There is a race on in Indian fashion. The trophy is the throne of the country’s first global fashion brand. Players? It’s slowly becoming clear who they are.
The news that Reliance-owned companies have invested in two leading fashion labels, Manish Malhotra and Ritu Kumar, show a global business opportunity. Both the investments will now come under Reliance Brands Ltd (RBL), a company known for partnering international luxury brands such as Giorgio Armani, Jimmy Choo and Burberry. RBL is not the only mega Indian corporate to show interest in homegrown fashion, though. Two years ago, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL), owners of menswear brands like Louis Philippe and Allen Solly in the Indian market, bought a 51% stake in Finesse International Design Pvt. Ltd, which owns bespoke apparel brand Shantanu and Nikhil. The corporate followed this up with a 51% stake in the Sabyasachi brand at the start of 2021 and a minority stake in Tarun Tahiliani, a label known for its bridalwear.
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Why are these companies now looking to work with homegrown players? India is one of the world’s top fashion markets. Interestingly, the sari remains the most sold garment, and most Indian women’s wardrobes are still full of ethnic garments. While it makes sense to take a more localised approach for the domestic market, it is clear the corporations are thinking beyond India. In many of his press interviews, RBL president-chief executive officer Darshan Mehta has spoken about how he believes the next Giorgio Armani could come from India. Reliance, it would seem, is betting that Manish Malhotra, with his huge social media following and Bollywood connections, could perhaps become India’s answer to Armani.
Malhotra, too, has not hidden his desire to be a global player. He has maintained that the strategic investment allows him to take his ambitions forward, even if he does need to play catch up. Sabyasachi, who recently opened his fine jewellery store at Dubai’s Bayt Damas, is now set to open a flagship in New York, just a few minutes walk away from Anita Dongre’s store.
The House of Anita Dongre, which has five brands under its banner, had received investment of $20 million for 23% of the company in 2013 from US private equity firm General Atlantic. So far, it seems to have mainly attracted a global Indian buyer, which in itself, is already a huge business opportunity.
According to a 2020 UN report, India has the world’s largest diaspora population, with 18 million Indians living away from home. With this diaspora now identified as big spenders in the US, UK and Middle East, Indian fashion labels have a readymade audience, especially when it comes to bridal and occasional wear. So while these two brands may have already made inroads, the playing field is still wide open.
The outsider in the race is Rahul Mishra, a regular at Paris Couture Week, who doesn’t have any corporate backing. In the past few months, Mishra has received an increasing number of global enquiries, especially from China and Japan. “In September, we reached our monthly target in just a week, and much of this from overseas,” he says. “It’s no longer just the Indians who are buying.”
Wearing Indian has never been so fashionable. Odisha-born New Yorker Bibhu Mohapatra, who has his eponymous fashion label’s flagship store in New York’s trendy Tribeca, says, “This a good time to be Indian, and the world is looking for a label that speaks to global audience but started in Indian, so has a unique voice.”
Fern Mallis, creator of the New York Fashion Week and a former consultant to the Lakme Fashion Week, adds, “I have always been complimented on the Indian clothes I wear and asked, ‘Can I buy it here?’, and my answer has always been no. There’s definitely a market here, but it must be designed and edited for America. They need to know what sells in Los Angeles or Miami is not what sells in New York or Chicago, and the same goes for Europe.”
She’s unsure if the current crop of corporate investments will be enough to help Indian designers become global. Mallis says: “I hope this funding can help make this happen... . They seem to be better suited for reorganising and building their domestic business. They are not an LVMH (which owns super brands such Louis Vuitton and Dior) or Kering (owners of Gucci and Alexander McQueen, among others), which are immersed in the fashion business.”
Mohapatra agrees: “It is not just about money, it is about commitment and vision, understanding this market and having the right network in this market is another pull game.”
Sabyasachi looks to be in the best position, but things can change quickly. Giving him an advantage is the fact that he has worked closely with New York’s Bergdorf Goodman. “Plus he has width already. This is something all designers, and I include myself, need to understand. You to need to be more than a special occasionwear label if you want to make it globally. Sabyasachi has a wide portfolio, from jewellery to belts,” says Mohapatra.
It is too early to place any bets, though. “Do not write off the designers without investments,” adds Mohapatra. There are younger designers making their own tracks internationally, like Dhruv Kapoor. It’s still much an open race for now, and while there will no doubt be a clear winner eventually, just participating in this race makes you a changemaker.
Dress Sense is a monthly fashion column that takes a look at the clothes that we wear every day and what they mean to us.
Sujata Assomull is a journalist, author and a mindful fashion advocate.
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