Nestled in a nondescript high rise near New York City’s Times Square is the boutique showroom of prominent South Asian designer Harleen Kaur. Although the size of the space is quite modest, the vibrant pieces hanging from the racks, bursting with color, are anything but. While sifting through the ready-made designs, one can find a myriad of options ranging from a formal sherwani jacket one might don for a wedding, to something simple like a lehenga top for everyday wear. Kaur’s dynamic pieces have been worn on red carpets by high-profile South Asian celebrities including Kal Penn, Maulik Pancholy, and Richa Moorjani of Never Have I Ever fame, and have appeared in numerous publications including Vogue. And although she calls this kind of exposure “very cool,” this powerful South Asian entrepreneur doesn’t let such things go to her head. It’s Kaur’s talent, innovation, and drive that truly set her apart and bring her success.
Kaur grew up in a Sikh Punjabi household in Northern Virginia, right outside of Washington D.C. What’s unique about her family line is that both sets of parents and grandparents grew up in Thailand. And Thai culture is something she feels a strong bond with even without growing up in the country. “The whole country is filled with inspiration,” she says. Inspiration that she brings into her design aesthetic, seamlessly blending her Indian, Thai, and American cultural influences. Kaur also continues her family's tradition of being a devout Sikh. “One of the beautiful things I’ve learned from Sikhi is that God is in everyone,” she says. And while she doesn’t get to the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) as often as she likes, she does her best to instill Sikh values in her son and use them as a guide to live her life.
While many young South Asian kids can feel stifled by pressure from their parents to pursue a standardized set of “acceptable” careers (ie. doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.), Kaur’s mother and father nurtured her passion for art and design from a young age. Kaur remembers getting the Barbie Fashion Designer software when she was young, and it launched the start of her design journey. “The toys you get your kids matter,” she says, and to her, Barbie was her first memory of fashion given from her parents. “To say that [my parents] were supportive is an understatement.” Not only did they put her in additional art classes and a summer camp for fashion as an adolescent, but when she was in high school, her mother would drive her every morning to a different school to attend Fashion Design I and II classes. She would then wait for Kaur to finish, and drive her back to her primary high school. It’s this type of familial support that laid the foundation for her to freely pursue a career as a designer.
“I couldn’t find anything I wanted to wear. There was no variety. In each shop it was just more of the same thing being done in different ways.”
Kaur attended the University of Connecticut and pursued a dual degree in nutrition and costume design and art illustration. After a few impactful summer internships with now defunct brands Laura Dahl and Thuy, she immediately landed a job post-grad with Nine West in 2011. After two years with the iconic shoe brand, and then five with designer Jay Godfrey, Kaur decided to branch out on her own. The inspiration came from a family trip to India to shop for her brother’s wedding in 2016. “I couldn’t find anything I wanted to wear. There was no variety,” she says. “In each shop it was just more of the same thing being done in different ways.” There were no floral skirts for her or floral turbans for her brother. Menswear was practically non-existent and it was highly uncomfortable and lacked evolution.
When Kaur finally decided that she would just order fabric and find a factory in New York to make her own designs, her eponymous brand was born. What she initially envisioned as a purely e-commerce business, soon morphed into a brick-and-mortar showroom after customers kept requesting to see the pieces in person. Her first test space was little more than a few racks in the living room of her apartment. Kaur then moved into an official showroom in late 2019 with an official launch planned for spring 2020. With COVID raging, her space didn’t even truly get traffic until July 2020.
Kaur describes herself as not much of a crier—until she started her business. She’s experienced many high highs, and many low lows. "When you see somebody like Kal Penn wearing your clothes, it feels good. When you see a bride walk in and she's so overwhelmed…and six to eight months later you designed the perfect outfit for her, it’s an amazing feeling," she says. "But also when your bank account is at $1,000 and you have payroll to cut and vendors to pay while you’re in the middle of a pandemic and you have no idea what’s gonna happen tomorrow or whether you’re gonna get orders again…it’s really depressing."
"When you see somebody like Kal Penn wearing your clothes, it feels good...But also when your bank account is at $1,000 and you have payroll to cut and vendors to pay...and you have no idea what’s gonna happen tomorrow or whether you’re gonna get orders again…it’s really depressing."
But Kaur persisted by having a strong belief in herself as an artist, by having support from her amazing family and husband, and by being an innovator in the industry. Her pieces are unique, versatile, and backed by strong sustainability practices that are constantly updated. This was especially important to her after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 killed more than 1,000 garment workers. Her pieces are produced locally, ethically, and all her workers are paid a fair wage. Kaur designs everything herself and is surrounded by an equally talented team. She is a staunch supporter and advocate for the LGBTQ community, and regularly promotes queer talent on her social media. And all of this hard work is paying off.
In 2021 she experienced her biggest career moment by moving into her current workspace and showroom in New York near Times Square, a space that is four times the size of her previous showroom. “Walking into the showroom every day and seeing my name on the wall, it hit different,” she says. But Kaur isn’t one to rest on her laurels. Despite the success of the larger showroom and favorable press coverage, she is focused on staying true to her brand and her relationships with her customers, as well as finding time to design both a brand new collection, which she expects to debut in the next few months, and a larger wedding collection as well.
Kaur’s journey is truly a testament to the power of self-determination anchored by the unwavering support and love of one’s family. When asked what it means to be a powerful South Asian woman, Kaur replied, “I don’t correlate power to…I’m powerful and my decisions are important. Having an impact on people and people around you is the most powerful,” she says. “Having your voice heard is powerful.” One thing is definitely certain: Harleen Kaur will continue to have an impact and her voice heard for many years to come.
Published on October 19, 2023