Having arrived from India much later than those who are traditionally celebrated on Indian Arrival Day, local clothing designer Charu Lochan Dass enjoys merging Indian and western fashion, creating colourful yet elegant garments for women.
Born in India, she came to Trinidad and Tobago with her mother, Satya, in 1987 at age six. Satya eventually married her father, Radhay Lochan Dass of Williamsville, who legally adopted her and gave her “the best of everything.”
Lochan Dass often visits India to see her maternal relatives as well as to purchase fabric and accessories.
“I am a Trini to the bone but there is definitely that cultural influence on my life and my work. I do Indo-western wear and those collections are a huge hit. That influence is my upbringing here as well as my cultural and family ties in India which also shaped me.”
She speaks Hindi fluently, is a Vedic Hindu and so practices hawan or havan (puja), is a huge Bollywood fan and listens to traditional Indian music.
Asked about the cultural differences between Delhi, where she is from, and TT, she noted the original Indians who came to TT were from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. And since India is such a large country, different states have cultural differences.
She said in TT, Hindus take the religion much more seriously than most of those in Delhi. For example, in Dehli, the Divali season is more like Christmas with drinking, partying and card parties where there is gambling.
She said the seasonings, spices and curries used in the food are different, even though doubles is similar to India’s chole bhature – channa masala and a fried bread.
“Even the Indian-wear that we (East Indians) wear is not the typical thing Trinidadians would wear. Our styling is different. But I merge them to create the Indo-western look. I use Indian fabric, laces, borders, handwork and such, but the cuts and the silhouettes of my garments are a bit more western. And it’s a huge hit. People love it.”
Lochan Dass said the first time she designed anything was when she was 14 or 15 years old. She had asked her mother for a table runner which she thought would look great as a waistcoat. She took it to a nearby seamstress and gave her design instructions to make it. She also recalled walking into all the fabric stores on High Street in San Fernando after attending Saturday lessons at Presentation College. She would look at and feel them and just imagine what they could become.
“I would just look at the fabrics and envision what I could make with them. Now my mind is just blown when I think about it because, at that time, it’s not like I was buying fabrics to take to seamstresses or anything like that. Everything I wore was imported clothing. It made me realise this was meant to be. I just didn’t know it then.”
After completing her A Levels at Marabella Senior Comprehensive School, Lochan Dass went to India to study for a bachelor of business administration. There, she spent a lot of time with her aunt, who owned a successful boutique. She would go fabric shopping with her aunt, help with various aspects of the business, and sketch some outfits. Her aunt saw the sketches, praised the work and suggested she study fashion design. So she took a six-month introductory course in fashion and several other short courses including mehndi, threading, aromatherapy, and bridal make up.
When she returned to TT in 2001, she worked part time in fashion retail. And since she had brought a lot of Indian clothes and jewellery back with her, when Divali came around she made it known she had items for sale. One person suggested she take a booth at the Divali Nagar, which she did. In nine nights she made six times the amount she paid for the booth. She reinvested her money and, the next year she got a bigger booth and was even more successful. In 2002 she opened her own Indian clothing and accessories store in Princes Town but eventually got a lot of competition from the Indian Trade Fair, so shifted to western styled clothing.
But she felt the need to do more. Since her passion was design, she applied and was accepted to the to study fashion design and marketing at the London College of Fashion in 2009. She returned to TT in 2011, invested her time and money into her brand, launched CLD – Charu Lochan Dass in 2013, and opened her boutique on Gallus Street, Port of Spain, in 2014. She mostly designed a lot of resort wear with a European flair because she wanted her brand to be of a global standard and international appeal. She did that strictly for three years, during which time her mother tried to convince her to include Indian clothing like kurtas and salwars but she refused.
“I would always say no because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as an Indian wear designer.”
But on one visit to India she visited a market and noticed all the fabric. She was inspired, decided to try to incorporate Indian styles into her designs which resulted in the creation of several indo-western outfits in 2016. She named it the Satya collection, after her mother, and it sold out in less than a week. She has done two more indo-western collections since then.
“I remember my mom, when she came to Trinidad, she would wear saris and salwars. Gradually I saw a change and now my mother is in a short pants every day. So I’ve seen the evolution and adaptation and used her story as my inspiration.”
That same year she married Trinidadian businessman Navin Boodhai who she said understands and accepts her mantra : Work is worship.
“The same way I worship with sincerity, the same sincerity I give to my work. So for me work comes first. I’m so blessed and lucky that I have such a supportive husband who understands that and also believes the same. When ideologies match you don’t have a problem.”
Lochan Dass said she has been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic in TT but, on May 11 she launched her new boutique at Damien Street, Woodbrook where there is a separate room called Satya room, with ready-to-wear indo-western pieces.
“I wanted to launch before Mother’s Day because the Satya room was a dedication to my mother. I think that type of connection with my mother, and the love and respect for my parents, is because of my India Indian culture and family ties in India.”
She is currently working on a new collection of indo-western styled resort wear which she will be presenting to buyers in New York in June.