There seems to be a race in fashion—to make it corporate. The battle between Reliance Brands Ltd and the Aditya Birla group has been widely reported, with both having been on an active shopping spree to acquire homegrown fashion labels. But a third player has emerged in the race: Abhishek Agarwal, 33, the founder of Purple Style Labs (PSL), the luxury fashion house that runs multi-designer destination Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop and has acquired labels like Hemant Trevedi and Wendell Rodricks. On 26 September, PSL announced it is launching Six Yards by Madhuri Dixit Nene (also an investor in the company), a section for saris under Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop. Agarwal is playing by his own rules.
“The Indian fashion designer industry needed a bridge linking them to the corporate and financial world,” Agarwal, a former banker from Odisha’s Roukela and a trained aerospace engineer from IIT-Bombay, offers as the reason for starting PSL seven years ago.
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When it comes to his approach to the fashion business, despite his penchant for international luxury (he enjoys wearing Balenciaga and Off White, and recently bought a Maserati), he wants to focus on homegrown labels. It makes sense. Research by McKinsey shows India’s apparel industry will be worth $59.3 billion by the end of 2022, ranking sixth in the world, and over 300 international brands are expected to launch stores in India in the next few years. India is also a unique market proud of its own fashion culture that has not gone fully “western” in its dress codes. The Indian wardrobe continues to be diverse, with the closet housing everything from a sari to a tuxedo.
Identifying the opportunity in 2015, Agarwal (known to his friends as Monty) decided he wanted to create India’s largest ingenious luxury house in the form of PSL.
To gain experience and understand the industry more, he worked with young and small designer brands in the initial three years of PSL. “My biggest learning in that phase was the lack of an aggressive multi-designer platform that will lead the growth of the industry from the front,” he says. In 2018, he acquired Pernia’s Pop Up Shop, which has since expanded 50x to become the largest omni-channel multi-designer platform for Indian luxury fashion. His company has helped develop e-commerce platforms for other designers as well, including Tarun Tahiliani.
“He has clarity of vision and is as cool as a cucumber, which is rare in this industry,” says Tahiliani, 60. “Unlike us designers who are product driven, Monty has a bird’s eye view and understands demographics and technology.”
Agarwal’s choices of homegrown labels remain out of the box, be it Hemant Trevedi, a designer who been out of the limelight for some years, and Wendell Rodricks, a label which at the time of the buyout only had one flagship store in Goa.
At a time when a brand like Reliance-owned Satya Paul is moving away from its sari-based heritage, Agarwal is starting a sari brand. Talking about launching the Madhuri Dixit Nene sari brand, he says, “Sarees have always been an all-time favourite among our shoppers.”
While it’s too early to say how corporate funding has changed the trajectories of brands bought by Aditya Birla and Reliance, within months of PSL’s buyout of the Wendell Rodricks label, its creative head Schulen Fernandes (handpicked by the late Rodricks) stepped down over a difference in vision with the new owner. But Agarwal is not scared to rock the boat.
“We have grown the Wendell Rodricks Label to a monthly run-rate ₹1 crore-plus sales,” he claims. “There are three standalone stores in Mumbai for the brand and we plan to open at least 20 more, including some international ones over the next three years.” The brand has also expanded to include categories like accessories, bed and bath. “I have always admired the patience of Indian designers as brand builders. They are able to give years into building brand equity without a hunger for revenue and valuation. The same thing puzzles me as well because we always have a much faster growth trajectory in our mind,” he says. He is now looking to go charging ahead, and make at least 10 new brands a part of PSL over the next 20 years. “Our current target is to do one acquisition or a joint venture every two years and ensure we build each of them to a minimum ₹1,000 crore brand value within five to 10 years of acquisition,” he says. Few months ago, PSL received $10 million in Series B funding from a group of investors, including Dixit Nene and Akash Bhansali, the Enam Holdings director. While this will not give him the deep pockets of the large corporations, he is still one to keep an eye on. As often in fashion, it is the most unexpected player who succeeds.
Designers believe it is his “outsider perspective” that works in his favour. Says designer Amit Aggarwal, who works independently, “The naivety or rather the lack of knowledge of this industry is working in their favour the most. They don’t judge a product with preconceived notions and are not scared to choose a product. They look at a product, they understand its potential and they unleash it. They are a lot more open-minded; it’s refreshing.”
Could Agarwal be the tonic Indian fashion is looking for? Or could his haste and commerce first approach lead to burnout, and perhaps in the end one of the long term corporate players will buy him out (as happened to Domenico De Sole with Gucci). Only time will tell.
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Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and mindful fashion advocate.