Sari Sapne A Fashionista’s Dream Come True!
By Nalini Sadagopan
Balaji Bhavan, Hillcroft’s hottest spot for crispy dosas and mouthwatering chaats is only a small part of one man’s vision to blaze new trails. Introducing Ramesh Lulla, a fashion designer who followed his dream from Bangalore to the United States over three decades ago. I met Ramesh and his son Akash at his high design store Sapna Boutique. Surrounded by beautiful couture ghagras, salwars and suits, colorful and ornate with intricate silk thread and sequins, we made our way to seating area furnished with Rajasthani flair. Ramesh, dapper in a black striped shirt with a matching tie and neatly pressed slacks, beamed with nostalgic joy while reminiscing about the days of his nonchalant youth.
“I was a rebel those days who purposely flunked the IIT-Madras entrance exam by turning in a blank answer paper as I was adamant about following my heart,” said Ramesh.
While studying for the Pre-University Certificate at the well-known St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, Ramesh knew that he did not want to be an engineer like everyone else in his family, but was very fascinated by his uncles who would visit from abroad dressed nattily in brightly colored shirts and trendy bell bottom pants. Their non-traditional, carefree style captivated young Ramesh’s attention. He was determined to study fashion and moved to Hong Kong in the mid-70s, where he trained in fashion design. After months of practical experience, he was ready to bring his newly acquired skills to the US. He joined Taj Sari Palace in Chicago and had the opportunity to travel to major cities in the US on business and to witness firsthand the fashion runways of ethnic Indian wear in major Indian settlements such as Jackson Heights, New York; and Devon Ave, Chicago. A business trip to Houston in the late 70s on business drew his attention to the large Indian population but nary a fashion vendor to serve the needs of the community. He spearheaded the efforts to open a branch of Taj Sari Palace on Westheimer, now the Highland village area. With his business acumen, the business thrived as he developed an enthusiastic clientele.
A trip to India in 1981 proved fortuitous for Ramesh. He met and married the woman of his dreams.
“I am very lucky to be married to Jyothi,” said Ramesh with warmth. “She exemplifies the adage that behind every successful man stands a woman.”
A true match in every sense Ramesh and Jyothi began their journey as life partners.
“She inspired me to get my own business, and stood by me in realizing my dream — that was the beginning of Sari Sapne”, recalled Ramesh. Sari Sapne became the go to place for exclusive saris, dress fabrics, and Indian garments. “Jyothi and I worked very hard, as any entrepreneur couple, and we took high risks and put our savings into leasing and remodeling a 1000 square feet space, knowing that the lease might not be extended beyond the first year. As predicted, the lease came to an end in 1982 as well as for every Indian store that was at the on that stretch of Westheimer.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Ramesh.
Ramesh strategically moved Sari Sapne from Westheimer to the Hillcroft location. Many Indians lived in the Chimney Rock, Hillcroft, Alief, and Sugar Creek areas. Sari Sapne, Jay Store (the oldest Indian grocery store in Houston), and a handful of others all arrived on Hillcroft. Thus began the legacy of the famous Hillcroft strip which now boasts of dozens of Indian stores, thanks to those visionary Big Bosses of Little India.
Akash Lulla, the couple’s oldest child, was born in 1982, a year after the birth of the store.
“What better way to train and learn from your own dad on the nuances of running the fashion store business? Dad’s my hero,” said Akash, a finance graduate from the University of Houston. Today he works closely with his Ramesh overseeing all aspects of the businesses.
“We are here to make our customers happy, provide the latest designs and trends at the right price and quality. Happy customers bring repeat business, which is the key to the growth of our enterprise,” said Ramesh. In addition to Sari Sapne, the Lullas added Sapna Boutique and Fashion Fabrics to their repertoire over the years.
“We like that our clients shop with us for the very best instead of traveling to India,” added Akash. Sari Sapne carries saris of all varieties and prices while Sapna Boutique caters to high-end tastes. “We spend hours studying Eastern and Western trends in vogue and work with designers to mix and match the best of both worlds. Fashion trends are primarily inspired by the movie industry in India, which is in turn inspired by fashion designers. We have been great followers of Sabyasachi, Ritu Kumar, and Manish Malhotra for our designs” said Ramesh. While they do carry designer labels, they also bring saris and outfits inspired by the designers at affordable prices. Sari Sapne has locations in Dallas and Atlanta.
How did Balaji Bhavan fit into the grand scheme of things? Once Sari Sapne opened on Hillcroft, the Lullas filled a void for South Indian food through Balaji Bhavan. The recipes are Jyothi’s and the couple hired a manager from the Balaji temple in the Dallas area and Balaji Bhavan opened to much acclaim. Indeed it is one of the few places that my own family can unanimously agree on for any given meal.
“Consistency, quality, freshness are key ingredients for our success at the restaurant,” said Akash. The coconut chutney is made seven times a day as it has a short shelf life. Sambar, another popular side dish with the dosas, is made four times a day at Balaji Bhavan. I was surprised to hear that there aren’t any walk-in coolers that enable large quantity food storage at this restaurant, which means all food items are turned over frequently in less than a day. The restaurant is listed on Yelp and ranked 27th in Houston Chronicle’s top 100 restaurants, which attests to the value and taste of the food served here, especially for Houston that has more restaurants per capita.
The Lullas are ever thankful to their hard working kitchen staff and all their staff at Sari Sapne. But Ramesh tells me that they owe their success to their loyal customers who have supported them over the years.
“We are deeply indebted to our clients for shopping with us,” says Ramesh.
As a fashion lover myself, I walked away feeling quite happy knowing that our ambassadors of fashion from the Indian subcontinent at Sari Sapne have great business sense, a keen sense of fashion, and care about their customers’ needs and bring the best quality at the right price.
Nalini Sadagopan has been a Houston area resident for five years. She loves writing and public speaking and has been making more time for it recently. Her passion for arts, culture and heritage motivates her to volunteer time in the local community to promote these, especially among the youth. She is a Chemist by training and works as a Technical Specialist for Agilent Technologies. She is married to Rishi with two children Shilpa and Vishnu.