Whether in Southall or Manchester, running between shops trying to find the exact shade of bangles to match a sari is something many British South Asian women are familiar with. East Shopping centre, which opened last month in the heart of an established Asian shopping area, Green Street in Newham, east London, offers a more streamlined experience.
Touted as Europe’s first Asian boutique shopping centre, the modern mall draws inspiration from the long shape and windowed ceilings of Mayfair’s Burlington Arcade. It has 56 shops, a “souk” market and food court, and was built in a disused bus garage. Bob Popat, the British Indian co-director of the London-based property developers behind the project, ACR Investments, said the glossy mall was a “multi-million pound development” designed to put Green Street on the map as a major shopping district.
“The Asian fashion industry is booming,” he said. “Green Street has been crying out for something like this,” adding that the centre would not alienate the area’s existing customers. “I deliberately designed it to look smart but not overbearing. I don’t want anyone looking in and saying: ‘Oh, that’s not for me.’” The shops inside seem to bear this out – while more elaborate, embellished outfits can be found, there are also simpler salwar kameez on sale for £20.
Behzat Manwa, a British-Indian of Gujrati descent, runs Bidaai London, which specialises in wedding clothes. She regularly travels to India with her family to shop for designs and fabric. For Manwa, the shopping centre is the perfect environment for Asian fashion, a market that does not work easily online, given that clothes are usually tailored. “We don’t sell any of our designs online because they get copied. Before you know, it there will be a second-rate version on sale. Shopping for an Asian wedding is something that really needs to be done face-to-face,” she says. Manwa is confident that the mall setting will encourage non-Asian customers to come to her shop, too.
Other businesses cater to the demands of Muslim women who are looking for longer, fluid clothing. Traditionally, shopping for Muslim clothing could mean looking through 30 variations of the same long, black dresses, but not now. Sitting alongside more traditional Muslim clothing stores is the first London branch of Aab, a favourite with Muslim fashion bloggers, specialising in luxe full-length shirts and tunics in a range of neutral shades. Clothes are priced to match the high street, says East’s spokeswoman Puja Vedi, who adds that they could appeal to non-Muslim women adopting a longline silhouette. “More is more these days,” she says, “it’s fashionable to cover up and these clothes suit anyone from any background.”
British Somali Nafisa Mohammed started K Kouture, a shop selling jalabiyas –embellished Arabic kaftans – with her sisters. “A kaftan looks good on anyone. A lot of people look go to Instagram for inspiration and they’re always a hit on there. Kim Kardashian posted a picture of herself in a kaftan in Dubai and people went crazy for it.” The shop is laid out like a Muslim American Apparel – clothes in endless rainbow shades, colour coded to hypnotic effect. It’s long overdue – whether it’s the social media effect or not, many Muslim women of Asian descent are experimenting with Arab-influenced styles for wedding and occasion-wear. Mohammed predicts that summer will be their busiest time – with wedding season, Ramadan and Eid. The founders have submitted an application for a 2am closing time during Ramadan, and Vedi says that 12,000 people visited the shopping centre during its launch weekend.
A crucial part of any non-formalised shopping experience is haggling. Will Manwa allow it in a fancier mall environment? “It’s the culture. It’s unavoidable,” she says, laughing. “If it’s a group of bridesmaids, then I’ll do them a deal, but some of the offers we get are ridiculous.”