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Bringing suits into the bigger picture

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For years, has withstood the test of time to churn out the best in tailor-made suits, shirts and trousers. A family-run business, Images Business of Fashion talks to the brand’s third generation and business partner, , about the company’s steady growth as a prominent brand in the south.

Initial years

On the hallway of the office, stands a laminated, black and white portrait of the late Pishe Narayan Rao, who has left behind a rich legacy for his children and grandchildren for years to come. Known to be a very thrifty person, the founder of one of Bengaluru’s treasured and favoured maker of men’s suitings was also considered extremely firm and tight in his fist when it came to conserving and saving; a value he imbibed into his bloodline.

Tailoring was a trade that P N Rao picked up from the Khastriyas, who were displaced from Maharashtra during a civil war between caste communities. It was after learning the skills in the trade that P N Rao opened his first 100 sq.ft. area outlet in the heart of Bengaluru’s prime commercial area on M G Road, during the British era in India. “It started growing from there,” points out Ketan Pishe, grandson and one of the partners of P N Rao. To the manor born, Ketan is polished, eloquent and suave down to the last detail.

“So this was the beginning of P N Rao,” he goes on to explain, “Most of the customers
during that time (which was the British era) were mostly women. There were lots
of haberdashery on the gowns that were stitched in those days. Later, when the British
started to go back, my grandfather started focusing on the menswear section. There
were two main categories that yielded a lot of orders during that time; one came from
the British garrison and the other from the many so-called institutions and other large
corporations of those days. This was the second stage in the business, which was
happening during India’s independence.” According to Ketan, his grandfather would
get many orders for shirts and trousers from the British garrisons, which required
him to source out every possible material, including mosquito nets and special canvas
drill fabrics which needed special scissors and wax for stitching. At this point, the P N
Rao store, which also had a work unit, retailed mostly menswear as the womenswear grew less prominent. A lot of the materials were imported and also found locally, but most of the time, the resources used to come through the short trade channels of that time.
“The next stage came when my grandfather thought of selling ready to wear, which was
during the late 60s,” said Ketan. “It was during the 60s and 70s that ready-to-wear
began to make its foray into the country. My uncle, who was still rather young in those
days, would tell me stories about how his father was extremely sceptical about ready-to-
wear, as it might affect the tailor-made business. Over a period of time, ready-to-wear
started taking up its own space in the store.” There were other big brands like
Liberty, Four Seasons and Double Barrel (later rebranded as Raymond) that had a
prominence in the market and were also one of the first few companies to stand out and
stock up on ready-to-wear products.

Suits: The new category
The two main categories that P N Rao had started out with were shirts and trousers
and slowly jackets as well. The store had also started functioning as a multi-brand outlet
(MBO), as there were stocks of accessories such as under garments and blankets that
were sourced out from other brands. At this point, suits were not readily available as a
product category anywhere else and had to be personally tailored. Ketan points out that
there were not many options but a few jackets from Double Barrel. Bengaluru was a small place and had a smaller population. Most of the customers who walked into the store were known people. The scenario was such that one would often find regular customers sending their drivers to pick up orders as well as accessories.

It was only during the early 1990s that P N Rao actually began to experiment with tailoring suits and it soon became a category that occupied a small space within the store. The family grew adventurous and took the next step of expanding their range of suits while other categories soon began to lose their relevance. The store had a certain amount of limited space and the bulk of the business obviously occupied the most.
The accessories soon disappeared and the number of shirts and trousers also declined
in number. Towards the early 2000, the P N Rao family realised that suits were their
biggest sellers, including the branded ones stocked in the store. During this time,
Ketan had also got his hands into the family business and had set about rebranding the
company along with his family partners. Elaborates Ketan, “In the early 2000, we
realised that suits was a big category for us. So we took the big step as we had reached a
new milestone, where we decided to rebrand ourselves as we are today. We were clear
about rebranding ourselves into the suit business. The logo carries the inspiration of
the herring bone weave, which is considered a timeless weave that has been around for
centuries. So we came out with this rebranding exercise that said ‘Suits equals P N Rao’. We realised what our competitive edge was and the direction we wanted to take.”

All this time, P N Rao was still operating through their one single store located on M G Road. With the urge to expand and reach out to more customers, the family opened their second store in Jayanagar, in Bengaluru.

Product categories

According to Ketan, understanding consumer behaviour and trends has always been a plus point with the family. He explains, “At any given point of time, we know where the market lies and how we want to position ourselves against that understanding. The changes needed to be made in the categories, services and offerings. We have discussions around these aspects even today. The reason why we do this is to stay relevant and understand the market. We like to be known as the curators of fashion. We bring the best in the market into one store.”

P N Rao now works in such a way that it offers the best pricing for the middle, upper-middle and premium customer. A ready-to-wear or tailored suit would work out from Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 10,000. The ready-to-wear suits are further categorised into formal, fashion and designer wear. The fabric section is priced based on products such as wool, poly wool, etc. The shirt category, which also comes in ready-to- wear, came about after the family noticed that there was a huge gap in the market.

Says Ketan, “We realised that the kind of products that we were looking for were not coming to our table easily. So, we came up with our own line of shirts and our own brand, called Signature Wear by P N Rao. My grandfather’s signature is used as the logo for this in-house brand. The shirts in the fabric segment are well known for the classic formal line. We also have a good understanding of the pattern and design of shirts. The share of trousers in the ready-to-wear segment is still very small.”

