By Andrea Hansen
Klassique Designs is the oldest independent women’s fashion boutique in Saskatoon and will celebrate 40 years in business in 2022. At the heart of Klassique Designs is Kajoo Kamal. She is as unforgettable as the exclusive brands she carries in the 2nd Avenue downtown store.
Kamal was born in India but grew up in Major, Saskatchewan. Her father, Gurcharan Kamal, known as Kammy, a teacher, arrived in Canada in 1962. His wife, Harbhajan Kamal, known as Jan, soon joined him with Kajoo, who was almost two years old. Kammy and Jan came to Canada partly for their children’s education, but partly for adventure. Even with little money when he arrived, Kammy’s attitude was, “It’s going to be fine, we’ll figure it out.” Kajoo Kamal has operated her business with the same philosophy. Her passion, intuition, and adaptability have been the right accessories for success.
Kamal’s first job in Saskatoon was at a bohemian clothing store called Sanjusha. She later got a job at Jack Fraser’s Menswear. One quiet evening at work she picked up a copy of Style magazine that listed Canadian clothing manufacturers’ representatives. Her adventure began.
I do not have processes, but I have a great accountant and lawyer and people who help me.
How did Klassique Designs start – what appealed to you about the fashion industry?
On a lark I typed up a letter saying, “I’m thinking about opening a store and I might be interested in looking at your product.” I mustered all the money I had to do 150 photocopies, plus stamps, and sent the letter to all the manufacturers in that magazine. Then nothing.
But one evening, several months later, a man named Owen Grimley called. He said, “My boss, Mr. Warsh, said you sent him a letter and that when I was in Saskatoon to give you a call. Do you want to meet for a drink at the Park Town?” I said, “Sure, of course.” He didn’t know how young I was! I arrive at the Park Town and ordered a scotch, which surprised him – scotch was my dad’s drink. We talked for 45 minutes. He convinced me this is what I should do. I talked to my parents, and it kind of rolled into this.
I love fashion. I worked one whole summer to buy a beautiful dress for $300, which is still a significant amount. I wore that dress endlessly. It taught me the value of high-end clothing. My mother was from a wealthy family in India and liked dressing well, and my dad was also very stylish.
What has changed about doing business in Saskatoon since Klassique opened?
Saskatoon is a big enough city, but still has this wonderful sense of community. I don’t want to sound like an old person and say it was more wonderful before – it’s still wonderful. But I don’t think our young people make connections like we did. Before, a handshake or your word meant everything. I never asked anyone for ID for a cheque and I let people take things and come pay me whenever. My dad always said, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Simply prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
I think of young people today starting a business and the difficulties – and the lack of patience people have. They’ll come to a place once and if it isn’t perfect they won’t come back. I opened at a time when, I think, people were more generous and patient.
What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs?
I never had a business plan, so how can I give advice? Even to this day, I don’t go shopping for inventory with a budget. I completely fly by the seat of my pants. A good friend, who is an accountant, said, “This should not work for anybody, but somehow clearly it works for you.” I do not have processes, but I have a great accountant and lawyer and people who help me. My grandfather, whose family had lots of businesses, used to say, “Do not go into business unless you’re prepared to lose your shirt.” You have to be prepared to lose everything. There are a lot of circumstances beyond your control.
People need to rethink how they shop. It doesn’t have to be me, but support your local businesses because they contribute to the community.
What impact has online shopping had on your business?
I don’t want to be only an online store, ever. I want the store to remain a special place to go. I recognize the need for an online presence because people have to see before they come in. That’s just the way it’s evolved. However, people need to rethink how they shop. It doesn’t have to be me, but support your local businesses because they contribute to the community. They pay taxes and employ people. They support the non-profit organizations and charities.
How have you built such a loyal clientele?
The majority of my clients come through referrals, or they came in once and had a great experience, and go from needing one dress for an event, to two years later, I’m doing their entire wardrobe, from casual to formal. They’re texting me what they need and it evolves to where they only come in when I ask them to, or I drop a parcel at their house. This business is about building relationships. It’s never one sale. It’s about the experience. I love serving people and helping them get ready for events. I get to be part of milestones like promotions, getting awards, weddings, and convocations.
What’s your biggest challenge in your business?
I started working with a marketing specialist and through interviewing my best clients, he realized the reason clients shop at Klassique is “Kajoo!” The consistent responses were that it’s my knowledge of what looks good on every person and knowing the right look for every event. It’s the personalized service, the attention, and my passion. He told me bluntly, “Here’s the problem: if it’s all about Kajoo then Klassique cannot scale up without you.” That’s good for the ego, but how can I transfer that to Klassique when I retire?
What does the future hold?
I want to work till I’m 70, that will take the store to 50 years, have a big party, and shut it down. I never imagined I would be doing this my whole life – the store opened my second year of university! But just because things didn’t turn out the way you expected doesn’t mean you didn’t succeed. Whatever decisions you make, it’s OK to change your mind. You must believe that when you make decisions, they are based on the parameters of the time. There are no bad decisions. You just do what you think is best.
First published in the June 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.