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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 February 2021

Indian boutique offers wedding dresses free of charge

Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit welcomes brides from less privileged backgrounds to pick their own dress

The boutique has a separate section for brides-to-be to pick up a wedding dress of their choice at no cost. Courtesy Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit
The boutique has a separate section for brides-to-be to pick up a wedding dress of their choice at no cost. Courtesy Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit

When her cousin got engaged, Jameela wanted to do all she could to make the wedding as memorable as possible for the motherless girl. “My uncle does odd jobs and is not financially sound. In fact, none of us are, but every bride dreams about her wedding dress, and we wanted to get our girl the best one possible.”

That’s when Jameela received a forwarded message from a relative in Dubai about a boutique in India that was offering two or three wedding dresses, bangles, footwear and bedsheets, all for free.

Jasmine, who works part-time as a nurse in a private clinic, was also on the lookout for a good bridal dress for her sister. “Every saving we make on the wedding expenses could be collected and used to buy one more ornament. When we learnt about a boutique offering bridal dresses for free, we were ecstatic,” says Jasmine.

The colourful story of Rainbow: The Women's Outfit

Enter Sabitha AK, who has been running a clothing shop, Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit, from her house for the past eight years. Sabitha, 40, is part of a group of 22 women entrepreneurs in the Kannur district of Kerala, who keep in touch through social media and hold exhibitions of Indian clothing every month. The women keep aside a portion of their earnings and distribute it among the needy. Sabitha also collects bridal dress donations, and distributes them to young women in orphanages and from less-privileged families who need clothing for their wedding.

“But I always noticed that even when the girls accepted the dresses, their faces did not have that spark of happiness I expected. It struck me then that every girl dreams of choosing her own wedding dress. We take our own daughters to the best shops, but choices are limited or non-existent for girls from less-privileged homes. I wanted to help.”

Sabitha AK, who runs the boutique and its heart-warming initiative. Photo: Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit
Sabitha AK, who runs the boutique and its heart-warming initiative. Courtesy Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit

Then, during India’s Covid-19 lockdown, a friend called Sabitha with an urgent request. “She wanted a dress for a bride, but I did not have one to hand. So I turned to my WhatsApp group and sent an audio message asking if anyone had a bridal dress at home that they could donate. Within a short time, many came back with positive responses.”

This was at a time when coronavirus cases were at a peak in the southern Indian state and people couldn’t move about freely. So, Sabitha collected the dozens of dresses and took them to the bride-to-be, who could pick out a dress of her choice. “That’s when I realised that recycling bridal dresses was the optimal solution,” she says.

We have received boxes filled with expensive designerwear, unused clothing and accessories

Sabitha AK, boutique owner

She discussed the idea with her husband and her business partners, and enthused by their support, Sabitha sent out a video message one evening. When she woke up the next morning, her phone was filled with messages.

She received calls, not only from within the country but also from the UAE, Switzerland and the UK. “The response amazed me,” she says. Her phone has not stopped ringing since.

After that initial overwhelming response, Sabitha roped in like-minded people from other districts of Kerala to open outlets that work both as collection and distribution points.

Designer bridalwear on offer

Brides-to-be can access designer clothing and accessories sent over from women in India as well as the UAE, Switzerland and the UK. Photo: Mohammed Aadil Faizal
Brides-to-be can access clothing and accessories sent over from women in India as well as the UAE, Switzerland and the UK. Courtesy Mohammed Aadil Faizal

The shelves and racks in Rainbow’s mezzanine, which overlooks the living area of her house, are filled with heavily worked lehengas, gowns, dupattas, saris, costume jewellery, footwear and handbags.

“We have received boxes filled with unused clothing from shops that have folded, expensive designer wear and unused accessories. We sort and organise them and distribute to the other outlets according to need. In some places, like Kochi for example, we have more demand for dresses, which I send over from Kannur.”

Sabitha has set some rules for the dress-distribution aspect of her business. “We encourage the brides themselves to come and select the dresses because this is for them. We also ask for a letter from a religious authority or from their village or ward representative to ensure that no misuse happens.” The girls are also under no obligation to return the dresses or the accessories.

Cultural sensitivities

Since Sabitha also runs her boutique from her house, the girls who come to pick up dresses are assured anonymity. “No one knows if they are visiting my regular boutique or looking through the bridalwear section.”

As news of Sabitha’s venture spead, people from other states in India have contacted her. Swetha from Bihar read about Sabitha while she was in Kerala and reached out. “In the village where I stay, people have very little. But according to local customs, it’s unthinkable for them to take second-hand clothes. Whenever I return to the village after coming home, I take back clothes to distribute, but I have to be careful to not cause offence,” she says.

Swetha says while people’s lifestyles are frugal, their traditions are not. When girls are married, they carry many items for the groom’s family, from utensils and blankets to clothes for the extended family. Swetha works through a network of social workers and friends to identify people willing to accept donations. Connecting with Sabitha inspired her to continue her work. “The brides here need more than a dress or two. So we make a package and hand it over to the bride’s family, assuring them full privacy. For them, even a small package goes a long way.”

We make a package and hand it over to the bride’s family, assuring them privacy. For them, even a little goes a long way

Swetha, philanthropist

Sabitha has also received enquiries from Gujarat, Pune and Jharkhand, among other places. “So far, within Kerala, I have outlets in 12 of the 14 districts. The owners are people I know or have met. In case of other states, due to restrictions I cannot travel, but I hope to visit soon.”

Within six months, Sabitha’s Rainbow: The Women’s Outfit has given dresses and accessories to about 1,000 girls. Besides the accolades they’ve been receiving, Sabitha and her team members also get calls from people asking them why they cannot distribute new dresses, to which her stock reply is: “Please buy and send a dress, I will be happy to hand it over to a deserving girl.”

Sometimes, people also ask Sabitha why she is doing this, or what she hopes to achieve “The smiles on the faces of the girls and the relief in the eyes of their parents brings a joy that’s indescribable. As long as people will donate their wedding outfits, I will continue doing this.”

Published: February 7, 2021 08:13 AM

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