It is not uncommon for the name Roop Darshan to come to mind when women in Auckland talk about Indian fashion.
From Navsari to Nausori and now to Auckland – it has been a long, and successful, journey for the pioneers of Roop Darshan, Auckland’s leading Indian fashion house.
Established in Auckland for the past 16 years, the “soul of Indian fashion” is steeped in history going back almost four generations – starting in the vast Navsari City in Gujarat, India, to Nausori, a small town 20 minutes’ drive from the capital Suva, in the Fiji Islands.
From modest beginnings at its current premises in White Swan Rd in Auckland, Roop Darshan not too long ago opened another shop in Papatoetoe, and has spread its wings across the Tasman in Sydney, Australia.
From a couple of staff at their small store in Auckland, the fashion icon now employs more than 30 staff in the thriving business that has a multi-million dollar annual turnover.
But, as the people behind the success tell, all was not so plain sailing 64 years ago.
In the beginning, there was Harkisan Damodar, who arrived in Fiji in 1947 from Navsari, Gujarat, to Fiji.
India was on the verge of Independence from Great Britain and Indians in Fiji had not too long ago finished serving their “slavery” of the indentured labour system, better known in the Pacific nation as “Girmit”.
A tailor by trade, Harkisan Damodar set up a small tailoring business in Lautoka, in western Fiji, operating under the banner “F S Solanki”. A year later, he was joined in the fledgling business by his 21-year-old son, Manilal Harkisan.
Father and son burned the candle at both ends trying to make a living and things were just beginning to look good when fate took an unexpected turn.
Harkisan Damodar died suddenly in 1951 and the young Manilal Harkisan closed shop in Lautoka and spent a couple of lonely years working in Suva before heading to Nausori to set up another tailoring shop – thus “Manilal & Sons” was born in 1953.
Manilal Harkisan, now aged 83, and living in Auckland, has fond memories of his beginnings in the main street of Nausori town.
“Things were a lot different those days,” Manilal Harkisan told the Indian Weekender this week.
“We paid about 25 pounds rent a month; everyone else was paying 15 pounds – that’s quite unbelievable compared to now,” he chuckles.
“In India, 60 rupees was the wages for a whole month in those days.”
The Roop Darshan patriarch said life in Fiji in those days was “peaceful”.
“Fiji, under British rule, was quite good, and things were also very good when Ratu Mara was Prime Minister of Fiji, but the coups destroyed the peace of the beautiful country,” Manilal Harkisan said.
“Auckland is also very nice, and with the grace of God, we have succeeded here and hope all is well for the future, too.”
When Mahesh Kumar, the younger of Manilal Harkisan’s two sons, turned 17, he joined the business and Manilal & Sons stepped into the world of Indian fashion.
The young and dynamic Mahesh, who currently oversees the Roop Darshan Auckland operations, injected vitality and a new vision to Manilal & Sons and nurtured it into a bustling and popular fashion store – turning it into a household name in Fiji.
After the coups and political instability in Fiji, Mahesh then moved to New Zealand in 1998 to manage the White Swan Rd shop which had been started a few years earlier by his older brother, Vraj Lal, who now heads the family business in Sydney.
The White Swan Rd store, when it first opened, occupied just one shop space. Today, it has taken over the neighbouring four premises. More space means better display and more stock and variety.
Today, Mahesh is a content man having tackled competition in the market and winning.
“We have provided good service and quality products to our customers, so we have a loyal base which keeps growing.”
Success meant expansion and January 2009 saw them opening their second Auckland store in Papatoetoe.
Mahesh has three children – Saagar, 25, Deepal, 24, and Gavin, 21.
Enter Saagar Kumar, the University of Auckland graduate who has joined the business as Business Manager with BCom and International Business qualifications under his belt.
Young Saagar still remembers the days when as a youngster he used to accompany his Dad, Mahesh to the Auckland Airport to collect cargo.
“It was 1998 and we had a smaller shop at that time and very few staff, so dad and I had to go to the airport ourselves to pick the cargo, unpack it in the evenings and price items so they are ready to sell the following day.
“We were involved in everything, but it was good as I learned a lot along the way.”
Saagar, who has visions of enhancing the quality of goods available to customers, attributes their success to keeping a step ahead of the competition.
“Although it is a combination of factors, I would say the most important factor is that we launch the latest fashion first” Saagar told the Indian Weekender.
“With the advent of TV stations like Star Plus, customers are more aware of the fashion trends.”
Saagar said he had noticed that women were a lot more fashion conscious now, thus giving rise to more custom-made items.
“We already do that to a certain extent, but demand is growing.”
Saagar said that one significant point of difference Roop Darshan had with other fashion shops was the fact that “we develop a lot of our own products in India”.
“Dad and I make at frequent trips to India to meet suppliers and develop new products.”
Saagar also attributes the dedication of employees to the success of the business over the years.
Nileshni and Sunila were both employed at Manilal & Sons in Nausori and when they migrated to Auckland, and joined Roop Darshan.
Saagar paid tribute to the efforts of his grandfather and his dad to for the steady growth the business had enjoyed over the past decade, and he was eager to stamp his mark and take it to the next level.
Retailers of fashion Indian wear and Jewellery
Locations: 1 White Swan Rd, Mt Roskill, Auckland. Ph, 09 626 2922.
221 Great South Rd, Papatoetoe, Auckland. Ph 09 277 2922.