The moment I walked into the Kaur Couture store I was connected; this collection is so very me. Looking at the traditional Punjabi suits that Bir Kaur Dhillon (owner and designer) displays in her store, it’s obvious that her ideal client is a Punjaban at heart, or someone who appreciates Punjabi craftsmanship – like gota patti and phulkari work. I’ve been following Kaur Couture on Facebook since last year, and have exchanged correspondence with Bir a few times about doing a profile, but nothing ever came together. I could say it was because Bir and I are both busy moms balancing work, life, kids, etc., but I think it was more than that – we needed to come together for a reason bigger than just a designer profile.
The bigger reason; fashion for a cause, fashion with a purpose. The traditional Punjaban in me was always drawn to the name Kaur Couture, but recently I stumbled onto another part of Bir’s story, her efforts to ‘Save Qila Mubarak’. Qila Mubarak (located in Patiala, Punjab) was a fortress built in 1763 and is a rare and outstanding example of Sikh Palace architecture in India. Just outside the Qila is Patiala’s famous Phulkari market, which provides inspiration for so many of Bir’s traditional designs. (Phulkari is a form of embroidery native to Punjab). Unfortunately, the Qila is in serious disrepair and no government agency has stepped up to take care of this building, in fact, it hasn’t even received the status of historical monument yet. Bir has made it her personal cause though, and has started by conducting a photo shoot at the Qila, creating a Facebook page, and is even considering organizing a charity run to collect funds, and bring visibility to the cause. She is very humble about her efforts, but as I reminded her during our chat, every great movement begins with a few a little steps.
Before I met her, I was sure that Bir must have been connected to Qila Mubarak because of her upbringing in India, I was wrong. Although she immigrated to Canada years ago, Bir grew up outside of Punjab, and spent much of her life attending westernized schools. Her struggle is very much the same as mine – raising her kids in a western society, and trying to teach them to embrace their heritage and speak the native language. She told me how Kaur Couture was originally created for “selfish reasons,” she was “missing India, didn’t want to work for someone else, wanted to set her own working hours, and didn’t want to wear ‘gora clothes’ every day.” This business was a way to control her lifestyle and do what she loved; now it’s the perfect balance as a mother. She works limited hours each day, and quite often her boys are with her at the store after school, she’s a full-time mom and entrepreneur.
As a designer her aesthetic is clear; she is connected to Punjab and so are her clothes. Patiala salwars, phulkari duppatas, sheesha work and gota patti (in limited quantities) are the highlight. Nothing about her line screams Bollywood or bling, yet she has a steady stream of clientele – some of whom have been with her for the entire 10 years she has been in business. I think Bir’s designs speak to part of all of us that is struggling to hold onto our traditions and culture while balancing our lives in the western world. Having worked in retail and studied fashion marketing, she was able to create a clear business concept; I also think it helps that Bir truly is her ideal client; the modern Punjaban.
Visiting the Kaur Couture store reminded me of so many stories from my childhood. My mom recounting her hours spent practicing embroidery, my grandma telling me about her prized ‘saggi phull’ (gold hair ornaments) that were lost during the partition, and memories of my first Punjabi suit that Mom sewed for me. It had a multi-coloured salwar and matching vest with a gold tissue kameez, and I felt like a princess every time I wore it. That is what fashion with a purpose can do; connect you with your inner identity like it did for me, or connect you with a cause so much bigger than you like it did for Bir with Qila Mubarak.