Free Press Journal

High-end shopping, heritage style

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Ismail Building that has the Zara Store. pic by: architect Mona Sanghvi

Horniman Circle, along with its cousins Flora Fountain and Kala Ghoda, is fast becoming a fashion hub for the well-heeled. Monisha Pratap-Shah on the heritage structures that are now strong addresses of niche fashion brands.

Walk down the street, take a deep breath, inhale the quintessential vintage air and just feel the senses transport you to the old age charm –  all at Horniman circle or ‘point zero’, the spot from where distances in Mumbai are measured. There’s an interesting history on the evolution of this expanse with the British Palladian or Italian Gothic style buildings all around it. In the 1860s, a muddy dump in the heart of South Mumbai was cultivated into a lush green patch. This circle of gardens with a fountain in the centre was called Bombay Green. It was as if the layout, that was modeled on the lines of London’s Park Crescent and integrated the huge banyan tree, was crafted to establish a premium zone. Banks and insurance companies, and all those who could afford to pay the price, established their offices here. Lawyers, High Courts and Indian Press also found their voice here.  A very crisp businesslike air dominated the circle and at the end of each day as the offices shut, a grey slumber set in. As the commercial buzz silenced, the zone seemed to have cozied up in a sleepy blanket.

But then, a lot more was in store for the Horniman Circle in an ever altering Mumbai city. Winds of change set in with high-end stores setting up shop in the zone.The much needed glamour shot arrived with Ensemble, the first luxury multi designer store, as early as 1987. The boom and bust of Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and the austere legal air now rubbed shoulders with style and sophistication.  The arrival of Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the dream spinner, fuelled Horniman Circle’s fashion journey. With his must-have trousseau for every bride, he was like a magnet that attracted a whole new section of society – a swarm of rich brides-to-be in swanky cars. Gradually, it became obvious that the upper crust had arrived in the area, grabbing the limelight from the sea of regulars. The sleepy heritage buildings increasingly woke up to the glitz of the fashion world and the click of the well-heeled of South Mumbai. Soon, restaurants and cafés sprung up, supporting the transition. High-end designers like Gaurav Gupta and Ritu Kumar, and luxury jewelers like Nirav Modi also joined the league.


It is common in most international cities to have a downtown center and heritage area lined with luxury shopping, cafes and restaurants. The Horniman Circle fitted the bill. It proved to be a natural choice for the ultra-luxury store, Hermes, to establish its presence here as Hermes itself is a brand that is identified by its strong history, exquisite craftsmanship and splendid quality. Heritage areas and high-end shopping have a long-standing distinct relationship. Besides adding intangible attribute to a brand, the heritage aura also affects the overall perceived value in the eyes of the consumer. The entire backdrop invokes trust and credibility, and intensifies loyalty. Emotions from the past enhance a brand. Endorsing the sentiment of balancing the past and present is Christian Louboutin store,standing right next to Hermes.

The latest scene-stealer is the Zara flagship store with its overpowering beautifully refurbished façade. Arif Fazlani, the owner of the Ismail building that houses Zara – the international fashion brand, worked with Architects Mona Sanghvi and Kirti Unwalla to create this mesmerizing fascia. Arif gives full credit to his team of contractors, architects and engineers for the excellent work. “It took us a year of research to understand the ethos of the place,” says Mona, adding that change is on the cards. “There are no malls here and as per global standards, the Horniman Circle offers a perfect setting.”

A crisp business-like air dominates Horniman Circle now

Arif calls Kala Ghoda, Flora Fountain and Horniman Circle the golden triangle. Properties with a historic quotient being witness to a revival, with the influx of big brands, is a familiar story, he opines.“Brands,” he observes,“want to be in the high street and this golden triangle with its classic appeal is undoubtedly the new hotspot”.

Interior designer Sarah Sham, who refurbished The Starbucks,echoes the sentiment. “This is the time of the big switch. New offices are not opening in this defunct area. Also, most recently Deustche Bank sold its place to Cathedral School, and more lifestyle and design stores are eyeing the location”.  With banks shifting base to Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), it is likely that the area might clear out for high-end boutiques and design houses. “Things have changed post Zara opening up”, says Arif. “I have been approached by many brands who want to open in this vicinity”. Passionate about his city, Arif avers, “With a little Municipal and Government support, we can go all out and create a Madison Square-like-destination. If the traffic can be controlled and if walking zones can be made, we will see big brands queuing up to rent places in this Golden Triangle, which offers high customer spending potential”.

Originally Ballad Pier was created to be a sub-city inside Mumbai, Sarah informs. “Till date it has the best heritage ambience in town”. She recalls that the CEO of Starbucks had declared Mumbai Starbucks to be the most beautiful of all their properties all over the world.

If we go by the saying, ‘make a better future by developing the elements from the past’, then Kala Ghoda has already revived the art and culture scene that was predominant in the area and design stores are aides-mémoires of the cotton trade that took place beneath the banyan tree. Akbarallys, one of the oldest multipurpose stores, has reinvented itself to a men’s wear shop to keep in step with time. The Asiatic Library is getting its glam makeover with the newly-weds posing for photo shoots on its steps. Art is flourishing, art galleries are popping up, and the wheels have started rolling.

However, we are so close, yet so far as the jarring reality of huge crowds, little lanes jammed with bikes and the garbage dumps cannot be overlooked. The old battles will continue to exist with the new developments. The need is to work towards striking a balance between the wired world and history. Our spotlight of street luxury in the city is being created. Rumor has it that Tiffanys, Tod’s, Cartier, Harrods, H&M,Uniqlo and Ikea too are wanting to set shop here. And that will sort of complete the circle of exclusivity.