Sitting in the shadow of the Qutub Minar, in New Delhi, for 25 years, Carma has reflected the tides of fashion in the Capital. For its silver jubilee, this September, it was redesigned with an emphasis on architecture, design, art and craft, taking fashion beyond a space to an experience.
Carma, one of the first fashion stores in the country, was founded by art collector Lekha Poddar in 1991. This year, when the opportunity to redesign Carma emerged, Poddar’s daughter-in-law Malvika, who took over the store in the early 2000s, roped in her brother-in-law, Anupam Poddar of Devi Art Foundation, to rethink the interiors. Anupam, with his interest in art and architecture, and Malvika, with her sensibility for business, joined forces to create a more wholesome experience.
In the very initial days, Carma stocked only Suneet Varma and Rakesh Thakore (the latter would become a part of Abraham and Thakore), going on to include Rohit Khosla and Rohit Bal. Malvika recalls Carma’s early days with Bal, Varma, Rina Dhaka and Meera Muzaffar Ali. “They were all just starting off and would hang out here in the garden.” Then came the sealing drive in 2006, and Carma was one of the many stores that was shut down, prompting the family to open a store in Chanakyapuri. Within three years, however, the original Carma was back, in collaboration with Sabyasachi. For the next eight years, Carma wore the signature Sabyasachi interiors.
Designing an experience
In its newest avatar, Carma is a thoughtfully curated boutique of fashion, material and light. “We wanted to create something timeless,” says Anupam. Stepping through a grand darwaza into the leafy courtyard provides an immediate respite from the heat and dust of Mehrauli. The row of classic Mughal arches draws you in. Historically a carriage house, the building’s basic terracotta brick structure has been retained, giving Carma its distinct character. As soon as you enter this old wing, the eye travels into the deep passage that opens into six recessed spaces that house the garments. There is a balance of intimacy and openness. As you leaf through the pastel gowns by Suneet Varma, you feel enclosed in a pocket of space as natural light pours through the arched windows. The interiors are a mix of matt and shiny flamed copper, creating a rich, layered effect, while providing a muted backdrop to the clothes. Anupam and Malvika have kept the background quiet, refraining from any patterning on the walls, because, as Anupam explains, “the clothes are so embellished and beautiful”.
The Poddars have added a new showroom that was previously a utilities room. Painted in grey tones, it’s part of the same brick facade. With striking striped floors, angular cubes that stand as consoles and brass fixtures on the ceilings, it is a modernist alter ego to the old Mughal structure. Lehengas by Payal Singhal in bright yellow and orange, embroidered with dabka and zardozi, echo Anupam’s earlier point about keeping the backdrop muted because the clothes are the ornament. Some hip, unconventional pieces by Singhal, such as a printed blouse and skirt, are also displayed here.
Anupam points out that a good experience involves some amount of surprise. “It’s no fun knowing what you’re going to find. There has to be an element of the unexpected.” Malvika says that while she selects and sources for the “informed modern Indian bride who knows what she wants”, weddings are traditional affairs—hence the variety of selection.
Carma reflects the stance of its owners—understated but not under-considered. There is an emphasis on detail that may not be evident individually, but comes together harmoniously. Malvika mentions designers Swati and Sunaina, who, along with their Banarasis, give away 100% zari certificates and spools of thread packaged in beautiful boxes. “Such gestures add to the experience of shopping,” says Malvika, who believes that e-stores (Carma is online too) and physical stores occupy separate spaces, both literally as well as in the matter of perception. It’s only considerate that someone who has braved time and distance to walk into a store, feel a fabric before they buy it, possibly to wear it on the most celebrated day of their lives, be rewarded with an elegant experience. Carma leaves you with that nostalgic reminder that fashion and shopping can be slightly more elaborate and enjoyable than the act of picking things off a rack or the click of a button at an online store.