Maithili Ahluwalia's Bungalow Eight readies for a curtain call
Founder-curator-nurturer of one of the city's most unique design stores, Maithili Ahluwalia discusses the finish minus finality
It's never easy to say goodbye. As the retail chapter of Bungalow Eight, a concept store that integrated clothing and accessories by indie and established names along with the in-house label, the BUNGALOW, draws to an end, there is a tinge of melancholy you experience.
Since its launch in February 2003, the store was less brick and mortar enterprise, and more creative marketplace for consistently cool designs curated by founder Maithili Ahluwalia. "I felt the store had begun to fall between two stools. It had outgrown being a one-store operation, and the next step of scaling up would probably have eroded its very soul. Personalised, curated, intimate, exacting and independent stores of a certain size have their limits," she says about the decision to fold up.
11.11/eleven eleven, spring/summer 2018 exclusive for Bungalow Eight
Within the city's crowded fashion boutique scene and the rushed business of selling products, Ahluwalia's sanctuary defined what a concept store was, and offered moments of calm and reflection as a customer perused and purchased.
In 2002, the merchandising model in Mumbai was overtly ethnic, occasionally spilling over to Indo-Western lingua franca. Colour and embellishment were de rigueur. "There wasn't a design pool that had an Indian global aesthetic and the overall retail experience was pretty stagnant. So much has changed since then and I do think that Bungalow Eight had some role to play in this," she says in, "all modesty".
Bungalow Eight's founder-curator Maithili Ahluwalia
The store's nudge and wink to many Indias endured as it travelled from its 8, Carmichael Road address, operating out of the house help quarter's adjacent to the Ahluwalia family bungalow to a converted space between the bleachers at Wankhede Stadium in Churchgate. A brief stint at Colaba later, the store resumed operations in 2014 at Wankhede, its interiors defined by the iron-fronted Art Deco entrance opening to 2,250 square feet of space sanctified with a high-angled ceiling, clean lines, natural sunlight, and dressed in a rejigged tagline - Unexpected India. "It has a personality, and you can either match it or not," Ahluwalia had once said about the concept store. She isn't very far from discussing her own persona.
Among the sorority of designers, Ahluwalia's reputation of being openly intellectual in her scrutiny is parallel to reverence. On more than one occasion, she has spoken about the changing role of a retailer; taking on the job of part-mentor, part-curator, part-strategist to dressmakers. "It wasn't a conscious decision to intellectualise. For me, having the best product was the only criterion," she says. The big challenge today for a retailer, she thinks, is what the value add they are offering, and how does one protect it. "Retail, for me, has never been mere distribution. It is about offering what is unique. But today, with the pressure of social media, we are sharing our work in real time and helping create copycats and clones. It is a tough balancing act."
As Ahluwalia readies for a curtain call, she already has a plot for the next phase. "I'd like Bungalow Eight to be a fashion and retail incubator and consultancy that plays curator, editor and mentor, aiding in product development, brand building, creative direction and international expansion. This could be offered to designers, retailers and corporates in and outside India. To me, this feels like the obvious next step."
And the last thing on her mind is the sobbing tale of vertiginous legacy. "Legacy suggests an air of finality. For me, this is simply the end of the retail chapter. I hope that people will remember the store as a space that was unafraid to take risk, original, constantly surprising, and most importantly made them feel proud to be and buy Indian."
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