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Women’s Ethnic Wear in India: An Overview

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A decade ago, ethnic wear in India meant having outfits being customised by a local tailor, and, for those into designer wear having it designed by a designer. Not that women today do not have their salwar suits, kurtis, kurtas, patialas, etc., being tailored but with the advent of ethnic wear brands, tailoring has taken a backseat. Now, it is far more easy and reasonable to shop for a ready-made outfit. Images BoF looks at the market trends for ethnic wear.

Beyond doubt there has been a paradigm shift in a women’s wardrobe. Pairing a purple top with a yellow bottom is no longer out of question nor is the trend of opting to wear a salwar kameez without a dupatta. Readymade blouses are preferred for sarees, and scarves and stoles are more to add glamour to an outfit than to hide the cleavage or a protection against low necklines.

Director, Kalki Fashion, Nishit Gupta shared, “Women are more experimental today, they are breaking the stereotypes. Earlier for a bride, there was only one or two options like a red lehenga or a saree. But today, there is something for everybody with different liking. With respect to colours as well, one can find a wide range starting from pastels to pinks to reds till deep tones like teal, burgundy, maroon, etc.”

Head – Retail, Global Desi, Bijit Nair attributed that there has been a shift to the access, both to information around fashion trends, and to products. He said, “There were not many brands catering to the ethnic wear needs of Indian women, when our brand started two decades back. Today, however, the consumer is spoilt for choices.”

He added that how the LBD (little black dress) comes in 20 variants served by 50+ brands, and still a consumer might end up asking for a 21st variant, which she might have seen on an international blogger’s post.

Elaborating on the evolution of the women’s wear market in India over the last two decades and highlighting on the most prominent change, Director, Study By Janak, Vandy Mehta shared, “Two decades is a long time, today the changes are more short term, one can see things change in a year or 2, but the tremendous change has come in the last decade where the women’s wear market has seen a surge in terms of demands, women are looking at variety not only in colours but in detailing, silhouettes and are ready to experiment. Also the supply in the market has grown at least 10 folds, from mom and pop stores in every second household to large stores across the country. Added to that, the e-commerce that has made a staggering impact on the pricing model as well as offerings for a client. Major changes that I can point out is the expansion of the point-of-sales across channels that has stiffened the competition.”

Citing the prominent transitions as seen in India, Chief MD, SHR Lifestyle (Shree), Sandeep Kapoor shared, “In the past two decades, people have moved on from fabric purchase to readymade garment. Earlier people used to buy raw fabric, go to the tailor and get it stitched and there was no newness in the outfit as the patterns were more or less the same. Gradually, there was a transition to kurtis with leggings and without dupatta and now they are opting for fusion wear which has lots of varieties and styles to opt for.”

Sharing numbers of the market size for ethnic wear, Mehra said, “As of today women’s wear accounts for 38 per cent of the entire fashion retail segment, with an estimated worth of US $17.5 billion, with an expected CAGR of 9.9 per cent which will reach to US $44 billion in 2026. Ethnic wear is the largest contributor in this segment with 66 percent share and is expected to grow at 5 per cent.”

The Changing Retail Landscape

The women’s wear as a category has only picked up now with more and more women joining the workforce and also with the heavy influence of social media.

Gupta shared, “The Indian market in terms of women’s wear has changed drastically over the years. Everyday there is an emerging designer for women. Earlier there were very few options in clothing, since there is a great need of new designs now, newer designers are coming into the picture.”

Mehra added, “Earlier, there were few people who did large scale women ethnic wear in the branded segment, while keeping the large scale wholesalers out of this. But today, the line between a large scale retailer with brick-and-mortar store and online portal is thinning. Online retail too shows a growth in ethnic wear retailers. You see various bodies of fashion coming together to open stores. We are also witnessing a rise in the multi-designer retail outlets.”

Citing the reasons for the lack of brands in the yesteryears, Nair shared, “The situation earlier cannot be blamed on one factoralone. Regulations, limited market potential, unwillingness to experiment with western silhouettes and brands together may have kept a lot of brands out of the Indian market. And the situation has of course changed.”

