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Made in India T-Shirts


Since Their Creation About a Century Ago, t-Shirts Have Evolved Into a Us$ 2-Billion Market In India Today. And While The Indian Knitwear Exports Sector Is Booming, The Indian Market Is Yet To See a ‘Made In India’ Mega Brand Emerging. So What Is Needed To Make Such a Brand. a Brand That Can Make And Sell Even One t-Shirt Each To India’s Young Population Will Be a World Beater.

Established in 1966 at Ludhiana, Duke was one of the pioneers in the t-shirt culture in the country. Similarly,  Proline pioneered the active t-shirts segment and  forayed into the Indian market in 1983. The next was  Casablanca. The t-shirt market in India is generally divided into two sub-categories – activewear and casualwear. The  active sports category has Nike, Reebok, Adidas, etc. And to compete hard with other top exporters of cotton knits, the casual t-shirts segment has on side International players  like Tommy Hil?ger, Woodland, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, etc. selling the ?nest quality t-shirts, at the other end of the spectrum is this huge unorganised, unbranded export surplus markets where t-shirts are produced and sold by the dozens  for the masses.

Growth of Knitwear Industry in India

According to a study by the consultancy ? rm Wisedge, knitwear constitutes 50 percent of the domestic apparel market in India and 45 percent of the apparel exports from India. The growth of knitwear has been upward of 9-10 percent vis-à-vis around 5 percent globally. While India has it has managed to carve a special niche for itself driven by some special knitwear hubs.

Growth in The Hubs

Today, the hosiery industry in India is valued at around Rs. 16,000 crore. Tirupur, a mega hub for knitwear production in fact saw surging 30 percent between April 2013 and March 2014. Tirupur’s growth was driven by its cost competitiveness. Experts say products manufactured in Ludhiana, another major hub, are 3-5 percent costlier than those made in Tirupur. And this difference is signi?cant in the global textiles business.

Time and again, exports from Tirupur have come under threat on issues of environmental pollution, closing down of bleaching and dyeing units and child labour. Ludhiana also faced rough waters due to labour crisis and technology glitches. Plus the slowdown in 2012 was also a setback to small retailers and manufacturers in both the hubs, resulting in mounting inventories from previous season. Kiwi fashions that supplies to European garment manufacturers such as Norprotex, Chantal SAS and Bonneterie De Groote saw a sharp decline in their orders from 10,000 to 6000 pieces. While Tirupur has about 1,500 knitting units and 2,500 garment-making units, only 50 are able to do business of over `crore. Over the years, almost 300 odd units have stopped producing.

Though the knitwear units in Tirupur faced the slowdown in orders and low growth in exports, for the last three years they have improved the production systems and are able to meet the quality, delivery schedule and compliance requirements of the buyers now.

The growth in exports was made possible by the entrepreneurs’ efforts to tap newer markets. Traditionally, Tirupur was dependent on the US and Europe for its revenues – about 30 percent from the US and 60 percent from Europe. On the other hand, Ludhiana catering to 95 percent of the woollen hosiery demands of Indian consumers, was badly hit due to poor technology and enterprise skills. The prime difference between the two hubs is that Tirupur entrepreneurs’ products, which are cotton-based to the extent of 85–90 percent, have been innovated upon quickly according to the demands in the foreign markets. The town already supplies to leading fashion labels, including Tommy Hil?ger, Levi’s, Diesel, Reebok, as well as to retailers such as Walmart, Target and Mothercare. Ludhiana too is reviving and had registered a growth of 20 percent in 2012-13, due to adapting to newer technologies, innovation in design and new products. It is now expecting to ride the robust demand in the domestic market.

India Versus the World

The two leading hubs faced stiff competition from the developing markets of Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, etc, besides having to face challenges over wage costs differentials, low production costs and technology. Removal of excise duty on branded garments in 2011 came as a boon for the two towns, especially Ludhiana. Along with the duty-free legal imports of textile and garment items from Bangladesh, the Indian industry has to face stiff competition from illegal imports from China, especially of cheap hosiery products. A Sakthivel, chairman, Apparel Export Promotion Council (AEPC) says, “With China showing more interest in the engineering and IT sector and Bangladesh being looked at as a non-compliant country, global players, both in traditional and non-traditional markets, are eyeing India’s potential for outsourcing with great interest.” This has fetched orders from England and Japan. The exporters of Tirupur are also trying to tap the new markets of Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and South Africa.

