Himalayan Designs Come to Jackson Heights

(Photo by Meral Agish/Voices of NY)

(Photo by Meral Agish/Voices of NY)

The commercial strip of Jackson Heights is a window shopper’s delight, with saris, shawls and glittering gold jewelry throughout Little India and Little Bangladesh.

But Himalayan Couture, the neighborhood’s newest boutique, doesn’t have a window display or even a window.

Just off busy 37th Street and down a flight of stairs, the boutique sits in a basement-level mini mall that also houses a travel agency, an astrologer, an internet café and a sari shop. Himalayan Couture’s bright yellow one-room shop serves double duty as showroom and dressing room – offering shoppers modern versions of traditional Nepalese and Tibetan clothing, especially the chuba, a long wrap dress.

“Since we’re a startup, we wanted to go very small scale but at the same time, we wanted to be central in Jackson Heights,” said Tshering Dolkar, one of Himalayan Couture’s co-owners. “It took us a long time to find the right space.”

Dolkar and her business partner, Tshering Palki, share a first name and an interest in bringing their cultural traditions into the 21st century. They met in Nepal but became friends after reconnecting through the immigrant community in Queens.

Like many young Nepalese, Palki and Dolkar left home to pursue better job opportunities abroad. Palki, 36, trained in fashion in Nepal and New York and is responsible for the design and production of the garments. Dolkar, 34, earned her MBA in Nepal and manages business and marketing for the boutique.

The two women particularly wanted to update the chuba, once an everyday garment now more typically worn for special occasions.

Palki and Dolkar said they were inspired to redesign the chuba for a simple reason: the dress can be uncomfortable to wear.

“You have to tie it, then arrange it. And every time you use the restroom, you have to keep arranging it. It takes like five or 10 minutes,” said Dolkar.

The challenge was to keep the traditional appearance of the chuba while improving comfort and wearability. Palki replaced intricate ties with hidden zippers and experimented with different sleeve cuts and fit.

The difference in the redesigned chuba is clear, Dolkar said. “You just zip it, you don’t need to arrange it.”

“If it’s not easy to wear, people will not wear it,” Palki said.

(Photo by Meral Agish/Voices of NY)

(Photo by Meral Agish/Voices of NY)

Himalayan Couture offers a choice of dresses and separates in a range of silk fabrics and colors. Designs start at $99 for a basic one-piece chuba, with a wide range of options available for customized fit, fabric choice and embellishment.

Though they opened their doors earlier this month, Dolkar and Palki started Himalayan Couture more than a year ago when they entered a business plan competition sponsored by the Queens Economic Development Corporation. Their plan was selected as a runner-up and they used it to kickstart the business.

The boutique is the latest entrant among shops and restaurants catering to the growing Nepalese community in Queens. The community of Nepalese-born immigrants in the United States has grown from an estimated 32,000 in 2005 to 77,000 in 2010, according to the American Community Survey.

It is a markedly young group of immigrants, with the median age shifting from 31 to 29 in the same survey period. The NYC population in 2010 was about 5,700, according to the Asian American Federation.

Dolkar and Palki said they hope younger immigrants, who tend to be more interested in fashion and trends, will buy the new chuba and other designs.

Getting those buyers accustomed to the concept – and cost – of couture design will be a challenge. For customers accustomed to the cheaper labor and material costs of clothing made in Nepal or China, the higher price tags have raised some eyebrows.

“There are so many costs involved here, people aren’t aware of it,” Palki said, citing the difference in labor costs. It may cost $5 to make a chuba in Nepal, Palki said. The labor for the same item may cost $45 in New York. “When they walk in, they always compare the price and ask, ‘Why should I pay this?’” Palki said. “We have to tell them that we select the best of the best fabrics, we’re doing the research and experimenting with design.”

Dolkar said she hoped their innovation and design expertise will eventually catch on.

For now, she and her partner are patient.

“This is the first designer chuba,” she said. “It’s a new concept, we’re not just selling a dress.”

Meral Agish is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter.

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