2317 W. Devon Ave.; 773-764-9501
Years before movies like Monsoon Wedding, Bride and Prejudice, and Slumdog Millionaire embedded Bollywood-style fashion in our frontal lobes, this tiny boutique was a pioneer, importing top South Asian designers to the United States and filling a niche many of us wouldn’t be aware of for years. But in the decades after moving to Chicago from Hyderabad in 1969, Zainab Ekbal, an architect and interior designer, became so appalled by the clothing selection on Devon that she took matters into her own hands. “I saw such rubbish hanging in the stores. The quality was terrible, so I started having designer trunk shows in my home during the 1980s, selling to friends. Everyone just loved it.”
Her brother-in-law, the renowned cricketer Asif Iqbal, had an inside track on the emerging crop of subcontinental couture designers (then only a handful), and Ekbal brought them samples of high-quality tailoring as a guideline. “After living in the U.S. and England, my clients and I expected a kind of workmanship that just wasn’t yet available in India and Pakistan,” she says. “I’d give the suppliers examples to learn from and then would bring back from them whatever styles I felt bridged Eastern and Western tastes.”
Named after a word that means “secret” in both Hindi and Urdu, Raaz opened in 1988 to much fanfare. Today, even with dozens of designer collections popping up daily on runways in Mumbai and Delhi, the boutique has stayed highly selective under the care of Ekbal’s daughter-in-law, Ghazala. Ask to see the sumptuous confections by Azeem Khan, Rabani & Rakha, or Rohit Bal and prepare to drool: The embellished evening dresses and long skirts (called lengas) made by these artists would be elegant choices for any gala or charity ball. And make sure to sign up for one of the gem shows the shop regularly hosts for celebrity jewelers when they breeze through town.
Sure, there are glitzier stores on Devon, many with larger selections and cheaper knockoffs, but Raaz is the Neiman’s to everyone else’s Macy’s. Indian fashion just doesn’t get any better than this.
My Niketan [SARIS]
2544 W. Devon Ave.; 773-338-9399
Nari Nagrani first started on Devon as a salesman in 1972 and now owns a store featuring nothing but one-of-a-kind saris. He keeps up on the trends, including the latest craze for brocade and vintage-inspired creations.
ISP (India Sari Palace) [SHAWLS, TUNICS]
2534 W. Devon Ave.; 773-338-2127
One of the first clothing stores on Devon, ISP is my favorite place for inexpensive casualwear, particularly tunics or kurtis to don with pants or as cover-ups (appropriated, at ten times the price, by Tory Burch). At ISP, where the staff is wildly friendly, you’ll also discover the best selection of shawls and scarfs, whether in silk, soft wool, or pashmina. Choose from embroidered, tie-dyed, or plain, most for well under $40. It has nice fabrics, too, and I’ve made curtains from ISP saris.
Uma Sarees [KIDS’ CLOTHES]
2535 W. Devon Ave.; 773-338-5603
Another of my personal faves, thanks to the wonderful selection of children’s clothes, from baby through teen sizes. Uma Sarees sells a wide range of traditional styles, useful for your budding Bollywood star or the next school costume bash.
Chandni Exclusive [MENSWEAR]
2419 W. Devon Ave.; 773-973-6000
In South Asia, men really rock the party clothes. Our cookie-cutter tuxedos are positively drab by comparison. Chandni has a fantastic selection of sherwanis, long-line Nehru jackets in various colors, embroidered and embellished for special events. Add a turban to make your date swoon, or settle for one of the stylish soft cotton kurtas to wear over jeans.
BANGLES AND BINDIS
2614 W. Devon Ave.; 773-465-1900
Bangle shops abound in India, where the varieties are endless and, before weddings, the bangle wallah is brought home to match colors to outfits. Sahiba is your bangle wallah in Chicago. Dive past the clothes, turbans, evening bags, and jewelry counters to the back corner, and behold: the Wall of a Billion Bangles! Sahiba has more than anyone on Devon, in an unimaginable array of colors and styles, with the traditional glass ornaments largely replaced by plastic and metal. There’s a major bang-to-buck ratio with these puppies: Plastic-wrapped sets of two dozen bangles start at about $20, and you can split the packs to create a personal mix that goes all the way up to your elbow.
Sahiba also has an astonishing selection of self-adhesive bindis (from the Sanskrit word meaning “a drop or small particle”) seen on many a female South Asian forehead. In the past they were used to broadcast marital status, but these days they’re mainly decorative, ranging from simple red dots to glitzy rhinestone accretions, which, in my rare Martha Stewart moments, I deploy to spiff up stationery, invitations, and place cards. Hello, unique hostess gift! They’re $5 a pack.
Be advised: Sahiba, like some other stores on Devon, practices the hard sell, so prepare to be emphatically “helped” by someone and encouraged to buy, buy, buy. Relax—there’s no obligation, and every move you make toward the door will result in ever-lower prices.
2625 W. Devon Ave.; 773-262-4377
This family-run business specializes in traditional, richly toned 22-karat gold jewelry, elaborate necklaces, and earrings and bangles for brides. All pieces priced by weight.
