With its aesthetic pull and old-world charm, the Kala Ghoda-Fort precinct that is aspiring to be the equivalent of London's fashion centre has become a draw for the best-known fashion labels and designers
It’s rare for Mumbai’s busy professionals—always in a hurry—to pause for a second look at anything, particularly late in the morning on a weekday. In the city’s business district of Fort—some would say former business district, but that’s up for debate—there’s little time for niceties or even a break.
Yet, on a morning in May, a bunch of people stood outside the newly restored, over 100-year-old Edwardian neo-classical Ismail Building facing Flora Fountain, which is currently shrouded in a cloak of restoration. Their curiosity had been piqued by a flurry of activity, uniformed guards and the newness of the façade, standing out in an area dense with dilapidated buildings.
The building now houses Zara’s new store, following the Spanish fashion brand’s global template of locating its outlets in heritage structures. The building at Hutatma Chowk has been restored jointly by Zara’s parent group Inditex and local architects.
The choice of location may be surprising, but there’s logic to it. Considering the amount of space Zara needed—the new store has 51,300 sq. ft spread over five floors—an obvious and more economical location would have been the suburbs, Thane or Navi Mumbai, where most modern retail is. But there’s little there to match the aesthetic pull of the “Old City". Added to this is the appeal of a neighbourhood that’s aspiring to become the equivalent of London’s fashion hub, with modern retail housed in old structures.
“What I hope we see (in the future) is some sort of zoning, like Oxford Street, which has all the high-street brands and Old Bond Street, with all the luxury brands," says designer Gaurav Gupta, who has a store on VB Gandhi Marg (formerly Forbes Street) near Kala Ghoda.
The area from Fountain to Horniman Circle and K. Dubash Marg along Shahid Bhagat Singh Road ending in Kala Ghoda—750m at the longest and 300m on the shorter side—is Mumbai’s burgeoning hub of high-street and luxury labels.
Shaina NC’s Golden Thimble and Tarun Tahiliani’s Ensemble (started in 1987) were the early entrants on Rampart Row (Dubash Marg) facing Kala Ghoda. The zone is now a draw for the best known designers and fashion labels.
From Hermes, facing the Asiatic Society library, and Christian Louboutin next to it, the road leads up to Ismail Building on the west. Walk past the old English Bazaar southwards, now called Nagindas Master Road, it leads up to stores by Manish Arora, Gaurav Gupta, Nirav Modi, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Masaba Gupta besides The Bombay Shirt Company, Nicobar and Golden Thimble and Ensemble.
South of the Asiatic and leading up to Lion Gate are designers Shantanu and Nikhil and Krsna Mehta’s India Circus, near the newly opened Irish salon Thérapie Clinic—the chain’s first store outside the UK. Wannabes like Devotie have squeezed in too, on Gandhi Marg.
This roughly one-kilometre radius has changed the neighbourhood over the last few years. From small retail establishments, lawyers’ offices and banks, the heritage precinct has added fashion-luxury-design labels. Some like Zara, which opened on 4 May, have restored a building; others like Hermes merged in an over 150-year-old building and co-exist.
One of the oldest stores in the area, Akbarally’s, also changed its format from a departmental store to men’s wear some years ago.
Residents of Mumbai, including the gawkers outside Zara on that May morning, tend to miss the old-world charm of south Mumbai—colloquially referred to as “Bombay" to signify the “town" as opposed to the suburbs.
But for a retailer, whose audience is also the tourist who walks around with a copy of the Lonely Planet, this part of the city offers a space that can stand out, as opposed to a store in a mall.
Return to roots
The Fort area gets its name from an 18th century fort built by the British East India Company surrounding the castle—one of the oldest surviving structures of the city that stands camouflaged behind the Asiatic Society. The wall of the fort, now long gone, passed through Kala Ghoda—all these luxury stores would have been inside the fort walls if it existed today.
The fort demarcated the British from the Indians, giving it the snobbish exclusivity of another era and, by default, of this. The neighbourhood, during British times, housed major retail stores, including the Army-Navy Store (Westside today) on Esplanade Road, Whiteaway Laidlaw and Co. (Khadi Gram Udyog) and Evans & Fraser (Fort House, till recently belonging to Videocon Group) on D.N. Road.