New Emerging Hubs

Today, the knitwear industry is spread across the nation. It used to be Tirupur and Ludhiana some years back but now it has spread to cities like Bengaluru, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Vapi, and Mumbai, which has some good units producing close to 5 million pieces a month (t-shirts and other knitwear). “It looks like globalisation will drive business out of Tirupur,” says Tarun Jain, MD, Brooks International. He further adds that customers will and are moving to low-cost destinations like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia that offer a better value proposition. Around 42 percent of t-shirts manufactured in India are exported to the US with average value per shipment of t-shirts exports in India being US$ 36,791, according to Technopak Advisors.

“Major brands such as Disney have already diverted orders from other countries to India, which is now 5 percent cheaper than China. This, along with India’s strengths in quality, design, delivery and communication, also helps India attract more orders,” Sakthivel of AEPC adds. But despite this roller coaster ride in the manufacturing hubs in India, the industry has not been able to give Indian markets its own brand of t-shirts. Today, the Indian retail market does not witness the best quality of t-shirts which are being exported to US and EU from Tirupur. “T-shirts were at one point of time only considered as apparel for minors and the youth; they were more of a cheap slip-on garment. Consumers did not want to spend `for a t-shirt when they could get a formal shirt paying just an additional `,” says designer Pooja Banthia of Viraasat Boutique.

It was Never About T-shirts in India

It was only after western markets started realising and celebrating Indian art and culture that players in India realised the importance of having an Indian expression of t-shirts. It was never about the technology or infrastructure, India had it all. It was purely the mindset of wearing t-shirts beyond the staple wardrobe,” says Shital Randar, garment exporter. There was a time when people felt why pay Rs. 800 for a t-shirt when a shirt could be bought at Rs. 1,200. “The primary reason for manufacturing t-shirts for International markets was due to price bandwidth and volumes. Indian retailers or consumers do not wish to pay that kind of a price band to buy a t-shirt produced by an in-house manufacturer,” says Jain of Brooks International.

“There are segments and sub-segments of consumers who prefer high-end brands like Ralph Lauren or US Polo and the other segment that still does not know what a t-shirt is and if carries any identity of expression. There are a huge number of customers shopping at every price-point and hence we could never think of producing t-shirt brands for Indian markets,” says Avnish Jindal, an exporter from Mumbai. He further adds, “We produce close to 5 million pieces in a day and the same quality goes to Walmart, Target or Kenneth & Cole. There is no issue in terms of prints, whereas in India, the market looks for variety in fabric, colour, style and various customisations, etc.”

“Despite the growth story, the segment is facing its own set of production and infrastructural hurdles with rising cotton and yarn prices. Strong competition from global brands is yet another challenge. Some International brands have entered the Indian t-shirt market at lower price bands and it is natural for customers to prefer them. We want to still manufacture for Indian markets as there is a potential to sell t-shirts in the price band of `-`but we need consumers in this segment who will be willing to buy them,” says a leading manufacturer from Tirupur. “Another problem is that the industry is fragmented and so is the consumer.

The small manufacturers and retailers especially in the unorganised market usually launch a comprised quality, colour, style and priced t-shirt and this poses a strong competition for us,” says a company spokesperson from Kapoor Exports in Ludhiana.

Manufacturers have all the technology and machines and can enhance the value of products by applying innovative ?nishing systems. The margins are huge in this business but it is a heavy investment and risky business with various processing stages. “If manufacturers are not able to cover their investment costs and meet economies, it does not make business sense to manufacture for those markets, and India is a part of it. Though we make for a few Indian retailers, we try and supply excess export surplus inventory as volumes are very less,” says a garment manufacturer in Vapi.

Recent Changes

Every challenge comes a new learning. In the past ?ve years, many Indian origin t-shirt brands have cropped up as a result of westernisation. They are largely inspired by the western markets in design, colour patterns, ?t and looks. “Yes, India has been a manufacturing hub to some of the best brands across the globe but they are primarily manufactured for the International markets. They are meant for 100 percent exports and, thus, the products do not even hit the domestic market. However, this also justi?es the manufacturing expertise that India has and over a period, many domestic brands have mushroomed making their way domestically and internationally too,” says Harkirat Singh, MD, Woodland.

There are also players like Being Human who are manufacturing for India according to the preferences of the Indian consumer and within India but a small portion is exported as well. The USP of Being Human clothing is its t-shirts. The company produces around 1.5-2 million pieces a year. The t-shirts are mainly manufactured within India considering the high import duty. All the units are located at Tirupur, Bengaluru and Mumbai, and a maximum of them are produced in India to support the Indian manufacturing industry.

Gaurav Agarwal, chief, Lee Cooper says, “We produce about 12 lakh T-shirts a year in menswear and the sales happens within India. Apart from the metros and A-class cities, now with the advent of online channels, retailers are going into B-class towns and the sales have spread across markets. All the goods are sourced from Tirupur, Ludhiana and Ahmedabad.”