DEVOTIONAL GEAR AND HOUSEWARES
Patel Bros. Handicrafts & Utensils
2600A W. Devon Ave.; 773-764-2222
You never know when you might need a flower garland or two. Or a Shiva key chain. Or a chapati press, an enameled letterbox, handmade paper envelopes . . . At Patel Handicrafts, the thrill of the find is half the fun, like visiting a miniature version of India’s famous government craft emporiums.
The 35-year-old owner, Susan Patel, is not only one of Devon’s youngest proprietors but also a denizen of Patel Land, surrounded by businesses run by members of her prominent family: a café (Patel’s), a restaurant (Annapurna), a clothing emporium (Sahil), a food market (Patel Brothers), and a travel agency (Air Tours). But the Skokie-born second-generation entrepreneur was hardly gung ho to assume the dynastic commercial mantle, one that dates to a market opened on Devon by her father and uncle in 1974, a time when Indians were still schlepping spices to Chicago in airline baggage. Instead, Patel worked nearby at the Indo-American Center and only slowly accepted her calling.
Three years ago, she finally jumped in when she bought out the store owned by her father and uncle, hoping to implement a new vision. “I wanted to elevate it, make it more boutique-style, with dark wood and fewer, more select items,” she says, surrounded by boxes filled with rakhis—thread bracelets given by sisters to brothers during a special Hindu ritual.
“But it was a disaster! Customers [wondered] if I’d run out of money and couldn’t afford to stock the shelves. They missed that feeling of the Indian bazaar, where you can get lost among the products. My employees began stuffing the walls and shelves with merchandise, telling me, ‘It sells like this!’ So now I have, like, 50 Ganeshes to choose from and every ceremonial item you’d need from birth to marriage to death.”
Undeterred by her failed attempt to update, Patel now sees herself as a cultural ambassador of sorts, patiently answering questions about the objects on display. For instance, is it sacrilegious to use the sparkly puja offering trays as breadbaskets? “Oh, that’s no problem,” she replies. “Just don’t use one of the altars as a jewelry box or something.”
BOOKS AND BOLLYWOOD
India Book House/Atlantic Video
2551 W. Devon Ave.; 773-338-3600
You can spend hours in this oasis of high and low culture, with its hundreds of movie titles, CDs of every type of South Asian music, dozens of magazines and newspapers in nearly as many languages (including Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati, and Telugu), and shelves full of books on history, alternative medicine, astrology, yoga, and religion, plus a delightfully large children’s section (perfect for boning up on the Ramayana or the life of Gandhi). You’ll find me in a corner, perusing gossip mags with photos of my favorite movie stars.
The owner, Mahesh Sharma, arrived in Chicago from Delhi in 1993 and, with a $500 stake, opened a small Indian-Pakistani newsstand. Eventually, he expanded into movies and music and then combined the businesses. Today Atlantic Video is the sole Midwest distributor for any South Asian or Bollywood title. Sadly, free Internet download sites and piracy have drastically eaten into Sharma’s business; to offset the losses, he’s recently started selling Indian crafts and bronze statues. But there’s always a heaping treasure-filled half-off table with an evolving mélange of cookbooks, novels, and volumes on architecture, jewelry, and fashion.
ANOTHER GOOD BOOKSTORE
2749 W. Devon Ave.; 773-274-2665
Check out the wide selection of books on all things Islamic—in English, Arabic, and many other languages. You’ll also find great gifts, kids’ books, videos, and clothing, including caps, socks, headscarfs, and embroidered robes.
PILLOWS, TEXTILES, AND MORE
2540 W. Devon Ave.; 773-764-9692
Commercial display on Devon is an oxymoron: The approach in many stores is to jumble everything together in a sort of stew that might include electronics and eveningwear, rice cookers and statuary. This is enchanting to some but confounding to others. And while Resham’s does sell a variety of goods, the selection is so orderly as to seem nearly fussy by comparison.
Ramesh and Huma Mahtani opened the store in 1986 after moving to Chicago from India a decade earlier, and they gradually made quality textiles the focus. Upon walking through the doors into an incense-perfumed interior with hundreds of pillow covers, embroidered table runners, and decorative toran hangings, which enhance the doors and windows of northern India, you will be transported. Brocade sari borders are tucked away in corners, along with a small selection of furniture and artwork prized by Resham’s design-minded clients.
Ramesh is the display mastermind behind this unusual store.
He can often be found on top of a ladder, filling in empty postsale areas to make sure customers can see everything. “I even use the ceiling for display,” explains the fourth-generation merchant, who helped his grandparents in their store while growing up in Chennai. “This is how I remember them doing it, and now it’s in my blood.”
One of my favorite items at Resham’s is the inexpensive lac jewelry, originally from Jaipur. These handmade pieces of colorful enamel over wax, studded with faux gems and pearls, are a bargain overlooked by many. And a sign stating “Prices Are Fixed” is a relief after the haggling in some other stores. “I’ve always hated it when I shop in India and you’re followed all over the store, being hounded to buy, and you have no idea what anything actually costs!” sniffs Huma.
“I wouldn’t dream of imposing that on our clients here.”