For over 50 years, Ritu Kumar has been holding a flashlight to the rich textiles and craft histories of India. While creating a design dictionary through her garments over the decades, the matriarch of Indian fashion has also moved with the times, making space for more current silhouettes in traditional prints and weaves.
The latest endeavour to amplify the reach of Ritu Kumar’s legacy is aarké, a sub-brand conceptualised by her son, Amrish, which offers kurtas, kurtis, dresses, suit-sets, tops and bottoms for women who want “affordable designer wear”. Unlike the premium prices of Ritu Kumar, generally over ₹10,000, an aarké top, with the promise of RK aesthetics intact, would set you back by around ₹1,400. The most you may shell out at its online store would be around ₹5,500 on a dress.
The timing of the launch isn’t bad. The covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on incomes and the spending habits of consumers. The idea of owning a designer garment that offers the promise of comfort under ₹6,000 does have its appeal, especially if you are a bored millennial working from home and indulging in retail therapy to find joy, even if fleetingly. It wasn’t intentional, though, as Amrish, the managing and creative director of Ritu Kumar, tells me. “We were supposed to launch it last year but then the pandemic happened. It’s not a new idea, for sure,” he says. “Going down the value segment has been on our mind for long but timing is always critical, no? It was important that we created some sort of scale with the brands that we had so that introducing a brand in this segment wouldn’t dilute the overall Ritu Kumar idea.” Before aarké, Amrish had launched Label—Ritu Kumar, more boho-chic and global in silhouette, in 2002, and Home, for home furnishings and décor, in 2019, the brand’s 50th year. “For aarké, we are focused on online at the moment. We will take a call after six months (for retail stores),” says the 43-year-old, adding that during the pandemic, the Ritu Kumar brand saw a 60% rise in customers online.
His acumen, along with Ritu’s determination to make the world more aware of Indian textiles, has helped the brand grow from a boutique business, started in 1969 with four hand-block printers and two tables in a small village near Kolkata, to a pan-India women’s apparel company that boasts of over 90 stores.
For Amrish then, aarké is about a casual, young and relaxed offering, but for Ritu, it’s “completing a full circle”. Her design journey started when her 20-something self, a museology student, came across a small colony of jobless hand-block printers in West Bengal’s Serampore village, during an archaeological dig. “I began my journey with hand-block prints and chintz (from the Hindi word meaning “spotted”; a plain woven, printed or solid-colour, glazed cotton fabric) and aarké has all of it,” she says. “It was high time we took the Indian story beyond the metros.”
The DNA rules
With a well-known mother brand deeply immersed in tradition and culture and embedded in India’s design story, it can be difficult to create a niche sub-brand with its own individual identity. It’s a fact not lost on Amrish.
“Of course it is, especially when the brand has such a strong equity and connotation in the customer mind,” he says. “The thing is, the new customer has changed a lot. It was absolutely critical for survival to be able to move with the time, but we also found the brand was well regarded; it was always a classic brand. We were not being able to tap into the younger customer. So, rather than changing the main brand, we created sub-brands. But then, for a long time, most of the brands didn’t look that different. All the branches (sub-brands) were operating at the same stores. We had to create new stores. That’s why it has taken a while for the sub-brands to become separated properly. But having said that, we have a base DNA, which will never change…. That DNA will go into all the brands. Though the cuts (of Label and aarké) are very, very contemporary, but yeah the prints have some relevance to each other, and it’s also sustainable.”
One of the common explanations given for the lack of good quality, or so-called sustainable, garments is the high production price. When I ask Amrish how he has managed to keep the price low without compromising on quality, he doesn’t get into too many details. “We mostly use natural fibres, so our footprint is very less.”
As for creating a niche for aarké in an already crowded clothing market where it will be competing with brands like Biba and W for Woman, he says: “Well, we are not starting at Ground Zero. That’s a plus. We have 50 years of experience in selling clothes to Indian women. So we feel like we know a few things. That’s usually half the battle. The other half is execution. Right? So, yes, it’s crowded, but the market is also huge. We are 1.2 billion people. There’s enough space.”