The past two years have seen a paradigm shift in corporate India’s approach to home-grown designer brands. Earlier this week, Reliance Brands Ltd (RBL) announced that it has joined hands with Rahul Mishra, the designer known for his celebration of Indian craft, for a 60:40 venture. Mishra will create a new, “mindful” ready-to-wear brand that offers easily manageable clothes. It will make its debut in September.
Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL), owner of menswear brands like Louis Philippe and Allen Solly in the Indian market, has a 51% stake in homegrown bespoke apparel brand Shantanu and Nikhil and the Sabyasachi Mukherjee label. It has also acquired a minority stake in Tarun Tahiliani, as well as a majority stake in Masaba Gupta’s brand.
The rules of the fashion industry are being rewritten. “It is about time,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, the governing body for all things fashion. “If you ask me, it’s five years too late. India fashion has been ready for the next phase for some time.”
For designers, this phase holds out the promise not just of a safety net but an opportunity to scale up, look beyond occasion wear—the bridal market, the bread and butter of Indian fashion, is estimated to be worth $50 billion ( ₹3.7 trillion)—make fashion more accessible, and go international.
Mishra explains the intent. “I started my career with prêt-á-porter. When I started with couture in 2015 at the India couture week, I got a larger canvas to play with and explore craft in different capacities.... Couture picked up momentum with each season and at the onset of the pandemic, there was a natural progression towards it as the couture business got doubled. It took away focus from ready-to-wear due to issues related to logistics and capacity. With this partnership, the intent is to focus on democratising fashion and dress people for more occasions.”
RBL's managing director, Darshan Mehta, believes “there is a large white space in the market for uniquely designed and beautifully produced ready- to-wear”. He says Indian design talent has been limited, essentially, to wedding lehngas. “The challenge is not only access—a garment which has 1,000 manhours going into its making is obviously expensive—but also the frequency of use. Beautifully designed and crafted fashion is limited by access to a handful of customers, and that too limited to two-three wears. The same design mindset can be tuned to producing something timeless and more accessible and maybe worn 10 times a year,” he argues.
It certainly seems to be a smart move from the country’s largest player in luxury, which has a portfolio of over 60 international brands in India, including Jimmy Choo, Giorgio Armani, Versace and Tory Burch. At home, RBL has bought stakes in Ritu Kumar, Manish Malhotra and Anamika Khanna’s prêt line AK-OK.
“Corporatisation of Indian fashion has been long overdue considering the heritage and modernity attached to India’s duality,” says Shantanu Mehra, one half of the label Shantanu and Nikhil, which got funding from ABFRL in 2019. It has brought with it, he says, “a safety net of sorts that has allowed us to push the envelope to be a more extravagant and larger creative force than ever. Several brands across the globe have got corporatised and have reached new heights in terms of scale, branding and customer.”
For the Indian shopper, it means designers will look beyond occasion wear. Shantanu and Nikhil’s retail presence of five couture stores has doubled, with four new S&N by Shantanu and Nikhil (their bridge-to-luxury line) stores across Delhi in 2020 and an e-commerce website. Tarun Tahiliani launched Tasva, a men’s prêt line, with a starting price at ₹1,599, as part of his deal with ABFRL, and they hope to launch 70 stores across India.
The customer has changed, notes Mehta, “from ‘logo purchase’ to her understanding of fashion as an extension of her persona. In a ‘flat world’, the circle of influence for any brand is determined less and less by geography. The ability to create ‘unboxing delight’ with consumers sitting across different continents is now both fast as also economically affordable. “Newer trends, such as pop-up stores, interesting cross-category collaborations, social commerce, livestream commerce and increasingly nomadic consumers who are global in their outlook, has reshaped our approach of looking at current and potential customers for brands in a geography-agnostic way,” he says.
Mishra believes the future lies in a direct-to-consumer approach. “Our plan is to take the whole Rahul Mishra Universe to different markets of the world.”
While every designer dreams of a presence in New York, Paris and London, the only Indian designer with a flagship store in an international fashion capital is Anita Dongre, who received international investment in 2013 and opened her New York flagship five years later.
There are signs of change. If Sabyasachi’s store is set to open this year in New York, Bollywood’s favourite designer Manish Malhotra seems to have his eyes set on the Middle East in the immediate future and Mishra plans to open stores for his new label in more than one major fashion capital in the not-so-distant future.
Anjali Patel Mehta, founder of the conscious resort wear label Verandah, has announced that her label will retail at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman; she has also raised about $1.2 million in seed funding. This will enable her to invest in logistics and technology, start a direct-to-consumer business and e-commerce and be available overseas.
As Sethi puts it, “The next phase of Indian fashion has just begun.”
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, an author and a mindful fashion advocate.
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