The bespoke store at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai is part of the very fabric of the history of fashion in Mumbai and India. We discover its sartorial legacy

Rudhra Kapur

A long time ago, sometime in the 19th century, in a palace by the sea, was located a beautiful little boutique. While modern Mumbai flaunts stores, shops and fashion outlets at almost every corner, there was a time when Burlingtons’ at The Taj Mahal Palace hotel was a lone sartorial outpost. (Except perhaps for Madame Pompadour also at the Taj.) The hallowed atmosphere of the city’s most luxurious hotel was imbibed by Burlingtons’ which seemed to exist in a bubble of exclusivity. You had to be someone to shop here. You had to be someone to even venture in! Exclusive, ethereal, the story went that you either bought a Mercedes Benz or an outfit at Burlingtons’!

Exaggerations notwithstanding, this was where it all began, the fashion history of this great metropolis. This was where the local elite shopped, Bollywood hopped and an international clientele came to for India-inspired designs. The story of Burlingtons’, a store which continues to draw the fashion conscious, started however much earlier, with a stylish and charming aesthete, Shori Lal Kapur, who opened Devichands — historically regarded as India’s first department store — in Lahore, in the early 1900s. Remembered today as the ‘Selfridges of the East’, this seems appropriate since Shori Lal had in fact apprenticed under Sir Gordon Selfridge, then chairman of the legendary London-based Selfridges group. Shori Lal’s store proved a big success at a time when the East India Company had colonised India’s indigenous market. Choicest selections from the West — cut glass from Austria, lace from Belgium, fabulous textiles, jewellery and garments were available in the five-storey building. Branches were opened in Rawalpindi and Muree and in 1943 in New Delhi under the branding of Shalakas.

Shori Lal Kapur with Jawaharlal Nehru in Lahore

Back to the start
I am seated at a large table in a Colaba apartment that houses the offices of the Burlingtons’ group, chatting with managing partner and creative director, Rudhra Kapur, Shori Lal’s grandson. He is relating the Burlingtons’ story with obvious pride. Rudhra has recently opened Treasures of India, a store that showcases the best that the country has to offer — textiles, kaftans, shawls, jewellery, art — in Mumbai’s iconic Dhanraj Mahal in Colaba. His indigo T-shirt and crushed scarf reflect in his violet eyes. “Those are Granny Gladys’,” he says of his English grandmother. I inherited those from her. She was an extremely glamorous woman, she had purple eyes….” Shori Lal had met his wife on a merchandising trip in Europe and they were married following a whirlwind romance and settled down in Lahore to raise a family of five sons and a daughter.

Until 1947 and Partition, reveals Rudhra. Devichands was looted and the family had to leave for India. “He lost everything in Lahore,” he recounts. “He received a telephone call from an army general giving him 45 minutes to pack up an entire family legacy and make it to a helicopter airlift to Delhi. And he had to start again since my family did not have anything in India but he came to India and pursued the various avenues that he needed to pursue and immediately implemented trade to sustain and bring his family back to the stature and the life and the affluence that they were accustomed to. A lot of his contacts actually stemmed from the days of Devichands.”

Jack Dawson, chairman of Associated Dry Goods, and Mr Perlee, president of Lord & Taylor, with their wives

In 1949, Shori Lal moved to Bombay determined to seek compensation for the assets that he had lost when he was forced to move. His persistence paid off and in 1953 the custodian of evacuee properties granted him space within the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to run a shop. It was a partial settlement but merited celebration and so Shori Lal went for a drink at the Taj’s Harbour Bar with John Hayward, the British Deputy High Commissioner of Bombay at the time, and after a few drinks they went down the corridor to view the new shop, singing, ‘I’m Burlington Bertie/I rise at 10.30/And walk down the Strand like a toff….’ When Shori Lal turned to Hayward to suggest a name for the new store, he replied, “Why not Burlingtons’?” And so it was! “My grandfather started Burlingtons’ with his English wife alongside him and she brought the international element to the brand, the quality…the standards…and the glam.” In 1958, Burlingtons’ organised the first-ever fashion show aboard the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II with bespoke outfits created from textiles sourced from the best Indian artisans, weavers and printers, setting the tone already for much that was to come in Bombay’s fashion industry.