Animesh Maheshwari, vice president, RIOT, a retail venture of Suditi Industries, shares, “Riot is one of the few Indian manufacturers to produce and sell t-shirts in India itself with an integrated knitted garment manufacturing unit. Yarn is the only raw material sourced from Indian manufactures like Birla Cellulose, Reliance, etc., otherwise everything else is processed in-house.

”Recent Innovations in India

T-shirt forums state that t-shirts are probably the only item of clothing that can be worn at both formal and informal gatherings. The majority of t-shirts are made of 100 percent cotton, polyester, or a cotton and polyester blend. Environmentally conscious manufacturers may use organically grown cotton and natural dyes. Stretchable t-shirts are made of knit fabrics, especially jerseys, rib knits and interlock rib knits, which consist of two ribbed fabrics that are joined together. Knits are accepted as an all season product now. The products ranging from t-shirts, sweat shirts and bottoms transcend into the summer and winter seasons.

The styling changes and layering helps this category to become an all season product. It is no longer viewed as a product for the youth but even a 40-year-old desires similar look and styles. Tantra was the ?rst brand which brought about a revolution in the t-shirt industry and gave a whole new meaning to the concept of how t-shirts can be worn with a self-expression. Tantra gave voice to contemporary thought in desi-style t-shirts. The funky website started by selling t-shirts emblazoned with classic Indian yogis and elephants and combined it with naughty but funny slogans.

Café Coffee Day (CCD), the India-born coffee brand, has joined hands with Proline to launch a range of coffee themed t-shirts, which will be sold through the 1,250 plus CCD outlets in the country and a few of the major Coffee Express outlets. Both the brands are betting big on the online and digital mediums for growth. The tees will be sold at the outlets using the catalogue method while deliveries will be done within a week of placing order. “The plains are worn long and preferred by the matured class. What we need today are t-shirts in bright and neon colours, with funny slogans and texts, retro look, etc.,” says Siddharth Choudhary, a student. “Though most of our raw materials are imported from the best of the suppliers, our production units are spread across the globe – though dominated domestically,” says Singh of Woodland. Another brand, Style 05, focuses exclusively on t-shirts which can be best described as stylish, classy, cool and comfortable. Bamboo clothing, organic clothing, plastic converted to synthetic ?bres are some of the other innovations being used in the production of t-shirts today.

Many online apparel brands like Chulbulstore, Flipkart, Myntra, and Chumbak are coming up with their own brand of stylish, trendy, neon coloured, t-shirts by tying-up with manufacturers in Tirupur, Ludhiana, etc.

Technological Developments in Making T-shirts

Knitwear sector has undergone signi?cant changes and the gradual up-gradation of technology for better quality has been its surge. This is not all; there are not many players who are doing high-quality unique design T-shirts on a big scale. Various fabrics require different manufacturing processes, a few technologies which are picking up among Indian manufacturers in producing t-shirts is digital printing, with prints directly applied to fabrics with printers, reducing water usage by 95 percent, energy reduction of 75 percent, and minimising textile waste. Low-water and waterless dyeing are in. The other technology is that of air-dyeing, in which manufacturers work with proprietary dyes that are heat-transferred from paper to fabric in a one-step process; this way they save between seven and 75 gallons of water in the dying of a pound of fabric, save energy, and leave no harmful by-products.

High Productive Interlock machine by Mayer & Cie is now available in India to help manufacturers optimise costs. The needles in question are said are already being produced by Groz-Beckert in huge quantities, re?ecting the number of machines in the market. Accordingly, the needle price is low, which Mayer says makes production costs lower than with competitors’ machines.

Indians are innovating upon technology too. Direct panel on loom (DPOL) technology, also called smart tailoring, was created by Indian designer Siddhartha Upadhyaya as a way to increase fabric ef?ciency (by 15 percent) and reduce lead-time (by 50 percent) to manufacture high-end garments. By using a computer attached to a loom, data such as colour, pattern and size related to the garment is entered, and the loom cranks out the exact pieces, which then just need to be constructed. Weaving, fabric cutting, and patterning happen all at once.

This ?nds endorsement from brands. “Being an outdoor brand, we have always focused on technology being the enabler when one wishes to go out and explore these products across geographies. Some of our high quality t-shirts include patented technologies like pure green, wet lock, heat lock, tempfrost and super charged cotton,” says Singh from Woodland.

The t-shirt revolution is in its way in India. Retailers are ?nding buyers, brands are buoyant. Technology is making its mark. The initiative and belief unfortunately is at the retail end of the chain. The Indian knitwear mega manufacturers in the traditional knitwear hubs are still circumspect and not yet ready to bet on creating their own brand for India. In the Indian retail environment bigger things can be achieved if innovation is lead at the manufacturing side. The Indian consumer is waiting!