The Signature Wear by P N Rao is a formal shirt category, which is well-fitted and
stitched with superior fabric, using very subtle elements of detail. This category has also
been extended to eveningwear. He adds, “The real reason why we started this private label around three years ago is because we saw that these trends were going to change. Brands are not moving fast enough.”

Today around 40-50 percent of the shirt business comes from the Signature Wear brand collection. Another 30-40 percent comes from the wedding section, which brings in a huge chunk of business as it is during weddings that consumers really spend extravagantly.

Apart from the stores expanding their reach, the production unit had moved out of the space that it had occupied in the store to the P N Rao’s residence, where the family was running the cutting department. The unit further expanded to another floor and when the store had expanded its retail presence in Jayanagar, another production facility had to be opened.

“Later, when we were deciding on opening our third store, we thought of consolidating on the workshop,” explained Ketan. “So for Bengaluru, we have one production unit that serves all the five stores, located centrally, near Shivajinagar. The unit is quite large, where we have around 150-175 people working with us. As far as equipment is concerned, we use top of the line stuff. We do not have much of a choice in this. We have made critical investments to provide the best for the machines and embroidery machines from agents,” he added.

The product range grew standardised, which also made things easier at the production level. All the employees were trained or apprenticed under seniors before running a particular method independently. Of course, running a production unit also came with challenges and for P N Rao, it was more of an industry challenge. The fact that labour in India has been never organised opposed a great threat to running an otherwise organised business. A business that involved customers who rated quality, commitment
and consistency in the product, Ketan points out that certain qualities had to be
inculcated.

He adds, “So often, the requirement and the quality often pull things into different
directions. We do have attrition, but it is not that people have left us high and dry.
Training can take time and also slow down production. ”

Today, P N Rao is also backed up with their in-house design team that is focused on the
newly evolved shirt category and accessories. The customers now walk into the store and
are provided a catalogue where they pick everything along with advice provided by specially designated stylists at the store.

The stores
P N Rao has a total count of six outlets, out of which five are in Bengaluru and one in
Chennai. The flagship store has always remained as the brand’s best performing
store, but Ketan insists that all the other stores are slowly gaining prominence
through the years.

The P N Rao family had debated on getting into the manufacturing space as well but
once the stores had expanded, primary focus went into the front-end and retail side
of the business. The retail outlets operate within a space of 3,500-4,500 sq.ft. area.
All stores are designed to break even in the first 6 months or even first year of starting
operations.

The family is contemplating on going online with their product offerings and in the
meanwhile, expand to another store in the next one year.

Trends: Then & now
The formalwear category during those years went along with the kind of profession one
had that led to the term ‘workwear’. Ketan further explains, “From our perspective, we have been associated with the workwear category way before the ready made category even came about and gained acceptance like how it has today.” Tailored clothing was highly occasion-based, such as the special attire P N Rao tailored for people who attended horse races during that era. At the same time, people who went to a ball sported different attire. On the down side, Ketan finds that people do not dress for occasions anymore. “If you look at the evolution side, that is something that has been forgotten in the present day, as people have completely forgotten how to dress for any occasion. So, at P N Rao we have already started talking about this and even trying to go on a large scale as much as we can, as we have noticed that these days, people try to wear whatever they can at work and wear the same while they go out in the evening for a party, or for an interview. They think they can get away with it! We are trying to tell our consumers that they need to understand what they are dressing for and basically dress for the occasion. So we have a slightly different take on this dress for work category,” he shared.

He further explains that ready-to-wear boomed in India around 15-20 years ago with brands like Louis Philippe and Arrow marking their presence in the market. Customers would often pick shirts, though the idea of buying a shirt has changed tremendously to be defined as smart casual shirts; there is a steady growth in casual wear as opposed to formal wear. Jackets and suits have gone through interesting transformations, as now working professionals have begun to wear suits at work. The jackets are made lighter in weight where the brand has innovated a lined, half lined and unlined jacket.

The family has also taken up projects where they are tied up with global companies who
have an open bench setup and furniture that do not really provide a formal workplace atmosphere. Ketan points out that there are several companies who are severe in their dress code and often have employees walking in with velcro or stick-on ties. He says, “So we advise people on what to wear and what kind of accessories to carry. We
do this sort of presentation to improve the knowledge of dressing.”

KETAN PISHE: A Profile

Ketan’s studies took him to the UK, where he pursued studies in business and then ventured into research at the London College of Fashion. Following this, he earned
experience at a buying house, where he worked as an agent and often found himself
sitting on a fence between the brand and factory but earned a thorough understanding
of the nuances of the business.

When he finally entered the P N Rao family business for the first time, early in the year
2000, Ketan had to start from scratch. This began with understanding of consumer
requirements on the shopping floor, buying, selling and spending. He dwelled a great
deal of time in the tailoring department, which involved the understanding of details
such as the making of a jacket fitting. Very soon he took responsibility of the buying
functions of the business. Teamed up with his parents and cousins, who are also partners
in the business, the family began to look at the brand from a marketing perspective
and soon understood how they wanted to be re-positioned. Once the rebranding was
done, the family enterprise set out on their expansion plans meticulously.

Polished and well travelled, Ketan priorities his day in terms of strategies where he focuses mostly on developmental areas in the family business. The P N Rao company operates from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., where Ketan takes time to visit the outlets at least twice a week, while his cousin looks after the production unit. Reports on the operational side of the business and meetings among category heads bring requirements for the
next few weeks.

“I also dedicate time to various suppliers of various products to discuss and further develop the business for the future. It is always a challenge,” informed Ketan.

Inspired by the American brand, Brookes Brothers, Ketan has an eye for young, sophisticated designs and styles.