Chandan Singh grew up in the heyday of Toronto’s Gerrard India Bazaar. Looking back, he knows he took it for granted. As a kid in the 90s, he was always two doors away from the best dosa and chaat papdi in town. For $3.50 a ticket, he could watch Bollywood blockbusters like ‘Ishq’ at North America’s first South Asian cinema, the now-closed Naaz Theatre. His family never had to wait for the international aisle to appear in major supermarkets, BJ’s Supermarket just down the street always had what they needed.
“For us, this was an everyday thing,” he says while seated in the office at Chandan Fashion, his family’s bridal shop. The office used to be his parents’ bedroom when his father decided to build his family’s house from scratch so they could work nine to eleven hours a day while watching their children.
“All these shop windows were extended family,” adds his sister Chandni Singh of the Gerrard Street East historic stretch from Coxwell Avenue to Greenwood Avenue.
Little India has gone through a lot of changes since their parents, Jatinder Pal and Sarabjeet Singh, known to everyone as Kuki and Sarab, opened the shop almost four decades ago. In the early s, the GTA’s growing South Asian population had established larger cultural hubs in places like Brampton, Mississauga, and Scarborough. In their wake, yoga studios, nurseries and coffee shops began to appear around the Singh family’s bridal shop.
Chandan Fashion has found ways to thrive in the face of a greater number of suburban competitors and 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 in its past as it continues to grow. “It’s amazing how Gerrard India Bazaar still has that prominence as one of North America’s largest South Asian high street markets,” says Chandan.
Kuki and Sarab recall an air of excitement about Gerrard India Bazaar in the 1980s from far and wide. People from New York, New Jersey and even Virginia would cross the border for the novelty. The market was often a must-see pit stop for visitors to Niagara Falls. “Gerrard Street gave people a homely feeling,” 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 films, the Singhs have discovered that people are still willing to make the journey for good quality clothes. Chandan’s biggest sale was to a bride traveling from Houston in 2017 — a whopping $35,000. “She bought her outfits for the event, her wedding outfit, her mom’s outfit, her sister-in-law’s outfit, her brother’s outfit, her dad’s outfit, the bridal party, the bridesmaids, her cousins,” he says . “She did back-to-back shopping for four days and shopped for everything.” The journey was much less time consuming than flying to India would have been. 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 United States and abroad. Currency from around the world – Trinidad, Botswana, Brazil, Guyana, Japan and elsewhere – has been glued under the glass counters of stores, a project that began on opening day in 1984, when Kuki and Sarab accepted a lucky bill from a customer.
Chandan says they partly attract their broad customer base through Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. “We can target ads to the female population between the ages of 24 and 35 who are interested in India, Bollywood music and designers.” Sometimes the children of former customers discover the store in this way, sparking nostalgia in their parents. “They’re like, ‘I know that place! I was there 30 years ago. It would be cool to see what it looks like now,'” says Chandan. “Then you see the second generation coming in.”
The Singhs have always tried to stand out. After–9/11, many Little India businesses struggled due to fewer customers from the United States. After studying marketing at school, Chandan got the idea to paint the formerly peach colored building bright pink and blue. “When the tram comes, people stop here to take pictures,” says Kuki.
The store’s vibrant exterior reflects Kuki’s own history of eccentric style. Kuki makes it a point to wear coordinating turbans and suits in every color of the rainbow, complete with a crisply folded pocket square. “He’s the original face of the store,” says Chandan say. “He was the surf then.” Chandni says people come to the store specifically to see what Kuki is wearing, and end up staying for the masala chai offered to customers upon arrival.
For customers viewing their collection, Kuki often order samosa chaat across the street, just like his father used to do in Punjab, in his own shop. “That’s our culture: building relationships,” says Kuki. “My first priority is always my customer.”
In earlier years, this meant that Kuki and Sarab would fly to India up to five times a year to meet their suppliers, go through each piece and make their selection depending on what was in fashion. “There would be a Bollywood movie coming out and mom would already have the stuff here,” says Chandni.
“Clients came in looking for that trend six months later,” she explains, noting that before the internet, there was a lag between trend cycles in India and Canada.
Today, demand can be fast, but so can the means of production. “There is no delay,” says Chandni. Chandan and his wife, Roop, are often on the phone with suppliers on the same night a Bollywood star is getting married to avoid the requests they will receive the next morning. They can now make all purchases online and visit their production facilities via video calls. The shop also offers textiles suitable for a variety of cultures, South Asian and others. “We have Ethiopian customers who come to buy fabrics to make their own cultural dresses,” says Chandni. “We have stuff for everyone; that is what keeps us in the question.”
Still, having a store on Toronto’s east side comes with its challenges. As the GTA’s population has grown, commuting time has driven customers from places like Peel Region. “We have eight or nine appointments booked in a day and unfortunately a quarter of them cancel after looking at the traffic,” says Chandan. To alleviate this and create space for more inventory, the Singhs are opening a second location in downtown Brampton in late February. A CBC reality show, “Bollywed,” premiering Jan. 12, follows the family’s decision more than 10 episodes and give an insider’s look into the Indian wedding industry.
Chandan will work at both locations, but as a member of the board of the Gerrard India Bazaar BIA, he will continue to assist in events such as the annual Diwali Mela and the Festival of South Asia. ‘Mom and Dad 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 past 38 years.”
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