Princess Margaret at the Burlingtons’ stand at the London Fair

Memories for life
“My grandfather was the epitome of the suave gentleman. He was always immaculately dressed in Saville Row; he was extremely charming, so much so that after Partition he set up foundations for each and every member of his family, to grow from, to prosper from, to take forward. I was 14 years old when he passed away; I was in boarding school in Darjeeling and I cried for three days. I have very fond memories of going for long walks with him at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse. I remember reading to him when he was ill. He was sitting in his rocking chair and I insisted on reading Asterix to him. As a child, the Taj was like a second home to my family. We were constantly eating in there. I remember my grandfather picking me up from school and taking me to the Sea Lounge for tea….”

From 1963, Burlingtons’ started manufacturing garments for the group’s retail business as well as for export. Another establishment, Maharani of India had also been opened in Delhi by this time. In an era when the government was calling for organisations to expand into exports, Burlingtons’ traversed the globe establishing its clientele in such diverse settings as La Rinascente, Milan; Galleries Lafayette, Paris; Magasin du Nord, Denmark; Bloomingdale’s, New York; Bullocks, Los Angeles; Neiman Marcus and Harrods, London; and established its first international boutique, Shalimar, in Germany, spearheaded by Shori Lal’s European daughter-in-law Gabriele and his son Andre.

Stanley Marcus, chairman of Neiman Marcus, and his wife Betty

Over to the next generation
“My mother was German and between my mother and my father, they were an enterprising young couple who had put India on the map of international fashion. My mother had opened boutiques in Dusseldorf, Brussels, all part of the Burlingtons’ group. She started exposing Indian artisans and their produce to the likes of important international buying houses around the world, the story of which is actually in all the pictures hanging around you.” I turn to a wall hung with picture frames. “These are very important pictures. I mean, photographed here are representatives from Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue…. That’s part of the legacy before my time. The connections with Neiman Marcus for instance had already been initiated by my grandfather who had gifted them an elephant! My mother was pregnant with me the day that she met with the buyers from Bloomingdales and so I was given two names as a child; I was known as the Burlingtons’ Baby as also the Bloomingdales Baby. What my parents were doing was that they were presenting the best of what India had to offer the international market to these very big department stores that had buying capacities beyond any normal comprehension. This went on to create the Kashmiri carpet, the papier mache and other industries and even put India for the first time onto the international fashion trends map with the mid-’60s hippie-chic look that hit the cover of prominent fashion magazines. Multiple companies were set up within Burlingtons’ to be able to deal with the volumes that were being generated — buying agencies, export divisions and so on.”

Even as Bombay started picking up a fashion pulse in the ’80s, Rudhra, who was fully trained in fashion technology and design, found himself faced with the possibility of working in Paris or London. “My father made me a proposal to start developing collections for the international market and we ended up pioneering the export division catering to brands like Giorgio Armani and Trussardi. I worked very personally with important people in the fashion industry. We used to develop collections that were catered to the specific researches by the House of Armani, Trussardi, Max Mara, Fendi…you name it…whether it was mass production or refined production.”

Steve Osterweis, chairman of Associated Merchandising Corp, New York, and his wife Harriet

As a 22-year-old, Rudhra had started an eponymous brand which did not quite make it. “I was too young and not good at administration and finance. That was exactly the point in time when the Indian fashion industry started feeling its first pulse beat which was the opening of Ensemble, so technically I was looking at Ensemble as a competitor.” Rudhra put his concentration instead into export, living the good life jetting around the world, staying in beautiful hotels and having dinners with important people — “and doing business”. Speaking five languages, which he considers one of his greatest assets, he communicates fluently in Italian, German and French. Today, the group continues to be steered by close-knit family members who handle the various facets of Burlingtons’.

Into the now
The smell of new paint hits me even as I near the large portals of Treasures of India, Rudhra’s latest venture. The merchandise is much like what you would find at Burlingtons’. A staircase takes you up into a gallery that hosts exhibitions by known as well as upcoming artists. “It’s basically something that my mum had started in 1966; Dhanraj Mahal is the same venue and the name remains the same too. Treasures of India is actually totally representative of what is in the store — whether it is jewellery, home furnishing, fashion, carpets, even lifestyle so I call it my ‘gallery of the arts’.” Trained as a couturier, Rudhra is now working towards presenting a Burlingtons’ couture line. “I am personally not a fame-seeker for my work,” he intones. “I don’t like to be recognised or raise-eyebrowed at. I was given that education by my parents when I was young and three big movie proposals came for me and my dad said no. I like discretion, I like my privacy; if I want to loaf the street in a pair of khaki shorts, it’s my prerogative. I put my heart and soul into my work and therefore I believe that it speaks for itself,” he signs off.

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