When fashion designer Sameer Madan was looking for an address for his Delhi flagship store in early 2019, he ruled out upmarket Khan Market in central Delhi since it was driven more by the food industry. Mehrauli’s Ambawatta One Complex, home to luxury bridal and couture brands, in south Delhi didn’t make sense for a label known for marrying Western aesthetics and Indian sensibilities.
Next on the list was Dhan Mill, then an emerging spot some 5km ahead of Ambawatta that housed a handful of designers like Pernia’s Pop Up and LoveBirds and a few cafés like Café Dori. “It was a leap of faith, to be honest. And I am glad I took it (in December 2019),” says Madan, whose store occupies a 683 sq. ft rented space in the Dhan Mill compound. “I don’t know how to explain this but the location had this strange warm, inviting vibe.”
Over the last three years, this “vibe” has helped Dhan Mill, a four-acre compound in a busy, pothole-ridden lane that connects Delhi to Gurugram, Haryana, turn into a hot spot for designer brands looking to open shops in the Capital, away from busy malls and chaotic markets.
Once a hub for wholesale grain distribution (dhan means grain in Hindi) and then a cluster of warehouses for multinational firms, the location now houses over 30 brands, including the newly opened Abraham and Thakore, Moonray and Ogaan, that offer mostly ready-to-wear, with a sprinkling of bridalwear. More stores are on the way, from Payal Singhal, AK-OK by Anamika Khanna, J.J. Valaya, Payal Khandwala, Seema Gujral, Rahul Mishra, Ritu Kumar and Payal Khandwala. Tarun Tahiliani and Manish Arora were among the initial renters. There’s also a mix of eateries like Café Dori, Caara and CoLocal; a gallery, Nature Morte; and home and office décor stores like Spin and Claymen.
Quite a change from 2015, when Rishabh Jain, now Dhan Mill’s business head and owner, joined the business. Café Dori was among the biggest draws at the time.
“About eight-nine years ago, there was hardly any nice place in Chhattarpur to eat or even have coffee. We had to drive about 20-30 minutes towards Saket, central Delhi, or Gurgaon (now Gurugram) to get even a nice meal,” recalls Vandana Chawla, a Chhattarpur resident who is a school principal and a jewellery designer behind the brand Vintage Intention. “About five years ago, someone told me that you get good coffee in Dhan Mill... it was kind of a dusty place then, with not many stores, but after the pandemic this place has got a serious makeover.”
On an average, Dhan Mill now sees 500 people in a day; 1,000 on weekends.
“We did an internal survey and found that 10% of the crowd is from Punjab. They come to shop during weekends. We also do pop-ups during weekends, so that’s also a crowd puller,” says Jain. “Rest is from all over Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad; it’s a mix.”
If you can overlook the omnipresent traffic snarls outside the compound and the dilapidated houses in the urban village behind the boundary wall, Dhan Mill looks like an Instagrammable shopping village. The cobbled street, the exposed brick-and-mortar stores, the benches in the open with tall lamps on the side, all create an image of a curated shopping hub.
“Shoppers don’t just want to shop. They want to roam around, eat good food, talk. Yes, you can do all of this in an air-conditioned mall but it’s a completely different experience in the open,” says Asmira Gupta, a college student. She visits the compound at least once a week to shop or hang out with friends. “I don’t think there’s any other place right now that has such brands in one location. Plus, I can bring my dog.”
What makes the area unique is the combination of brands. Whether it’s Nakul Sen, a Kolkata brand that offers bridalwear, or the streetwear label Jaywalking, there’s an eclectic selection on offer, with a strong focus on homegrown designers. “That’s our strong point. We want to create a platform of sorts for brands that we think offer something different but may not know where to display their creativity. At the same time, I want to create an experiential space, where brands can present their thought process through their store design as well,” says Jain—his team and he decide which brands should be allowed. “Going forward, the idea is to make it a mix of pret and wedding wear, so that shoppers have everything under one roof.”
Perhaps that’s what makes the compound so attractive to designers as well. As David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore says, “Dhan Mill focuses on a select consumer cohort...which aligns with the customer profile of our brand; people who are looking for a contemporary Indian design statement.”
Agrees Payal Singhal, who is opening her flagship store there on 12 September: “Dhan Mill resonates with the cosmopolitan spirit of our ‘made-in-Bombay but made-for-the-world’ aesthetic. Such a setting ensures customers not only shop for fashion but also immerse themselves in a trendsetting environment.”
This popularity has also resulted in a spike in rent rates. While Jain refused to share numbers, he did mention that the request for store space has doubled after the pandemic. Property dealers in the vicinity claim the monthly rent in Dhan Mill starts at around ₹5 lakh, depending on the space, from ₹3 lakh about two years ago.
Some stores have left. Abhinav Mishra, for instance, got a bigger store just out- side the compound. Some couldn’t keep up with the rent hikes. A designer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “After a point, the sales weren’t really happening for us and we decided to leave; we couldn’t justify the rent.”
Given the construction activity, however, there doesn’t appear to be any drop in demand. For, in a post-pandemic world where people are craving experiences, this has become Dhan Mill’s USP. Like college student Gupta says: “It feels like I am going for a picnic when I come here. Shopping is just an extra bonus.”
“The business is going well but there’s a downside (lack of space) to it,” claims Jain, refusing to share figures. “There are a lot of brands that I would like to see come here but I am not able to fit them because of space issues.” Dhan Mill is looking at expansion in the coming months, says Jain, again keeping the details under wraps.