From bell skirts to actress dresses, meet the original designers of Chennai

K Shanker has been keeping generations of Chennai women in style for over 70 years. This Madras Week, the family looks back on its heritage

K Shanker has been keeping generations of Chennai women in style for over 70 years. This Madras Week, the family looks back on its heritage

In a small room that houses more sewing machines than people, Anand Rao Khemkar sits down to recall how his father, tailor K Shanker, would pack his tools to obey the call of the late chief minister J Jayalalithaa. It was par for the course for the man whose clientele over the years has also included Sowcar Janaki, Swapna, Rati Agnihotri and the Vitalacharya family.

This reputation, for a family of tailors running a seemingly unassuming shop, is less surprising to people who know how long K Shanker Dressmakers has been serving the city of Chennai.

“My grandfather used to work in Pune, from where he shifted to Bangalore. Then from Bangalore, my father and his two brothers came to Chennai and opened a shop here in front of Independence, opposite Hazrath Moti Baba Dargah in Egmore, to cater to the fashion and wedding 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 would all come in cars and this complex had ample parking,” says Khemkar, the 55-year-old fifth-generation tailor in his family.

The late K Shanker had been tailoring clothes for celebrities for decades. | Photo: R Shivaji Rao

From bell skirts to skinny jeans, there were plenty of fashion trends that the young women of Chennai wanted to emulate without having to splurge on expensive brands. They, along with brides-to-be, become the main customer base for this tailoring family, whose reputation has grown rapidly and steadily over the decades, largely through word of mouth.

By the 1990s, the immigrant family had built up enough of a reputation that it attracted many of Chennai’s creme de la creme, from real estate tycoons to media families. “My father was famous for his western clothes, he only made Anglo-Indian clothes. He has also made some dresses for movies. In the song ‘Idhu oru nila kaalam’ in the Mark Mark Mark (a 1981 film starring Kamal Haasan and Madhavi), the dresses were designed by him,” says Khemkar.

Now, although the more glamorous orders have left and much of the family’s Anglo-Indian clientele has moved abroad, the store still stands in Fountain Plaza and evening gowns, wedding dresses and spaghetti tops still occupy the shelves in various stages. of conclusion.

“The same styles tend to repeat themselves every 10 to 15 years. Flared and pleated skirts are back after 15 years, as is the straight sheath dress,” he says, gesturing to a knee-length black dress that shimmers softly on a hanger. “It’s covered in threads, which are difficult to sew into fabric. The needle tends to break if you don’t do it very slowly and gently. We complete most dresses in two days: one day for cutting and one day for gluing and stitching,” says Khemkar.

He believes these steps are what can make or break a dress, “the fit and the fit of it.” He says, “We always cut a small sketch of a dress – back and front – from old newspaper first, to show the customer exactly what shape they’re going to take. Once approved, we start with the actual fabric, cutting the right silhouette in one step.” He adds, with some pride, “My father used to be able to cut seven or eight garments a day.”

On a corner table, almost hidden behind folds of various dresses hanging from makeshift nails, sits a wedding photo – a couple beaming in front of a large white church. It looks about a decade old and has pride of place not only on the small table but also in Khemkar’s professional memory. “This wedding was held in Germany, I don’t remember exactly where. The bride’s friend, who was a flight attendant, flew in from Chennai and Germany with the fabric and measurements, and we made it in time for the wedding, this is the only dress I’ve made without meeting the client.” he says.

K Shanker passed away in 2019 at the age of 91. His son, who went through the hiccups of the pandemic and lockdown himself, recalls how the patriarch refused to retire until he turned 85 and never missed a day of work until that day. bottom. “We had to convince her to rest and not come to the store,” Khemkar says, turning her attention to a bright pink and gold silhouette laid out for the day.

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

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