Sarojini Nagar market in Delhi – a warren of street stalls, shouting vendors and meandering shoppers – can seem daunting, even to old hands. I’ve been going to the market for 20 years, and most of my wardrobe is Sarojini Nagar finds. It works like this: garment manufacturers make a surplus so they can check for mistakes, rejected items are then sold by enterprising middlemen to stall holders, who sell them to the general public for a fraction of the manufacturer’s price. The market has everything from Zara and H&M to things that are marked for Goodwill with all their tags on, to sometimes – if you’re very lucky – second-hand designer clothes, like a green velvet Oscar de la Renta velvet gown I found almost a decade ago, and have not gotten over since, even though it doesn’t fit any more.
Of course, times change, and with it, so does Sarojini Nagar. You’re just as likely to find Chinese or Korean brands as American and Spanish ones now, tried and tested shops keep moving around, and some stalls have taken to buying trendy fabric and manufacturing their own clothes, so it’s not all export surplus any more. Here are some tips on how to survive Sarojini (and leave with lots of clothes) as well as recommendations for a few stalls; the ones that still stand in the same place that is. Note that there aren’t really fixed addresses or names, so this reporter has made up her own over the years.
For best results, navigate the market by getting dropped off or parking at the multilevel parking lot at DLF South Square mall. If you have your back to the mall, you should be facing the market. This is also a good place to meet with friends before you enter, because the rest of it is like a maze and it’s easy to get hopelessly lost.
After you enter the market, walk straight down until you’re almost at the four-way junction. On your left is a stall that looks as small as all its neighbours, until you go inside. There, it transforms into Mary Poppins‘s magical bottomless carpet bag – it just keeps going and going, with separate stall owners for each section. This shop is shaped like a sideways-U and is where I’ve picked up many beloved dresses for about 150-200 rupees (£1.50-2) each.
When you’re in a shop, look up at the clothes they’ve hung on the wall. While several stall owners will pull out things from the pile to shake out in front of you, you’re most likely to find something you love on the makeshift walls. That’s because years of practise have made the Sarojini Nagar stall owners really good at fashion curation. They’re ahead of their time and know what is likely to appeal to street shoppers.
A common mistake, though, is to neglect the racks of clothes that you’ll pass on either side of you as you walk towards the fixed stalls. These racks will probably have a sign on them saying something like, ‘Rs 200. Fixed Price. No Exchange.’ Over the last year, these racks have had some truly excellent treasures, and I wouldn’t have found them if I had been impatient. Sifting through the racks, I found lovely linen shifts, and, on my last visit, a navy Uniqlo sweater for 100 rupees (£1).
Just up ahead on your right, once you get out of the U-Shaped Shop is a narrow alley leading out of the market again. Stall owners hang clothes up on the left and right of it, and it is one of the better ‘curated’ collections in the entire market. But, they’re still open to bargaining, so you can reduce the quoted price by about 200 rupees (£2) and see what happens. On a recent visit, it was just winter coats, I bought a dressy brown puffer embroidered coat for 350 rupees (£3.50) and had to be dragged away from a knee-length camel coloured wool coat with lapels for only 200 rupees (£2).
It’s hard to tell what’s going to fit and what isn’t, especially since the shopkeepers, more often than not, won’t let you try on any clothes, not even on top of what you have on already. You can get around this by learning how to eyeball your most hard-to-fit body area, whether it’s a round tummy or a big bum, and seeing whether the garment will fit over it. Otherwise, most stalls have a measuring tape they’re okay with you using if you ask. There’s a trick with trousers that goes: if half the waist is the size of your neck, it should fit, which has worked for me once on a pair of bootleg Gap jeans, but I have not explored the method scientifically, so try this at your own risk.
Everyone who’s been to Sarojini Nagar once knows the Tree Shop, which you get to by walking straight with the Alley of Lovely Things behind you. Much like the others I’ve mentioned, it’s a collection of stalls, this time around a tree. I’ve found that the shopkeepers there quote high prices and refuse to bargain or even engage, which is unusual for a non-fixed structure like this one. You might find a treasure, but be aware that you’ll probably find things for ten times the price at any of the other stalls.
Bargaining is a skill like any other, and I’m still only okay at it, but you must a) not show too much enthusiasm for anything, b) quote about 30 percent less than what you’re actually willing to give for something and c) be able to classify in your mind: stuff you want from stuff you need. I follow these rules to live a sustainable lifestyle while still being able to shop – you don’t need another white t-shirt or a 20th floral romper, no matter how cheap you think it is. This is also the only way you’ll be able to walk away from a price you dislike without regretting it.
Make a left after you leave the Tree Shop, and a little way up the road is a small shop with handbags and shoes hanging outside. These are mostly leather, and so, will be a little more expensive than the rest of the market. For example: low flat ankle boots for 500 rupees (£5), when you could get something mass-manufactured and slightly more plastic for about 300 rupees (£3) at any other shoe stall. This, unlike the other stalls I’ve mentioned, is an actual store, with a fixed building. There’s a basement and a tiny shop floor and lots of beautiful bags and shoes, which they will pull out for you in any colour or size.
And finally, don’t leave the market without stopping at one of the many women wandering about with portable jewellery stands. I’ve found all my fake silver earrings here, lovely cheap trinkets that I wear often. My favourite recent find is be a faux silver choker hung with fake coins for 80 rupees (£0.80).