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 movie theater, the now-closed Naaz Theater. His family never had to wait for the international aisle to appear in the big box grocery stores, the BJ’s supermarket down the block, they always had what they needed.
“It was an everyday thing for us,” he says, sitting down in the office at Chandan Fashion, his family’s bridal shop. The office used to be his parents’ bedroom when his dad decided to build his family’s upstairs house from scratch so they could work nine to eleven hours while watching over their kids.
“All these storefronts were extended families,” 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. In the early days, the GTA’s growing South Asian population established larger cultural centers in places like Brampton, Mississauga and Scarborough. In their footsteps, yoga studios, nurseries and cafes began to pop up around the Singh family’s bridal shop.
Having found ways to thrive in the face of increased suburban competition, Chandan Fashion remains on 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 maintains its reputation as one of the largest high street South Asian markets in North America,” says Chandan.
Kuki and Sarab recall the excitement of the Gerrard India Bazaar in the 1980s, far and wide. People from New York, New Jersey and even Virginia would cross the border for the novelty. The market was often a necessary stop for visitors to 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 he found out, that people are still willing to make the trip for quality clothing. Chandan’s biggest sale was to a bride who traveled from Houston in 2017 – a whopping $35,000. “She bought pre-event clothes, wedding clothes, her mother’s clothes, her sister-in-law’s clothes, her brother’s clothes, her father’s clothes, the bridal party, her bridesmaids, her cousins,” she says. “She shopped for four days in a row and bought everything. The trip was much less time consuming than the flight to India. And since Chandan Fashion manufactures and ships all of its pieces from India, she was confident that their product would be of comparable quality.
The store regularly serves a clientele from all over the states and beyond. Currency from around the world—Trinidad, Botswana, Brazil, Guyana, Japan and more—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 24 to 35-year-old female population who are interested in India, Bollywood music and designers.” Sometimes children of former customers discover the store in this way, which sparks nostalgia in their parents. “They say, ‘I know the place! I went there 30 years ago. It would be great to see how it is now,” says Chandan. “Then you see the second generation coming.
The Singhs have always strived to excel. Post–On 9/11, many businesses in Little India were dealing with fewer customers from the United States. After studying marketing at school, Chandan got the idea to paint the previously peach-colored building bright pink and blue. “Now when the tram comes, people stop here and take pictures,” says Kuki.
The store’s lively exterior reflects Kuki’s own history of eccentric style. Kuki makes a point of wearing matching turbans and suits in every color of the rainbow, complete with a delicately folded pocket square. “He is the original face of the business,” Chandan he says. “He was a brand back then. Chandni says people specifically come to the store to see what Kuki is wearing and end up staying for the masala chai they offer customers upon arrival.
For customers viewing their Kuki collection frequently orders samosa chaat from across the street, just as his father did 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 choose what was in fashion. “A Bollywood film would come out and mom would already have things here,” says Chandni.
“Customers were coming in six months later looking for this trend,” he explains, noting that there was a lag between trend cycles in India and Canada before the Internet.
Demand may be fast these days, but so are the means of production. “There is no delay,” says Chandni. Chandan and his wife Roop often call suppliers on the same night as the Bollywood star gets married to get ahead of the demands they get the next morning. They can now 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 otherwise. “We have Ethiopian clients who come in 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 in the east end of Toronto comes with its challenges. As the GTA grew in population, commute times drove out customers coming from places like Peel Region. “We’ll have eight or nine appointments booked in a day, and unfortunately a quarter of them will be canceled after looking at the traffic,” says Chandan. To alleviate that and add room for more inventory, the Singhs are opening a second location in downtown Brampton in late February. The family’s decision will be followed by the CBC reality show “Bollywed,” premiering Jan. 12 more than 10 episodes and give insiders take a look at 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 help with events such as the annual Diwali Mela and the South Asian Festival. “Mom and Dad are staying here. This is their OG location, their baby,” he says. “He will make sure that the home base here is as strong as it has been for the last 38 years.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION