Crescent Town: Businesswomen launch Bangladeshi couture
Protima Sarker sits on a couch in the basement of the community centre in Crescent Town, a neighbourhood with clusters of 40-year-old high rises poking through a mat of postwar bungalows.
She’s showing, among other things, her best-selling skirt. It’s too short for her, a Bangladeshi woman, to wear, but fine for Western girls. “Our people won’t wear that,” she says, “but they will.”
Compared with some of her other South Asian peers, who strictly import already-made goods from India and Pakistan, the Dunia Design Collective designs and produces their own products inspired by “back home and the West.” Another best-selling item? A $20 colourful and embroidered iPad cover.
It’s Sarker’s business acumen that sets her and her colleagues apart from the competition. Their success has made them model citizens in the East York neighbourhood, north of the Danforth, that’s home to the city’s largest Bangladeshi population.
Still, she couldn’t have realized her business if it weren’t for United Way. In 2008, the neighbourhood of Crescent Town (Taylor Massey, as it’s known to locals) was designated a “priority neighbourhood” by United Way. Though controversial at the time, the priority status funnelled municipal and provincial resources to the community giving Sarker and others like her the opportunity to thrive.
In 2010, AccessPoint, a community centre with health-care professionals and social workers, was built at the neighbourhood’s busiest intersection, Danforth and Victoria St. It’s a clean, well-lit community space for individuals and groups to use — including community businesses like Sarker’s — and quickly became a social hub. Sarker, a 40-year-old mother of two, with liquid brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled back into a loose bun, used to work for the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, one of the world’s largest non-profit organizations, before immigrating to Canada in 2005 and devoting herself to couture.
Four years later, she met her co-founders, Chowhdry Ara Hashmat and Jamee Ara Hosne. Every weekend, they meet and discuss business ideas and designs. Once a month, they’ll visit stores to restock supplies. Since they all have day jobs, their products are made in their spare time.
Madhavi Reddy, a staff member at Neighbourhood Link Support Services, an organization that partners with AccessPoint and United Way, helped the women apply for grants. Reddy taught them how to do the paperwork. The exercise was worthwhile. Since winning a grant in March, the Dunia Design Collective has been expanding, recruiting mothers who are looking for a way to earn money while they stay home with their children.
“Most of the Bangladeshi ladies know how to do these stitches,” says Sarker of the back, chain and cross stitches, “but they may not know the design.”
Hosne points to her merchandise. “We’ll train more women,” she says, “train them (to sew items) like this.”
Now that the business has money, the women are planning to attend the big winter holiday craft shows to sell their clothes, embroidered pillowcases and wall hangings. They’ve also been scouting consignment stores in Kensington Market and Bloor West that might carry their products.
“We’re not thinking so much about profit,” says Sarker, “we want people to know about our stuff.”
In three years, the women of Dunia Design Collective hope their business will be their livelihood. They say it will go beyond sewing. They have dreams of a catering service and beauty parlour. In other words, says Hashmat, “we will make it a big shop.”
Story by Stephanie Findlay, Staff Reporter. Published October 14, 2011; courtesy of The Toronto Star.