Something quite magical happens the moment one enters Kinna Sohna. A hush descends on one’s peripatetic urban soul, senses are heightened and one feels engulfed in a warm glow.
The flow of endorphins is unmistakable — and understandable. One can’t help but feel enchanted by this small shop that bills itself as a purveyor of handcrafted gifts, clothing, jewelry and art “from far-away lands.”
It is not just that Kinna Sohna is awash in deeply beautiful colour — from an entryway splashed in turquoise and gold-orange, to rich, jewel-toned fabrics in neat stacks and accoutrement displayed like curated objects in an art gallery — a feast for the senses.
It is also that one is struck by the panoply of objets d’art, which one instinctively knows have a fascinating story behind them, crafted as they are by artisans from India, Mexico, Morocco, Guatemala, Cuba and Turkey.
The contents of Kinna Sohna’s treasure trove are far too many to catalogue, but they include Varanasi silk scarves, authentic Kashmir/Nepal pashmina, vintage shawls from various regions of India, block prints, handmade cushions, lac bangles from Rajasthan, huipil from Guatemala, Mayan crosses from Chiapas, handspun/handwoven kurta, Orissa paintings on silk, patchwork trans (door hangings), Warli art, Sufi calligraphy, parchment shadow puppets, silver rings and necklaces, including rare Berber pieces, and handmade brass, silver and gold earrings.
To behold these almost one-of-a-kind pieces is to be transported into another world and another time — when people stopped, touched, admired and wondered in awe about where magnificent objects came from and who made them.
And, to meet Kinna Sohna’s owner/designer Sartaj Kaur, is to be reminded of a time when buyers and merchants knew each other and each knew the exchange was not transactional but social and personal, enduring over time.
Kaur has a long, flowing salt-and-pepper hair, a warm smile, and a gentle but confident demeanour, which makes visiting her store a pleasant experience. You know you’re in good hands. She will leave you alone to search for your finds if that’s what you want, but she will spend time to spread out the fabric or take down the art hanging from the wall and explain its provenance if that’s your preference.
“This place looks like a home. I want people to feel very welcome. They’re walking into a very special place,” Kaur says.
“The name of my business is Kinna Sohna, which means ‘how beautiful’ in my mother tongue, which is Punjabi. And that’s how I put everything together. It’s experiencing beauty. The tagline for my business is “To adorn is to be one with life.”
Beauty and creativity, Kaura believes, “is the closest thing to the universe, to God, to spirituality.”
The Origami sat down with Kaur in the late fall to talk, among other things, about her evolution as an entrepreneur/designer and about her shop, which celebrates its 15th year this month.
How did Kinna Sohna come about?
It was quite a journey. I worked for the corporate world. I was extremely unhappy, I felt very trapped — that whole environment felt like jail to me. I needed more freedom because I’m a creative person.
I tried many things, [including] working at a not-for-profit, but I felt that I had to do something myself. I wanted to do business. I went through all kinds of books, [and] one that really helped me was Creating a Life Worth Living (by Carol Lloyd)…
I knew I loved to travel. I was good at buying — everyone in my family wanted to take me shopping. I knew I wanted to be out there … I knew I wanted variety. I was good at organizing.
I kind of knew I wanted to go to India, there was a pull there. I was born there. I came here when I was seven.
[Saur was born in Patna, the state of Bihar, which she describes as the poorest state in India, with the highest state of illiteracy. It is also, she notes, where “the most amazing silk” also comes from; during British colonial rule, it had the highest production of indigo dye. Bihar is also an important area for Sikhs and Buddhists. Saur was born about 100 kilometres from Bodh Gaya, where under the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha Gautama became Buddha, the Enlightened One.]
I took a trip to India, thinking I could just start my business. But I realized that I needed skills. I couldn’t find the artisans; I thought they would just be there. All I kept seeing were backpackers. I was there for four months and I kept seeing the same types of people. I said, there has to be something different.
I came back [to Toronto and] I started searching how I could get some skills. I ended up in a fashion design program in Vancouver. It was an intense, condensed one-year program and from that I learned I was good at designing. I learned how to draw. I had to learn how to sew. I knew I wanted to do clothing, but I wanted to do more than that.
A lot of people told me, “Focus on one thing, like scarves.” My first passion was pashmina, the real pashmina. I’m the only person, as far as I know, who sells the 100 per cent pure pashmina in the city. My family said to just do pashmina, but I wanted to do more.
How did you eventually figure things out?
By the time I finished the fashion design program, I had worked with different people. I did the production, for free, for a lot of people so that I could learn. Back in Toronto, I did a [city-funded] program to help people get started. They gave you enough funds to go to courses, write a business plan and have enough money for rent. It was a huge relief to have that.
In September 2000, I had my first buying trip. When I came back, I had an amazing studio space which had cathedral ceilings, but it was in the middle of nowhere — Queen and River.
I handed out business cards; everybody I met, I gave a flyer. I did a four, five-day show. At that time I was one of a few people bringing in a lot of the things like handmade sandals, jewelry, clothing. I had a line up. It was amazing.
The whole process was a little scary, letting strangers in my home and all that. It was my live-work studio. There are condos there now, but at that time there were prostitutes in front of my house in the evenings; it was a desolate area.
