Lehengas, embroidered and pleated long skirts, are serious business in Chandni Chowk, a busy Mughal-era market whose name means “moonlit square”. Despite numerous boutiques and malls opening across New Delhi, the old wedding market has kept its charm, its customers and its business.

“If I have a design in my mind I can get it tailor-made, custom-make any designer, whatever it is, I can get that replica made. It might not be an original of Sabyasachi or one of the fancy designers, but it’s very close, you can easily pull it off as one of those designer pieces,” said Reena Bhardwaj, a 29-year-old journalist who recently bought a lehenga priced at 50,000 rupees (about $800) to attend a wedding.

Chandni Chowk was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara Begum, in 1650. Lined with ancient crumbling havelis, chaat stalls, and cramped shops full of bangles, saris, invitation cards and more, the market is a hub for all things matrimonial.

But the market isn’t the glorious place that it used to be. Visitors often find it chaotic, noisy and tiresome, full of touts and agents trying to sell things.

At Mehar Sarees on Nai Sarak, the day has just begun, but there are three would-be brides trying on lehengas while an attendant helps the fourth with a sari. Owner Gurmehar Singh is busy haggling with a customer, handling orders and displaying designs on his iPad. Singh’s family has been in the business for decades, working in a half-concealed shop tucked away in a nondescript building on a tiny lane.

“The market changes every two years, the trend changes. For example, two years back we were selling Swarovski-studded lehengas and saris. Right now that is out. What is in is antique work. Another six to eight months, trends would change again,” Singh said.

Lehenga-making is a carefully orchestrated process. After the design is sketched, it is embroidered in parts by artisans in Delhi and cities such as Kolkata or Lucknow. To curb piracy, the lehenga is put together in workshops and the artisans who worked on it don’t see the final product. Finishing a customized lehenga can take up to three months.

India’s middle and upper classes, with growing wealth and disposable incomes, fuelled the market’s growth over the years, although things have changed in some ways. Merchants said three in 10 modern-day brides are unable to drape a sari, but are ready to spend more than ever. The wedding lehenga has doubled in price in two years, and costs about 50,000 rupees (about USD 800) on average in Chandni Chowk.

"It is difficult for us. Twenty years ago, there were hardly 10 to 15 players in the market. Today there are no less than 2,000 to 3,000 players in the market. So here, you have to be different and at the same time, you have to be price competitive,” said Ayush Gupta of Apsara Sarees in Chandni Chowk.

“Now brides are more inclined towards western culture so they want to wear a gown at the wedding, but plain European gowns won’t work. There has to be some kind of Indian work on it. That kind of western fusion gowns are very in these days,” said Gupta, who helps run his 40-year-old family business.

The wedding market in India is a USD 30 billion industry, growing at 15 to 20 percent annually, according to matrimonial website shaadi.com.

The biggest advantage for customers in Chandni Chowk is their bargaining power. Shopkeepers here are well-versed in the art of negotiation and Indians living abroad often fly to New Delhi for trousseau shopping at Chandni Chowk.

“The malls go by their price tag, they can’t manipulate, but here in Chandni Chowk, it is a sure-shot buyer who is coming in and will definitely buy … you can manipulate and bargain and they get their business done,” said Bhardwaj.

Buyers also can buy fabric and materials and get their own tailor to put the lehenga together.

Most designers, meanwhile, source their fabrics and get embroidery done in the market, but complain that their work gets copied.

“Technology is so advanced that before we have finished the fashion week, our couture and bridal week, the designs are out on television or on the internet,” said Leena of designer duo Ashima-Leena.


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