There are not that many residents here, except for those living in the old rent-controlled apartments passed down for generations. South Mumbai, of which Fort and Kala Ghoda are small parts, has only 17% of Mumbai’s population as per the 2011 census.
“It’s, in a way, not surprising that these shops have come up here," says Bharat Gothoskar, founder and heritage evangelist-in-chief with Khakhi Tours, an organization that conducts heritage tours in Mumbai. “It’s come back a full circle, from the time under the British when this was the main shopping district."
Shaina NC, also Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson, inherited a shop from her mother about a quarter of a century ago—it was one of the rare boutique stores in the city then. Shaina has revamped the store with her signature saris and drapes.
She remembers just a few stores around then—Drawing Room; a restaurant called Bullock Cart, which is now Copper Chimney; and Chetana, which continues to operate, besides Rhythm House, a nearly 70-year-old landmark music store that shut down last year.
At the corner of the now-closed Wayside Inn—where Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote a part of India’s Constitution—Rhythm House’s closing was not just a sign of changing forms of music consumption, but also a gentle shift in the neighbourhood’s texture.
Amir Curmally, chairman of Rhythm House, credits the Kala Ghoda Association, which for the last 15 years has also been organizing the annual art fair in winter, for revitalizing the neighbourhood.
“It’s not really trendy, but has come up quite a bit," says the 76-year-old.
Still, the process of transformation to a thriving retail hub is relatively new. It started with Sabyasachi and then Hermes setting up their standalone stores in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Other marque retailers followed suit.
“This (high-street retail) was not the case five years ago. Malls were the in thing," says Bappaditya Basu, national director, retail and leisure advisory, Jones Lang LaSalle Property Consultants (India) Pvt. Ltd (JLL).
Three years ago, Akshay Narvekar, founder of Bombay Shirt Company, came across a Facebook post from a landlord looking to rent out some commercial space. Narvekar, whose online bespoke men’s wear brand was just a couple of years old, had no intention of opening a physical store.
Yet, he went to see the space and liked the Sassoon building—with its large windows—so much that he took it. The company now has three stores in two cities.
“The Bohemian look of the area matches our brand," says Narvekar. “It’s a walking street mostly; you get a feeling of being in a small community. It attracts similar brands and feeds off it."
Shaina calls it “herd mentality", one shop leading to the opening of several others. But each one is unique enough to cater to different audiences. “If you want a wedding sari, you go to (the next door) Sabyasachi…," she says.
That “community feel" shows in the kind of restaurants and cafes that have cropped up in the neighbourhood which support and complete Kala Ghoda’s repertoire, making it a walking street that can keep you occupied through an entire afternoon.
With the coming of these stores, the place is now busy even on weekends when offices are shut. The clientele has changed too. Besides the “kala coatwallas" (people with black coats) as Curmally calls the lawyers, there are also “smart ladies". The clientele has changed too—from office goers and tourists, it’s now visitors from other parts of the city, looking for the only place that’s un-Mumbai like in many ways.
The international traveller is, in some ways, more aware of India than Indians are, says Sabyasachi Mukherjee. “Whatever you think is ‘touristy’ from the outsider’s perspective, it is ‘authentic’. This part is relevant to the changing India. The millennial consumer is far more inspired by our culture—it’s not nostalgia but novelty for them."
Here, the streets are laid with uneven paver blocks—a preference of the municipality for a variety of reasons—but also reminiscent of cobblestones in old European towns. Combined with old English street names, this perhaps adds to the ambience of exclusivity.
When Gaurav Gupta opened his 1,800 sq. ft store in November 2014, he already had a store in Delhi’s Emporio Mall. He picked the Mumbai spot for its old-world charm and growth as a design and art space. In the neighbourhood are Galerie Isa, Gallery 7 and Artists’ Centre, besides the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.
“Kala Ghoda is a cultural hub for the country," he says. “There is the (Jewish) Synagogue, the (David Sassoon) library, pebbled streets... It’s like culture has travelled over this place from time to time. There is a sense of history-meets-future here in terms of the work you see."
High streets like Kala Ghoda make sense for brands looking at differentiating themselves—luxury brands can’t be housed just anywhere. Until the launch of DLF Emporio in Delhi in 2008, luxury was largely the preserve of five-star hotels.
