving the city of Chennai, this reputation is less surprising for a family of dressmakers who run a simple shop.

“My grandfather was working in Pune, from where he moved to Bangalore. Then from Bangalore, my father and his two brothers came to Chennai and opened a shop here, before independence, near the Hazrat Moti Baba Dargah in Egmore to cater to the fashion and bridal needs of the city’s Anglo-Indians. We were there for more than 60 years before we moved here to Fountain Plaza in 2005. Our customers all came in cars, and there was ample parking in this complex,” says Khemkar, 55, a fifth-generation dressmaker in his family.

Late K Shankar had been tailoring clothes for celebrities for decades. | Photo credit: R Shivaji Rao

From bell bottoms to skinny jeans, there were many fashion trends that Chennai girls wanted to emulate without splurging on expensive brands. They, the brides-to-be, form the primary customer base for this dressmaking family, whose reputation has grown rapidly and steadily over the decades, primarily through word of mouth.

By the 1990s, the immigrant family had built enough of a reputation to attract many of Chennai’s crème de la crème, from real estate magnates to media families. “My father was famous for western clothes, he only made Anglo-Indian clothes. He has also made some clothes for movies. In the song ‘Idhu Oru Nila Kalam’ tick tick tick (1981 film starring Kamal Haasan and Madhavi), the clothes were designed by him, “Beem Khemkar.

Now, even though the more lucrative orders have gone away and the bulk of the family’s Anglo-Indian clientele has moved abroad, the shop still stands in Fountain Plaza, and evening gowns, wedding dresses and spaghetti tops still occupy the racks at various stages. closing

“Such styles tend to repeat themselves every 10 to 15 years. Flared and pleated skirts are back after 15 years, as is a straight sheath dress,” he says, pointing to a black knee-length dress slowly shimmering on a hanger. It is difficult to sew. If you don’t do this very gently and gently the needle will break. We complete most garments in two days: one day for cutting and one day for tacking and sewing,” says Khemkar.

He believes these steps can make or break an outfit, “its fall and fit”. He says, “We always cut a small draft of the garment – back and front – first from an old newspaper, to show the customer what shape they will get. Only after that is approved do we start with the actual fabric, cutting the correct silhouette in one go. He adds with some pride, “My father could cut seven or eight dresses a day.”

On a corner table, hidden behind folds of various dresses hung from makeshift nails, stands a wedding photo – a glistening couple in front of a large white church. It appears to be nearly a decade old, and has pride of place not only on the small table but also in Khemkar’s professional memory. “This wedding took place in Germany, I don’t remember where. The bride’s friend, who was a flight attendant, flew back and forth from Chennai and Germany with the dress and measurements, and we had it done in time for the wedding, the only dress not meeting the customer. He said.

K Shankar passed away in 2019 at the age of 91. His son, who navigated the hesitancy of the pandemic and lockdown alone, remembers how the patriarch refused to retire until he reached the age of 85 and never missed a day of work. the end “We had to teach him to relax, not come to the store,” says Khemkar, turning his attention back to the bright pink and gold silhouettes held up for attention.

This story is part of a four-article series about old Chennai businesses that have stood the test of time and technology.

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