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Would you buy couture online?

As couture designers, brands and labels begin to take to e-commerce platforms, high fashion gets a virtual reset

Couture on display on the e-commerce website of J.J. Valaya.
Couture on display on the e-commerce website of J.J. Valaya.

Think couture, and what comes to mind is intricately detailed clothes made to order by fashion houses and customized for clients. The term—meaning “high sewing" in French—has merged with occasion-wear in India, showcasing the country’s diverse and rich craftsmanship.

Couture spells bespoke, so the approach has always been personalized, with the process involving detailed interactions between the label and the client, right from choosing the design to the final fitting. “It (couture) is an experience that’s specifically for yourself. It’s going into a store and buying something for yourself that suits your colour, height and parts of your body," says Tina Tahiliani Parikh, executive director of Ensemble India.

Selling couture online, then, involves a whole new set of processes and complexities.

During the covid-19 pandemic, several Indian labels and designers specializing in couture took the plunge and launched/relaunched their e-commerce platforms, keeping in mind the approaching festive and wedding season. These range from new platforms, such as those of Raw Mango, Akaaro by Gaurav Jai Gupta, Rahul Mishra, Vaishali S. and Gaurav Gupta, to relaunches of websites with contemporary e-commerce services, such as Tarun Tahiliani and J.J. Valaya. It also includes retailers such as Ensemble India and Curato.

How it works

Apart from the general process of ordering couture on a website, fashion houses and retailers have been initiating virtual styling consultations for clients. This includes discussing the garment, offering high-resolution photographs of it, and video calls, amidst considerable back and forth.

Designer duo Falguni and Shane Peacock, who have been running a dedicated website for their couture collections for four years, say they have built a large international market. “For this audience, we have had a virtual styling service for the last two years and all of the client’s needs and our suggestions are discussed on them," says Shane.

Valaya, who launched his e-commerce platform in August, says, “People don’t need to be afraid of buying online any more because there are so many ways of making sure that you are getting what you want." The virtual appointments offered by his brand involve seeing the garment inside out and up close, and being sent the muslin or toile for fittings (no matter where the client is based in the world) before the final garment is sent. “There’s very little room for error," claims Valaya.

Tahiliani Parikh says, “Oftentimes, we (at Ensemble) would have someone with a similar height and weight try the ordered garment on and show them (the client)." With the lockdown regulations easing gradually, garments can also be sent home for trial.

Making it user-friendly

Since the value of couture lies in its physical and human experience, it’s important to understand how the brand and retailer ethos has been translated online for a seamless digital experience. There are few buyers for online couture at the moment but designers and retailers believe quality is not a worry for customers since they are assured of those benchmarks.

There are, however, other concerns. As Shane says: “A website works for two reasons; to know the brand and to find out what it sells. But a third factor of a human interface becomes important because the customers need that guarantee that since they are spending so much money, their clothes will be looked into carefully." So brand customer services are active and available on hyper-connected apps, like WhatsApp.

Nisha Kundnani, founder of Bridelan India, a consultancy service for South Asian weddings, says she’s currently handling about 20 weddings. “In the wake of the pandemic, brands have come to understand the client’s needs with sensitivity, care and quickness to make sure the latter are satisfied. The human aspect of couture is not really lost but has (in fact) been enhanced," she says.

Ways to help clients include naming every garment on the website, like Falguni and Shane Peacock do, or including an “Inspiration Story"—the designer’s mood board of the creative references for the garment on display—like Valaya does.

The idea of a virtual store isn’t far away. Designer Vaishali S.’ flagship store in Mumbai has already beenvirtually rendered on her website—customers can take a tour and click on products for information.

Valaya, who is working on a virtual experiential space for 2021, says the current website design is different from the brand’s physical stores. “The translation of the brand’s physical store presence on the e-commerce website is not the experience I want to give my clients. The virtual experiential space will be much larger, and the customer will be able to holistically see what the brand is all about, with the brand’s other parts, such as Valaya Home, my fashion photography and the brand’s licensed projects, with other brands such as Swarovski, on display."

Overcoming Challenges

No matter how transparent virtual reality makes the shopping process, there are bound to be customer concerns about not being able to physically experience the garments.

“People are now sure about what they want to wear, or at least which designer they want to wear, especially for occasions. They have done their research," maintains Shane. But a change of mind is only human. With the growing number of choices, websites and options, decisions may take time. Kundnani says customers who don’t use personal shopping services should opt for safer, classic choices in terms of design and textile or buy from designers or retailers they are familiar with.

Valaya says: “More than touch-and-feel, the most magical moment for me is when the customers try the garment on. There’s a tangible shift in their psychology, because they might have discovered exactly what they were looking for. Clothes, especially couture, should always be bought by wearing them. And we are trying to strike a balance there, through photographs of the garments on models, still and in movement, and from all angles." It’s a feature used by several e-commerce websites.

The additional problem for customers is being able to imagine the garment in their size, or their preferred fabric, colours and embroidery. Since “every little sense of the customer has to come alive", in Valaya’s words, such concerns are tackled during virtual consultations. Falguni and Shane Peacock are also able to send swatches of the details once the purchase has been finalized.

And if the customer is not happy? “Brands are now taking queries from customers more seriously and will try to deliver the experience of couture in other ways now," says Kundnani. Policies vary but she recalls a recent experience where the brand Gaurav Gupta remade a blouse for a bride who was not completely happy with what they had given her, without charging extra.

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