“In India, retail development is supply driven. It started in five-star hotels as there were no good malls or high streets," says Abhishek Malhotra, partner, A.T. Kearney, who leads the consumer industries and retail products practice for India and South-East Asia at the consulting firm.
Though a lot of retail is moving online, Kala Ghoda continues to drive footfalls, given its historic significance, tourists, proximity to the business district and the annual arts festival. “This is missing on other high streets," says Suvishesh Valsan, assistant vice-president, strategy consulting, JLL.
The ground rule in retail, adds Valsan, echoing Shaina, is that tenants attract other brands of the same stature to occupy space in the area. Even rentals are driven by tenants rather than the location.
This explains why national big-box retailers, like Fab India, Croma, and now Zara should get space here, because rentals were lower than in nearby Colaba, says Vivek Kaul, head of retail services, India, CBRE South Asia Pvt. Ltd.
In the past 3-4 years though and not surprisingly, rents have risen by nearly 100%—from Rs200-300 per sq. ft to about Rs500– 600 on carpet area for regular-sized shops of about 1,000–5,000 sq. ft, Kaul said in an email. The rise in rents is in line with the changing profile of retailers.
The doubts, the future
There is, as always, a flip side. Opposite Zara, in the ReadyMoney Mansion that houses a number of retail establishments, luxury footwear and accessory brand Berleigh opened its flagship store in April. The store stands out not as a luxury outlet, as Gothoskar points out, but in that it is incongruous with its surroundings. ReadyMoney Mansion is a large commercial building that has wires and air-conditioners marring its visage.
Several shopkeepers and professionals working around the area said three or four trees in front of the new Zara store were chopped or poisoned so that the store could be seen from a distance. An Inditex spokesperson denied this.
Many of the stores—including Sabyasachi, Golden Thimble and Ensemble—are shut on Sundays. Maintenance and cleanliness remain a problem too, like in the rest of the city.
In Asia and even in West Asia, luxury retail has mostly developed in a controlled environment like a mall, says Rahul Prasad, managing director of Pike Preston Partners (Asia) Pvt. Ltd, a luxury retail consulting firm. But the surrounding infrastructure is not developed enough in India. For luxury to develop in Fort-Kala Ghoda, infrastructure there would need to be spruced up, Prasad feels.
It could be the reason why, besides Hermes, Louboutin, and after a long gap, Zara, no other international luxury brand has opened in the last few years. Over 90% of India’s luxury retail is located in malls and five-star hotels, according to JLL’s Basu.
But that’s still an aside from an Indian brand perspective. Already, other designers have evinced interest in opening shops here—including Anita Dongre, Varun Behl, Ritu Beri and Sanjay Garg among others, according to people familiar with real estate developments.
Curmally says he has not yet finalized the new occupant of what was once Rhythm House, but based on recent trends, it could be a fashion/design store.
New entrants could well take inspiration from Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who opened his first 1,800 sq. ft store on VB Gandhi Marg in 2010. Four years later, he moved 150m away to a larger 8,000 sq. ft store on K. Dubash Marg. His store in Mehrauli, Delhi, is the highest grossing, followed by this one (Rs55 crore and Rs41 crore, respectively, in annual revenue).
“The difference," he says, “is because Delhi has far more conspicuous consumption as compared to Mumbai. But the reason these stores are successful is because of the location and the atmosphere, which has contributed to the success."
“We own this place," adds Shaina. “So for newcomers, who are renting, they are obviously doing well." Also, the Zara flagship in Fort adds an endorsement to the retail potential of the area.
Malhotra of A.T. Kearney says this is the future—urban centres like Kala Ghoda and Connaught Place, Delhi, are being revitalized and redeveloped. Moreover, there are no good luxury malls coming up.
The surrounding architecture of the area reflects the spirit of the city—time goes by but the area will never age, adds Sabyasachi. This place will still be relevant for the next 100-200 years.
“There is a timelessness to Kala Ghoda," he says.
This is the second in a three-part series which looks at neighbourhoods in and around Mumbai—Pali Naka, Bandra; Kala Ghoda, Fort; and Ghodbunder Road, Thane—that have transformed over time through retail and commerce, and how that has impacted their socio-economic fabric.
To read the first and third parts of the series, click here and here.