A local designer uses heritage saris to create one-of-a-kind outfits suited for her style of modern living
by Ilina Ewen | photography by Jillian Clark
Indian fashion is much like Indian food: an utter delight to the senses. To step into the closet of my mother, grandmothers, or any of my aunties is to enter a lush wonderland of silks and batik print saris, some glistening with embroidery of spun gold and silver thread. Vibrant tones of purple, fuschia, emerald green, and cobalt blue hang in tidy rows, punctuated by an occasional, demure ivory. Even the casual, summerweight cotton is unlike most fabrics found in the United States: crisp yet soft, resplendent in hues of marigold and saffron.
In these closets, neatly stacked shelves house hundreds (yes, hundreds) of saris, and even now, as an adult, my hands can’t help but longingly brush across them all, each one a tactile pleasure. But most Indian women I know in the United States would admit that those gorgeous saris go unworn, languishing behind closed doors.
Part of the reason, believes Julie Patel, is that the traditional style of wearing a sari can be cumbersome.
It means maneuvering up to nine yards of fabric around one’s body, tucking it into a full-length petticoat, and pleating it evenly to lay flat down the skirted front and draped over the shoulder. One faulty pleat or loose tuck means a bulky, uncomfortable mess that runs the risk of coming undone.
“Wearing a sari doesn’t pair well with chasing kids,” recalls Patel, visibly wincing at a memory from when her children were younger. So when her daughter was a toddler, she decided to transform one of her saris into a modern and practical dress. The spark for Julkee Fashion was lit.
Today, Patel is a creator, designer, and sewer who’s found a way to bridge traditional Indian garb and western fashion. Patel rescues forgotten saris, textiles, and baubles from her mother, mother-in-law, and aunties, and upcycles them into one-of-a-kind dresses, skirts, jumpsuits, and more. “To know Indian women with swelling closets of passed-down saris is to know an endless supply of fabric,” she says, half in jest. Each piece is handmade, some with cheeky cutouts or adornments.
“My design inspiration hits me when I least expect it, from flipping through a magazine to seeing someone walking down the street,” says Patel. “I visualize designs that blend my Indian roots and western culture alike, and I keep a meticulous mental pinboard of ideas. I just want to make art.”
Patel is self-taught, with a natural eye for style. While her roots are in Gujarat, on India’s west coast, she was raised in Charlotte and came to Raleigh over a decade ago. She and her husband are raising a bilingual daughter and son who learn their history and take pride in their culture. “We can celebrate our heritage and show it through the art of design and fashion,” says Patel.
Like many who call Raleigh home, Patel came here to study at North Carolina State University, earning her undergraduate degree in business and marketing. After a stint in corporate America, she craved something more creative, so in 2014, after making creations only for herself, she founded Julkee Fashion, a nod to her childhood nickname.
With her mother’s old sewing machine at the ready, through trial and error, gumption, and patience, Patel started tearing apart old saris in her spare room at home to stitch together unique new apparel, serving as her own model and guinea pig as she perfected her pattern-making and sewing skills. “It was scary at first,” says Patel. “I wasn’t confident in my skills and wasn’t sure what the finished product would be. I just hoped for the best and ripped apart seams to start over a lot.”
Today, clients from the Triangle and beyond seek out Patel’s creativity and design skills for custom outfits that reflect their Indian roots — or to simply celebrate their appreciation of Indian fashion and culture. Patel takes her clients’ saris from their own closets or ones passed down from family members and transforms them into special pieces. The design process is often collaborative and always personal. “Julie’s creativity and ability to make your vision evolve into a jaw-dropping design is like none other,” says customer Ila Patel (no relation). “I have countless pieces, and each one more stunning than the other.”
One of Julie’s favorite creations is a custom piece she made for a wedding. “I had been looking online everywhere for an Indian-inspired, adaptable, wheelchair-friendly outfit for my sister for my wedding,” says Rachana Sukhadia of Durham. “Since it was so difficult to find, I asked Julie if she could make it. Without any hesitation she said yes to the challenge. Right away we all worked together to dream up the outfit.”
It’s this convergence of upcycling and style, along with the melding of heritage and modern living, that make Julkee’s creations special.
This story originally appeared in our September 2021 issue.