From bell bottoms to actresses’ gowns, meet Chennai’s original trend-makers

  • August 22, 2022

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

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

In a small room that houses more tailoring machines than it does people, Anand Rao Khemkar sits back to remember how his father, dressmaker K Shanker, would pack up his tools to obey a summons by 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 Vittalacharya family.

This reputation, for a dressmaking family running a seemingly humble shop, is less surprising for folks who know just how long K Shanker Dressmakers has been serving the city of Chennai.

“My grandfather was working 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 before 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 shifting 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 dressmaker in his family. 

The late K Shanker had stitched clothes for celebrities for decades.

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

From bell bottoms to skinny jeans, there were plenty of fashion trends that Chennai’s young women wished to emulate without having to splurge on expensive brands. They, along with brides-to-be, become the primary client base for this dressmaking family, whose reputation grew fast and steady over the decades, largely through word of mouth.

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

Now, though the more glamorous orders have trickled away and a large portion of the family’s Anglo-Indian clientele have moved abroad, the shop still stands in Fountain Plaza, and evening gowns, wedding dresses and spaghetti tops still occupy the racks in various stages of completion. 

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

He believes that these steps are what can make or break a dress, “its fall and its fit”. He says, “We always cut a small draft of a dress — back and front — out of old newspaper first, to show the client exactly what shape they will be getting. Only after that is approved do we begin with the actual fabric, cutting out the proper silhouette in one go.” He adds, with some pride, “My father used to be able to cut seven or eight outfits in a day.”

On a corner table, almost hidden behind the folds of various dresses hanging from makeshift nails, stands 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 little table but also in Khemkar’s professional memory. “This wedding was held in Germany, I don’t quite remember where. The bride’s friend, who was a flight attendant, flew back and forth from Chennai and Germany with the fabric and the measurements, and we got it done in time for the wedding, This is the only dress I have made without meeting the client,” he says.

K Shanker passed away in 2019, at the age of 91. His son, who navigated the hiccups of pandemic and lockdown all by himself, remembers how the patriarch refused to retire till he turned 85 and did not miss a day of work till the very end. “We had to coax him to rest, and not come to the shop,” says Khemkar, turning his attention to a bright pink and gold silhouette laid out for the day.

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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