Director, Shree Balaji Ethnicity Retail (Ethnicity), Ameet Panchal shared an interesting observation of how women’s wear is now drawing attention from the men’s wear brands as well.

He shared, “Urbanisation, increasing amount of disposable income, increasing brand consciousness and many other factors has propelled the growth of women’s wear market. Many major men’s brands have now started to enter into the women’swear segment, exploiting the highly lucrative segment.”

He feels that women’s wear is more complicated as compared to menswear as it is trends capricious and keeps changing swiftly. Whereas, men’s fashion tends to transform slowly with predictable changes. Panchal highlighted the importance of quality when it comes to women’s ethnic wear and also felt that when it comes to preferences, majority of the working women are more comfortable still with western wear.

He shared, “Women prefer quality clothing and are willing to pay higher prices for apparel that meet their expectations. Presence of natural fibres acts as a key identifier of quality apparel. Though much demand would be for traditional clothing, there will be a small portion of the female population, the working class who would go for formal attires. They prefer western outfits, and will contribute a major share in the consumption of the same. Today’s women try to create their own ensemble. They test mixing and matching their attires, and create new looks. They also prefer a favourable environment to shop in privacy.”

According to Kapoor, “Indian women are opting for fusion wear, as it defines elegance, style, royalty and class — all in one! It is modern and yet keeps our traditions alive.”

Reiterating the same, Gupta said, “On an overall, Indian women are more inclined towards fusion wear as compared to going totally western or totally ethnic. Blouses with cape detailing, dramatic sleeves, crop tops, tassels are some of the western elements that are infused with ethnic clothing.”

Panchal made an interesting point on the concept of fusion wear and said, “When fashion goes fusion, kurta becomes a tunic, dupatta becomes a stole, and salwar becomes a pair of trousers. Indian outfit can be given a western touch with creativity in waistlines, cuts in fabric, necklines, and other decorations. Indian prints can also be used in western outfits. Fusion wear comes with a variety and for people of all ages. Long skirts have become the fashion remake of traditional lehengas. Brides looking for the haute couture look are now going in for the Indo-western fusion look. Fusion bridal wear is mostly preferred by the NRI brides or by Indian brides who are getting married outside India.”

The Differentiators

Apart from unique designs, different silhouettes, vibrant prints and fabric, the other major differentiator for a brand to stand out from the competition would be having a face to a brand and also the brand positioning.

Elaborating on the brand positioning and essence, Panchal informed, “Biba, a Punjabi endearment for a young and pretty girl, is a homegrown ethnic wear brand. The brand started spreading its wings in and around the city as
the product’s styling and beautiful hand block prints started getting fantastic response from the local communities, including many film stars.”

Symbolising the strength and the spirit of today’s woman, Indian Inktoday, boasts of a complete garment set-up with knitting, dyeing, printing, finishing and garment departments. This also allows them to control all the processes in the value chain, thus increasing its ability to provide standardised good quality products. Brand, W, appropriates the mental mindscape of the contemporary urban Indian woman – a sensible confluence of Indian and western sensibilities. The brand is also a pioneer in introducing the concept of ‘mix-and-match’ in retail. The brand provided its customers a full wardrobe solution with different product ranges in the market.

The Road Ahead

Whereas for western wear, readymade is the best option, Mehra felt that for ethnic wear, there is a probability of women still sticking on to their tailored outfits.

She shared, “When it comesto their ethnic requirement or a drape dress or a gown, tailored outfit is their preference. It is because of the poorly fit products that are available at cheaper prices that may tempt women to a readymade outfit but when you see it up close, the ones that understand the difference between quality and fit, they end up picking a tailored outfit.”

Panchal concluded and shared the growing acceptance and demand for ready-to-wear and also how youngsters who earlier were seen shying away from sporting ethnic wear now experiment with their wardrobes with a collection of best from both the worlds.

“The number of women taking up ready-towear was smaller, which is now picking up. Also, younger women prefer to go out wearing something that addresses both traditional aesthetic and the work environment. Brands and companies can now easily support changing trends with investment in product innovation and reach. Indian wear, initially largely restricted to the older age segment, now finds acceptance among younger consumers,” he said.

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