The members of an Indian-American family stream through the door and smile politely before the women in the group get down to the serious business at hand – shopping for wedding attire. The aunts and mother of the bride-to-be lead the way, browsing racks of crepe, silk and net hand-embroidered lehenga choli, ensembles comprised of floor-length skirts, draping shawls and blouses – some belly-baring and others in tunic or halter styles.
“Do you like this kind of color?” Rupal Patel, a long-time store associate, cheerfully asks as she and manager Rekha Panchal spread out elaborately patterned chiffon saris in shades of sea green with purple borders and lehenga skirts of aqua and deep blue. “We can make to order.”
The Vulcal Boutique is one of about a dozen Indian fashion emporiums in Orlando catering to Central Florida’s booming Indian-American population. At Vulcal, everything is hand-stitched and hand-embroidered in India based on the artistic designs and sketches of owner Amita Patel.
Patel (no relation to Rupal Patel), opened Vulcal in 1984 in Vadodara, India, after obtaining her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Baroda. A lover of painting and sketching since childhood – when she was 12, one of her paintings was chosen in a UNICEF-sponsored competition to appear on an Indian stamp – Amita Patel found an outlet for her artistic talents in dress design after she married and started a family.
With many of her clients moving to the United States, Patel decided to follow. The Vulcal store in Orlando – established in 2002 – is her only U.S.-based boutique, but Patel sees longtime clients and finds new ones while traveling to trade shows around the country and the world. She takes their custom orders with her back to India, where she visits her employees for several months out of the year. Patel gives them her instructions and patterns, from which they hand-weave, embroider and bead everything from bridal lehenga cholis to festival-appropriate chaniya cholis to everyday or formal saris, designer blouses, kurti shirts and salwar kameez pants-and-tunic outfits.
The Orlando boutique draws non-Indian shoppers, as well – like the nurse browsing for comfortable and beautiful kurti shirts to wear to work. Shoppers come from all over the state, like the Tampa-area family shopping for wedding clothes.
“It wouldn’t match with my jewelry,” says bride-to-be Vinitha Nareddy, 27, to her female relatives, about one of the suggested ensembles. Meanwhile, the men in the family stand back against the counter, attention focused on the screens of their smart phones.
“Do you like that?” Nareddy asks her fiancé, 29-year-old Michael Smith, who leans forward, looks down at the pages of the store’s catalog and nods.
“Yeah, that looks good,” he says.
“That could be pretty,” she says stopping on one page to admire several outfits before continuing on through the catalog and then walking to the back of the store with employees and her relatives to look at more samples.
Smith and Nareddy plan to marry in June at a church wedding, she says, but the family is shopping for traditional Indian outfits for Nareddy to wear during pre-wedding ceremonies and at the reception.
Undecided on colors and patterns, they later file back out the door to leave, while the American nurse has her own decisions to make.
“I shouldn’t have come in here,” jokes Cindy Robesky, holding up several possible selections of kurti tops, including one that’s burnt orange with gold bordering. “These are gorgeous.”
Rupal Patel good-naturedly tells her to try them all on. She has been with Amita Patel since the opening of the store in India in 1984 and watched as her friend built relationships with with customers. Successive generations of shoppers return to Amita Patel for family weddings, important milestones and special occasions for which beautiful clothes are essential. Many orders are made over the phone, and shipments sent directly to the customer’s house within a few weeks. Clothes can range in price from around $100 or so to several thousand dollars.
“We have customers from toddlers to 70 and 80 year olds,” Rupal Patel says. “She talks with everyone. What you want, she knows very well.”
“She makes sure the details are perfect,” says Amita’s son, Aditya Patel, 26, a web project manager for the hospitality industry who grew up around his mother’s business.
By now Robesky is finished trying on the kurti tops and has made her choice – two kurtis, one of a black-and-white design with maroon and gold bordering, and the other maroon and white with a leaf motif.
“This is so much more fun than the mall!” she says.