South Mumbai has a new energy. One of the country’s oldest charming spaces, it was always an area of many colours, with arts district Kala Ghoda, and heritage buildings, like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and David Sassoon Library, serving as a reminder of India’s glorious past. Now, the opening of new designer and brand stores is turning it into India’s uber chic hub of fashion and luxury.
“I’ve closely seen the area go through a metamorphosis and emerge as a fantastic area for fashion,” says Divya Thakur. She’s a longtime resident of Colaba, that makes up south Mumbai or, as it’s lovingly called, SoBo (south Bombay), along with Fort, Horniman Circle and Ballard Estate, among others. Thakur is the talent behind the interiors of designer Tarun Tahiliani’s new store in Ballard Estate. “I think it takes one or two great things to pull a whole ecosystem,” she referring to SoBo’s evolution.
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Much like London’s or New York’s SoHo, SoBo is an expensive home address, making it an ideal consumer market for brands.
Recently, label Lovebirds, known for its clean yet quirky styles rooted in slow fashion, opened its first store away from home city of Delhi. A stone’s throw away from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the store is set inside SoBo’s historic Wesley Church.
Talking about the location, Lovebirds’ creative director Gursi Singh says: “The fact that this area experiences a flux of travellers—for business and/or for touristic reasons—makes it unique. The ease of walking around or the joy of getting from one spot to another in a kaali peeli cab is just unmatched. The view of the Arabian Sea as well as the Taj adds to its eclectic vibe.” Personally, he adds, “our trips to Bombay are never complete till we walk the streets of SoBo. It’s so much like New York’s Soho.” Some the hidden gems he lists are the Parsi bakeries and the synagogues (the almost 140-year-old Knesset Eliyahoo in Kala Ghoda recently underwent a complete restoration.)
A charm lost and found
Kala Ghoda holds a special place in south Mumbai. Though the crescent-shaped area was always known as the “hip place”, it gained more national prominence in 1999 with the start of Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. It’s a nine-day event that continues to take place annually, celebrating theatre, art, fashion and design.
But a decade later, the charm of the festival as well as SoBo began fading.
Sunhil Sippy, film director and author of The Opium Of Time: Photographs Of Mumbai 2010-2020 who lived in Colaba between 2008-11, explains, “When the terrorist attacks struck the Taj and surrounding areas in 2008, the area had become a ghost town. That was a lull period. It took some years to rebuild what was lost.”
He, however, notes that south Mumbai was always seen as a cultural place because of the art galleries, museums and beautiful Art Deco buildings. The opening of Louis Vuitton inside the Taj in 2000s and Zara’s Fort store in an Art Deco building started turning SoBo into a cool shopping hub.
With the subsequent entry of homegrown designers Shivan and Narresh, Wendell Rodricks, Gaurav Gupta, Rahul Mishra, ASAL by Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla, and multi-brand Ogaan in Kala Goda; and Le Mill, Raw Mango, Amit Aggarwal, Good Earth and Lovebirds in Colaba, SoBo has become a shopping destination like no other in India.
Horniman Circle, on the other hand, seems to be the preferred choice of international brands like Hermès and Christian Louboutin. It is also reportedly the home for the first India location of Galeries Lafayette, the French legacy department store. Sabyasachi is apparently moving to a larger location in a heritage building in Ballard Estate from Kala Ghoda.
South Delhi’s designer store hub Mehruali is no match for the legacy SoBo is creating.
Surprisingly, south Mumbai was not always seen as a fashion hub. As Tina Tahiliani Parikh, the executive director of one of south Mumbai’s most iconic stores,Ensemble, says: “South Bombay is just a very unique space in India, both culturally and sociologically. Just in terms of the mindset of the people, the way they think. But, for us honestly, it was a long and lonely battle. We opened our store in 1987 and possibly the next person to open in that area was Sabyasachi and that happened 15-20 years later. So it was hard to envision that it would morph into what it has become now... this destination for fashion and luxury.”
Old meets new
And art continues to flourish in the area, from Kala Ghoda and Colaba to Ballard Estate. Chemould Art gallery, which started in 1960s, was one of the first Indian galleries to focus on contemporary art. It sits in a heritage building in Fort. Jhaveri Contemporary art gallery is another such gem in SoBo. Referring to the importance of different parts of the city, Priya Jhaveri, Jhaveri Contemporary co-founder, says, “Kala Ghoda would have been an enticing venue. However, a space perfect for us presented itself in Fort and it was impossible to refuse. It’s also hard to compete with a space with balconies that look out on the Gateway of India.”
With fashion and art, restaurants have also followed. While the OG of the area Samovar shut its doors in 2015 and Indigo bid adieu a few years later, there is still plenty to choose from—Kala Ghoda Café, The Table, Trishna, to name a few. The eateries have helped cement this area as a destination of style and luxury. The latest kid on the block is IF.BE, once an ice factory and now a 10,000 sq.ft space dedicated to design, architecture and arts.
It’s an area still in translation, insists Tahiliani Parikh. “It is the dynamic nature of SoBo that makes it a style setter.” Or as Thakur puts it: “It’s a fabulous juxtaposition of the old and the new. Delightful, relaxed, authentic and alternate vibe with striking heritage architecture. And with brands willing to experiment with repurposing old defunct spaces, it is definitely in the New York frame of mind.”
Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what it means to us.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.