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For rent: Six yards
A Kanjeevaram to an ice hockey game? A blue chiffon to the prom? Why not, ask these unique sari entrepreneurs who are offering the outfit for hire across the US and UK. And if you need a hand with the pallav and the pleats, there are saristas to help
Picture this: You walk into a family wedding, feeling priceless in your uber expensive diamanteencrusted turquoise sari you are wearing. A distant cousin surveys you head to toe and comments : "Lovely sari. . . Isn't this the one you wore to Rita masi's 25th anniversary, too? I saw the photos on FB. " There is little need to say your night is ruined and you want to bury yourself in the six yards.
Now, one can make sure this never happens.
Several young desis, mostly B-school graduates, in the US have turned the perennial wardrobe crisis into a business opportunity and started sari rental services so one can wear a different sari to every occasion without spending a fortune. With this, the traditional Indian ensemble, which used to be bought and passed down the generations, has become the latest offering in a world where everything from evening gowns to toys is available for short-term use.
Around half a dozen hire-a-sari services have been launched in the US in the past year and one has been set up in the UK. They are already a hit with Indians living there. Sari Closet, which was set up in May 2011, gets 60 to 80 orders for its saris every month. Borrow it Bindaas and Luxemi, two other rental services in the US, too say that they have been inundated with orders.
Considering the sky-rocketing prices of saris - a dressy drape could cost you anywhere between $300 and $500 in the US - the prospect of getting something nice to wear for a quarter of the cost is obviously attractive. Sari Closet charges a standard $79 dollars for any of its 140-plus saris and others charge anywhere between $45 and $200 per piece depending on the retail price.
"Indians in the US need saris for at least 10-15 occasions every year but most of us travel to India only once in three-four years and if you don't live in Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, you don't have many options, " says Swathi Narra, 31, a licensed attorney and co-founder of Luxemi which was launched in May 2011.
All the sari rental companies were born out of the struggles of their own desi owners in finding nice saris and avoiding the faux pas of repeating the same ones. Having grown up in small towns in Louisiana, Narra and her partner Swapna Chandamuri, a MBA from Northwestern University, had little access to Indian clothing. The friends therefore teamed up to start the sari rental service.
Nisha Patel, a graduate of UCLA's Anderson School of Management, and her classmates Sreesha Vaman and Patrick Gengoux, had conceptualised a sari rental business plan for a class project and later turned it into the Sari Closet. BIB was started by 25-year-old twins, Riddhi and Siddhi Khara, who are currently pursuing MBA at University of California, and HireASari in UK is the brainchild of Rupinder Nanuwa, a 26-year-old with a degree in marketing management from Manchester University's B-school.
The process of renting a sari is simple: Select a sari from the collection showcased online, enter the date of the event, make the payment and you are almost done. If you don't have a blouse, you can also select one from the options provided. Also on offer are matching clutches, earrings or bindis to go with the sari. The sari, which is guaranteed to be in good condition and dry cleaned, reaches the client's home a day or two before the event along with the blouse and petticoat. The companies throw in attractive freebies too, be it a matching bindi, a sari bag or a pack of safety pins. One can keep the sari for four to ten days depending on the agreement and then courier it back in the pre-paid envelope which is provided.
While elders may frown upon the idea of wearing a used sari, young women are all for it. Anu Nayyer, a nurse in Redwood City, California, hired a sari from the Sari Closet last July to wear to a friend's wedding which was planned at the last minute. She already had an enviable collection of 30 saris in her wardrobe, but had worn each one of them several times. "I was also done with borrowing saris from cousins and aunts. It is too embarrassing, " says the 28-year-old.
Nayyer ordered a fushcia pink net sari and purchased a metallic blouse for just $20 dollars from the company's collection. "I always wanted to try a net sari but didn't have one. I also cut off the sleeves of the blouse and loved the final look, " she says.
While weddings drive the demand for sari rental, companies also get orders from women who wish to drape six yards to black-tie events, formal office parties, cultural shows and New Years Eve parties.
Sari Closet refuses to pin the outfit down to tradition. If a sari is good enough for a wedding, it should be good enough for an ice hockey game. Its special 'Sari n Skates' guide helps you pick the right colour to cheer your favourite team - an aqua blue sari if you are rooting for the San Jose sharks, for example. "A lot of our customers are ice hockey fans. When they call us because they are unable to pick a sari, we sometimes ask them to base their choice on the team and they love the idea, " says Sreesha Vaman.
Many Indian-American brides these days also like having bridesmaids wearing matching saris like their Western peers even if they have a traditional wedding ceremony. Sari Closet is planning to launch a special collection of saris for bridesmaids. Borrow it Bindaas is also helping organise special sari-themed bridal showers. "We have received orders from some brides-to-be who have a 'sari party' for their bridal shower, " says Siddhi Khara.
Ironically, young women in India are slipping into daring dresses, not saris, for bridal showers and bachelorette parties. And, even when they do wear the sari, it's a sexier avatar of the outfit, with sheer fabrics, super-slim pallavs and halter neck blouses. But in US the demand for traditional saris is as high as that of the contemporary versions. "Women here still like to be a bit more conservative and elegant when it comes to the saree, " says Khara.
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