When I pass there now, I go, how did this happen? How did I do it? Four times a year I did the shows. My living room became a store. I knew I couldn’t live like that. … Things happened — I went to more trips, the building got sold.
I was scared to take the next step to open the store. I was about to go back into the corporate world because I was so scared. The rents were really high. Then I found this place, which is right across from the subway [Dupont]. There was nothing else here [then]. Shoppers Drug Mart wasn’t here, none of the places were here. The rent was affordable and I could live in the basement.
What sparked this desire to become a creative entrepreneur?
I grew up in exotic surroundings, with peacocks and monkeys, we lived on the main street so the circus would pass through, we saw black bears and lions and tigers. I had a pet parrot, a pet rabbit and a pigeon. … There were palm trees, coconuts, mangoes and lychees.
When I came here I was different already because of my background. In terms of clothing, the only thing that was exciting and available at that time was Laura Ashley. Honestly, the Little House on the Prairie type of prints was the most exciting print.
Every store you went to, even now, everyone’s buying the same things — black and beige. Even TV shows, they would say, inject a little bit of pattern in your life and use animal print. And, I’m going, with all the gorgeous block prints and Ikat and appliqué and embroidery, this is what they’re talking about?
I grew up with beautiful textiles [that were] handwoven, block printed, embroidered, beautiful saris…
In my childhood, I went to a Catholic school [where] my parents thought education would be better and as Sikhs, we would encounter less racism. Every morning we would say prayers for the poor and kids would say [to me], “You come from a poor country, you’re poor.”
I was lucky that I had brothers and sisters who were a lot older. They’d say, “No, no you’re not poor. You come from one of the richest countries in the world. It’s just been robbed. The whole world wanted to go to India; everyone was looking for India.”
They taught me to really love my culture and they would teach me things for show and tell. I would take all kinds of turbans. I would take my mother’s textiles.
But they really instilled in me this thing about treasures. The treasures in the world, I was really reading about that.
So what I do now? I look for the authentic, exotic treasures of the world. I’m very attracted to that.
When I go to a place, I ask, what’s the treasure there?… I buy directly from people who make them and I’ll do my research beforehand.
You’re like an anthropologist.
I would say so. I’ve met some anthropologists and that’s what they said I do. I do take photos. I try to learn more about where things are made, how people live. In terms of getting things for the store, I’m sometimes involved with the designing. I handpick things but I also get things made for me. I try not to change it too much so they can relate to what they’re making. It may be a slight change to how they finish things. There are things that they use for their own use, [but] I might find a different use for them. The shawls worn with a salwar kameez by Punjabi women, I suggest [that people] use them as sarongs, as curtains, as throws and as table cloths. There are practical uses for beautiful things.
You said that for 10 years you were searching for work that would make you happy. Have you found that in Kinna Sohna?
I have, I truly have. It was quite a journey and I had a lot of angst around it. I’m really glad I had that when I was at a really young age, … I had friends who had become doctors, they had a path in their lives, and I was very anxious about that. You know, life is passing.
I was 35 when I started this business and I felt like, oh, my life is gone. I actually worked with a therapist and he said, ‘No, no. Time doesn’t work that way. It’s not the way it is. It’s different.’
And that’s the advice I give to people when they come in and say, ‘A lot of my life has passed by.’ And I say, no, time doesn’t work that way (Laughs) and just follow your heart.
I get some criticism that this is my whole life. And I say, yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my passion. It’s my life. I created that because I wanted to live fully. And this is living fully.
When I travelled [before], I felt I wasn’t connecting to people and this is a way to connect with people. I make deep connections because I’m looking at their work. Not everybody I work with is poor. Some people are much wealthier than I am. But they’re doing exquisite, museum quality work that they’ve been doing for generations. And sometimes this generation has made something even more fantastic because of technology and interaction with people all over the world.
I help support people who do good quality work by giving them business. It supports me, it supports people’s souls here. People really love coming here; they get high quality stuff, it’s natural fibre. I do feel strongly that I’m providing a service and not just giving to a charity or something — a lot investment and research is involved. I give, but I also get a lot. It’s not a one-way thing. I feel very fortunate. I feel peaceful and very passionate about what I do…My mother has also been very supportive of me. She believed in me and she also invested [in the business].
What kind of experience do you want people to have when they come into your store?
I hope they see the beauty, the diversity in the world. I hope they find it peaceful. I want it to be a sensual experience, where they smell beautiful things.
And colour. When it’s pouring rain or there’s a snowstorm I have people coming in here. They’re craving colour and something different. They’re looking for not the same thing.
When I’m buying, I’m always thinking about authenticity. Is it something different than what people have? Do they get the feeling of being somewhere else, of travelling?
People come here for different reasons, but they feel a connection to the stuff I have or to me or just being in a comfortable space.
A lot of women come here because they get help, they get good service and they get different body sizes. They just feel comfortable. I have things for large sizes and small sizes. I used to feel frustrated when I go to stores and I couldn’t find things … that look good on me. … There’s a scarf that I have that has at least 40 different colours. There’s something for everybody that’s unique to them.