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tylish African Americans have FUBU and Roca Wear, WASP fashionistas have Ralph Lauren, and Hispanics have JLO clothing, but who can the style-conscious South Asian turn to for clothing that is not only fashion forward, but also a reflection of her identity?

Where do you go when you want something less traditionally desi then a shalwar kameez but more so than the winter collection at the Gap? Kulin Shah, CEO of clothing company BadKarma, hopes that you’ll turn to him.

It’s not old-world India, but it’s definitely not the Gap, either.

BadKarma, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, markets itself as an urban South Asian clothing company. It offers mostly vintage-inspired graphic T-shirts and sleek polo shirts, all “Western silhouettes with an Eastern flair,” as Shah describes them. The men’s graphic tees would not be out of place at a high end or more mainstream retailer—except that they’re emblazoned with, say, “Ahmedabad” or “Pride” and coupled with the Indian flag. Tanks and tees for women are also decidedly desi with phrases like “Brown Sugar” and “Spicy” stretched across them. It’s not old-world India, but it’s definitely not the Gap, either.

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And that’s because Shah wants to present a slightly different image of desis in America. He says BadKarma was created partly because he felt the media was saturated with single-faceted images of South Asians: taxi drivers, convenience store owners, geeky kids and uncles with heavy accents.

“I really have an affinity for growing up in the Indian culture but still being American,” Shah says. “I was tired of the portrayal of our culture in the Western world. It’s a very linear way that they look at our culture. At the end of the day the reason that we’re doing what we’re doing is because we really want to make brown cool. That’s our mission.”

Time will tell if Shah succeeds in making brown the new cool, but it won’t be for lack of trying: BadKarma has some of the hottest browns around rocking its gear.

Time will tell if Shah succeeds in making brown the new cool, but it won’t be for lack of trying: BadKarma has some of the hottest browns around rocking its gear. Everyone from Gujarati rap group Karmacy to comedian Russell Peters to actor Kal Penn has been seen sporting BadKarma.

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BadKarma’s Kulin Shah

While Shah admits he does get a bit of a high from seeing celebs wear his brand (even Playboy playmate Heidi Cortez is a fan!) he claims that BadKarma is strictly for the regular folk. He aims to develop a company that is dedicated to regular South Asian men and women whom Shah says are ultimately the ones that will help him build his brand. He even tailors the clothes to fit South Asian figures better.

“Indian women are built differently, they’re curvier and sometimes shorter then the average woman,” Shah says about his unique sizing. BadKarma is “something that is built for our people. Finally an Indian woman can say ‘OK, I can wear BadKarma so I don’t have to wear something that I got at Banana Republic in the petites.'”

Practicality coupled with passion is the hallmark of BadKarma, and it’s been that way since its inception. A businessman since birth, Shah’s ventures have included everything from a run-of-the-mill paper route to selling pictures of Michael Jackson to his fellow sixth-graders.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I always found ways to be creative and make money off of it. I just really enjoyed connecting with people,” he pauses and adds with a laugh, “and trying to get them to buy something from me.”

“I want an Indian kid to walk down the street and say, ‘BadKarma—that represents us.'”

BadKarma, his most successful venture to date, stemmed from passion gone awry. Having recently ended a relationship at the time, Shah said the heartbreak made him do some soul searching that eventually led him to the idea of his own clothing company: “It was just an idea that I couldn’t get rid of.” He started the company as a one-man band, coming up with concepts and business plans himself. Eventually he realized that he needed to add structure to the company in the form of employees and partners that complemented his vision.

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“In the beginning there was a lot of running around,” admits Shah. “Now there’s actual structure to the company. That’s all part of the process [of beginning a new company.] Every day, every month we’re just sort of getting more and more familiar with the marketplace.”

Part of the familiarization involves cultivating customer relationships because “these are the people who are going to support it in the end. These are the people who are going to push [BadKarma] into the mainstream.” So dedicated are Shah and the Karma team that each purchase is shipped with a personal note from Shah himself—with customers encouraged to give their input via email.

All the hard work and all the big dreams will eventually lead to Shah’s ultimate goal: “I want [BadKarma] to be a global brand … I want to be known as a company that does great work and that’s creative,” he says. He wants to see BadKarma accessories, suits and bags. But Shah also has a goal that’s closer to his heart: “I also want an Indian kid to walk down the street and say, ‘BadKarma—that represents us.'”n

Maya Mantri would live in T-shirts and polos if she could.
Published on November 6, 2006.
Photography: By Ed Schell, courtesy of BadKarma.

More Information

BadKarma Official Web Site

Comments are closed.
  1. November 8, 2006, 12:43 pm Nadia

    Good for Shah to follow his dream, but not sure how BadKarma is any different than someone uploading catchy phrases on a t-shirt and selling it on CafePress.

  2. November 8, 2006, 7:08 pm Hajra

    The use of “WASP” in this article is a bit pejorative. A little racial/ethinic sensitivity would be expected from a South Asian production.

  3. November 9, 2006, 9:33 am Hajra

    The Macaca days are over and this should apply white slurs as well.

  4. November 9, 2006, 10:05 am Anuja

    Thanks for your comment. We appreciate your feedback, and are glad that you brought up the point about “uploading catchy phrases.” When BadKarma launched a year ago, it was with a small line of attitude tees bearing culturally inspired phrases such as “Brown Sugar” and “iFob.” However, over the last year, our line has evolved, and still is evolving, into a clothing line that offers people everything from polos and track jackets to hats and yoga bags. Our goal is to become a full-fledged fashion company, and each month we get closer to reaching that goal. A closer inspection of our line will reveal original designs, which include our men’s Vintage Luxury Collection, released this past summer. We hope that you continue to visit our brand over the next year to see how we are moving away from being just another South Asian t-shirt company and into one that you turn to when you just want good clothes.

    Best,
    Anuja Madar
    Public Relations Manager
    BadKarma Clothing Company

  5. November 20, 2006, 10:14 pm Sudha

    The clothes are very nice, but I cannot imagine many Indians who want to wear a brand called “Bad Karma.”

    What does this mean? Maybe I am not in on the joke.

  6. November 26, 2006, 4:09 pm nayantara

    why are the majority of the models on the site white? doesn’t that seem to go against the idea that this is meant for indian’s to identify very strongly with?

  7. December 2, 2006, 9:27 pm Nirmala

    it looks like there was actually just one female white model on the site which i don’t think is objectionable–but the pseudo-sexual overtones between the blonde and the south asian guy are kind of irritating considering the cliche that indian guys tend to prefer anglo women. the clothes are a bit too poppy/not really edgy enough for me. perhaps bad karma will have more interesting designs in the near future–ones that don’t bank on simple stereotypes (particularly the sexualized ones about indian women…not sure i’d have the cojones to wear something that says “spicy”). all the same, it’s nice to have a line of clothing that attempts to be culturally specific and i’m sure they’ll continue to expand their concept accordingly. amen to curves!

  8. December 4, 2006, 10:16 am Swati

    i’ve personally purchased several items from badkarma, and the quality of the clothing and customer service is excellent. they are far better than any of the other “desi” brands out there…who are simply trying to copy badkarma’s style. this company is really going to do great things, and we should support them. i’m sure they will continue to expand their brand. i’m a big fan!