Cultural Sari Meets Professional Suit

Just weeks ago a friend told me she was worried the henna on her hands might not wash off in time for her job interview. She didn’t want the employer to think of her as lacking professionalism. I understood her dilemma. But there was a lingering question in my mind: does one have to hide culture to look professional?

Indra Nooyi, the Indian born Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo Incorporated, is a prime example of how culture can be an integral part to a human being and why we should consider it a part of promoting ourselves. Her “mantra for success” is rather different than the standard suit-and-tie professional outlook. According to the blog “Inspire Minds” from, the PepsiCo president states, an important attribute to success is to “be yourself”. According to “Inspire Minds,” Nooyi once bought a suit to wear for a summer job interview and felt that the suit was not only ill-fitting and too “country bumpkin” but  also covered her true self. During the next interview she was advised by a career counselor, “If they can’t accept you in a sari, it’s their loss, not yours.” Nooyi wore her sari and not only received the job, but continued to wear her cultural garments to work. She stated, “Never hide what makes you.”

Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, the Indian-born Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of PepsiCo Incorporated

Indra Nooyi had a direct connection with her Indian wear. But for those of us who immigrated from all over the world, we often rely on certain places to help us practice culture. When you walk down Liberty Avenue, what do you see? Over time Liberty Avenue has developed into the hub of the community. Stores filled with cultural garments are in place and customers, not only of Indian and Indo-Caribbean descent, but of all races, are often referred to find cultural items there.

Twenty-two years ago Pakistani Ghulam Awan opened East West Fashion, the first store on Liberty Avenue that sold traditional Indian wear. He stated, “I came for the American dream. Although we’ve come across a little problems.” He said with a chuckle, “It looks like the dream has finished.” Awan told me the demand for traditional clothing has lessened due to the current economic state. Today he imports traditional wear from all parts of India. He told me, “Every week there’s a new style.” Awan explained to me business gets busy during the summertime and holidays like Diwali and Navratri.

Ghulam Awan, owner of the East West Fashion wholesale and retail store, located at 121-12 Liberty Avenue Queens, New York

Ghulam Awan, like many other pioneers of the Indian clothing business, saw the need for selling cultural items. Indian clothing is desired by many races. As I entered each Indian garment store on Liberty Avenue, I noticed African-American and Hispanic-Latino customers among the Indo-Caribbean and Indians. Like many of us, Awan desired the American dream. But in addition he has provided a service to the community.

Culture can be seen in societies across the world. Today cultural items are spread and mixed throughout the globe. Indian cultural items are often used in Western fashion. Many of us are familiar with the “bindi” or small dot on the forehead that many women wear as a religious or marital symbol. The Western culture adopted the symbol and it became a fashion trend. In the 1990s, Western Pop singer, Gwen Stefani and in the 1980s, celebrity icon, Madonna, wore these bindis. Cultures often borrow, share, and fuse ideas together when they come in contact. It’s important to note that if the Western culture can appropriate Indian symbols, we shouldn’t be worried that cultural garments may indicate a lack of professionalism.

Ghulam Awan so correctly named his business, “East West Fashion.” It references the meeting of the East and West. We come across obstacles when we try to succeed in a different environment and adapt to the new situations. But we continue to keep our culture alive because it is integral to who we are. Culture can be expressed through traditions, songs, dances, values, and most significantly, our outward appearance. We shouldn’t be afraid of henna on our hands or a sari on our body if it is what we feel best represents who we are.  The codes of professionalism are rigid, but so too is the commitment we have to ourselves. Like Indra Nooyi stated, “Never hide what makes you.”

 (Article originally published in The West Indian Newspaper April 16, 2011)