With unique pieces from around the world, Clawson’s House of Tribalfare offers a global experience to shoppers in Metro Detroit
By Carmen Nesbitt
Featured image by David Lewinski
Photography by Quinn Banks
Inside a Clawson bungalow, Ojas Akolkar prepares to welcome a guest. She boils water for tea, sets out refreshments and lights incense. The perfumed smoke drifts from room to room, each decorated with items from Akolkar’s travels. Handcrafted brass glasses from India sit on a shelf in the dining room. Authentic Mexican serapes drape over the couch. Chinese embroidered art hangs in the hallway. At this house, though, visitors can leave with any piece from Akolkar’s collection — because it’s all for sale.
Opened November 2019, House of Tribalfare’s cozy setting and appointment-only business model foster an intimacy usually reserved for friends and family. For Akolkar, it’s the perfect environment in which to connect buyers to the cultures and people behind each handmade product, whether it’s jewelry made by a Mexican silversmith, scarves tie-dyed by a craftsman from Jaipur, India, or fabric woven by Guatemalan women. “Ninety-five percent of our products are one of a kind,” says Akolkar, who lives in Troy. “I cannot guarantee that I’ll get them again because I cannot guarantee that I’ll find that artist again.”
Tribalfare, with its focus on multiculturalism and inclusivity, was inspired by Akolkar’s upbringing in Mumbai, India. Like the U.S., India is broken up into states — 29 to be exact. But unlike the U.S., languages, traditions and even textiles vary from state to state, Akolkar explains. (Imagine driving to Ohio and being unfamiliar with the language and culture.) However, Mumbai, India’s largest city, is a multicultural melting pot. “We have a lot of people from different states coming to Mumbai for employment and opportunities,” says Akolkar, who’s now 45. “And with that, they bring their culture.”
In the mid-1990s, Akolkar moved with her former husband to a much more homogenous place: Orlando, Florida. (Once there, she earned a degree in dental hygiene.) The culture shock, or rather lack of cultural representation, seemed odd to her. “It was like, you’re either Indian, or you’re American,” she recalls. And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I am completely Indian, at least in the way I dress or [the way] I see fashion or style.’” Her “East meets West” fashion sense, pairing items like jeans with a little “Indian flair,” earned her many compliments. “People would ask, ‘Where can I get something like this?’ and I would have to say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s from India.’”
Akolkar couldn’t understand why these products weren’t easily available when so many people expressed appreciation for them. “There are Indian stores here, and they have beautiful things, but it’s more cultural — things you’d wear for an Indian wedding or party,” she says. “There weren’t many places where I could shop for these kinds of pieces that I can wear every day.”
Determined to fill the fashion void, Akolkar launched Tribalfare online in 2011. The site featured items she would usually buy in India, often from street vendors or artisans who worked out of their homes. A year later, she remarried, and her husband’s job took the family to China. Immersed once more in a multicultural environment, Akolkar’s passion for Tribalfare reignited. She decided to host her first pop-up, where she sold artisan products from India. The event was a near sell-out. Akolkar was shocked: “I didn’t realize the potential,” she says. “I grew up with these products [but] finding this appreciation from so many people was fascinating.”
Akolkar’s family moved back to the U.S. in 2014 and eventually landed in Detroit. She thought she should pursue a job in dental hygiene, but it didn’t feel right. “Something kept bugging me,” she says. “How can [I] ignore the the way [it] made me feel [to spread] awareness about the arts and culture of India?”
Over the next few years, Tribalfare evolved from a one-time pop-up in Birmingham to a regular fixture at Eastern Market to a long-term rental in TechTown, a small-business incubator in Detroit. In 2016, Akolkar began searching for a permanent space that didn’t feel commercial. “When I go on these trips to connect with the artisans and purchase from them,” she says, “I connect to the products in a home environment.” She wanted the same experience for her guests and found it driving past a “for sale” sign outside a Clawson home one day.
Now, Tribalfare carries handmade bowls, saris and an array of decor from all over the world. Akolkar travels to purchase every item she sells because she wants to meet the artisans and share their stories. One is example is Axel Ortiz Gonzalez, a Mexican silversmith. Gonzalez helped Akolkar create a line of jewelry that she named IDM: Inspired by India, Designed in Detroit, Made in Mexico.
Tribalfare’s appointment-only model — guests can book hour-long slots online — helps Akolkar to be at the “forefront” of storytelling and the visitor experience. Guests are encouraged to ask questions, touch the boutique’s items and even use them, says Aneesa Alphonsus, the store’s manager. “We don’t want them to be afraid to open up what they see,” she adds. “How are you going to take it home if you don’t know what it looks like?” (It’s worth noting that the store doesn’t accept returns.)
As far as Akolkar is concerned, House of Tribalfare is a home. To that end, she stays true to Indian tradition and won’t allow anyone to leave without having food or drink. As Tribalfare continues to grow, Akolkar hopes to use her space as a venue for events, food tastings, workshops and cultural education. But for now, she’ll let her products spark those conversations — with a little help from her, of course.
Upcoming workshops at Tribalfare:
House of Tribalfare
288 W 14 Mile Rd, Clawson