Fashion, according to most dictionaries, is described as the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration, or behaviour. I feel it goes deeper than that. Fashion speaks to the core human desire to be a part of something larger, of belonging to a community. This is why global fashion has maintained a steady growth over the last decade and a half, even in the face of several large-scale market challenges that crippled many other industries; the sector was estimated to be worth upwards US $2.4 trillion in McKinsey’s 2017 The State of Fashion report, with the apparel and footwear market accounting for US $1.7 trillion. This is why fashion destinations like Paris, London, New York, and Milan continue to attract millions of customers from the world over, and why haute couture showcases like the Paris Fashion Week remain important events on the fashion calendars of fashionistas and celebrities.
India, as a growing hub for high-end fashion, is beginning to mark its own presence on the global stage. The domestic demand for textile and clothing is expected to cross US $141 million by the end of this decade. Many leading global fashion brands are now expanding their operations in the country to tap into this burgeoning market of fashion, apparel, footwear, and clothing in the country with highly-personalised offerings. Every step of the way, they are being given tough competition by Indian brands, which marry western forms and attire with indigenous designs and aesthetics to cater to the couture needs of the Indian customer.
But, with technological advancements and changing market dynamics rapidly redefining consumer behaviour, how will the future of fashion in India pan out? Finding the answer to this question requires us to understand its history as an industry in India, as well as the evolving relationships within and outside the industry, the retail ecosystem, and current trends.
Fashion in India: The history and the evolution
Given the country’s position as a prominent centre and market along the Silk Route, it is hardly surprising that India has been a distinctively fashionable country since time immemorial. Instances of kings and queens, princes and princesses, noblemen and noblewomen wearing decorative clothing like lavish turbans, elegant dhotis, silk sarees, churidars, embroidered jamas, and salwar-kameez abound in many historical reports and accounts. We have even heard many apocryphal anecdotes of courtroom intrigues, most prominently those from the Mughal era, of courtiers and noblemen trying to gain more influence within the court by bedecking themselves in the most resplendent clothing. Independent artisans of all kinds thrived and flourished across the country throughout the ancient and medieval times, giving rise to distinctive techniques and stylistic flourishes.
This trend continued well into the British Raj; British personnel and their families often ended up inadvertently competing with the local nobility at social gatherings on the fashion statement they chose to endorse. Despite this, the concept of fashion, as it was in the west, didn’t really take off in India till after the country’s independence. Even then, the fashion sensibilities for a large section of the Indian population were informed by popular culture media like cinema and television. Bollywood played a major role in popularising fashion trends across the country. Consumers looked at and emulated the couture worn by their favourite movie stars in the most recent movies. Just look at how Madhubala’s iconic style statement as Anarkali in the 1960 cult classic Mughal-e-Azam became all the rage across India, and continues to be popular under the moniker of that beautifully tragic character.
In fact, it was not until 1966, when Ritu Kumar established her first boutique in New Delhi, that the country got its first real taste of high-end fashion. The legendary designer, who had been exposed to western fashion sensibilities during her time abroad, played a pivotal role in ushering in a new era for fashion in India by combining western designs and styles with traditional Indian artisanal techniques. This led to a large-scale revival of several indigenous textile printing techniques such as Zardozi, ikat, bandhani, patola, chikan, and shisha. As more and more players in the domain started to experiment with this mixing and matching of Western and Indian attire, fusion fashion became a thing. It wasn’t uncommon to see kurtas being worn with jeans and trousers.
The big break for fashion in India, however, came in the 80s and the 90s. With the government pushing towards opening the Indian economy to foreign investment, big global brands like Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and Chanel began eyeing the lucrative prospect that the market presented. Many Indian fashion brands, like the multi-designer boutique called Ensemble featuring top designers like Tarun Tahiliani, opened shop, even as the economic liberalisation opened the floodgates to foreign brands. Couture styles like the kurti, cocktail sari, and corset blouse emerged out of this marriage of western and Indian sensibilities.
Leading designers, like Manish Malhotra and Manish Arora, built on this success in the late 90s and the early 2000s, popularising the now-famous fashion trend of Indian kitsch, which combines bold colours and quirky prints to create inventive designs that appeal to the modern Indian consumer. Showcase events like the Indian Fashion Week and the Lakme Fashion Week were launched, rapidly rising in eminence on the global fashion calendar. The growing prominence of large shopping malls and the rise of the ‘mall culture’, which saw consumers frequently heading to their nearest shopping malls for their shopping and social interaction requirements, also played a major role in popularising high-end fashion amongst the masses. Individual design labels and large fashion houses identified the potential that this development presented and started setting up their shops in top malls across the country, reaching out to a much larger section of the population than ever before.
The Indian market, too, began responding to this change in aesthetics, style, and consumption behaviour. Stylish, sensual dresses became more common amongst women, while men seemed to prefer smart casual and professional clothing. Localised manufacturing capabilities were developed by national and international fashion brands. Retail supply and distribution chains were strengthened, even as celebrities started exerting their influence on the larger fashion ecosystem as show stoppers and brand ambassadors. India had finally arrived as a big-ticket fashion market on a global stage.
Booming, booming, boom: How the fashion market has grown since the smartphone revolution
Fashion, as an industry, has continually grown since digitisation took over the world, but the biggest impact was felt in the way fashion brands reached out to consumers. The ready availability of the internet and the proliferation of smartphones made fashion more accessible than ever before; Indians could now just go online to search the latest fashion trends and buy their choice of couture from online stores. With consumers rapidly adapting to this new paradigm, many large offline fashion businesses jumped onto the online bandwagon to maximise their revenue streams and to tap into the growing opportunity to cater to the increasing digital-first populace.
This development, however, had a insignificant impact on the retail fashion business during its initial phases. With consumers no longer required to go to a physical store to buy what they wanted, footfall at physical fashion outlets fell drastically over time. There were certain monetary benefits of opting for e-commerce over physical retail as well; since online sellers did not have to invest capital into establishing and running a physical outlet, they had higher operating margins and could offer the same items at lower prices to their customers. Industry experts predicted the end of retail fashion as we knew it, and hailed the coming of e-commerce as a game-changing development.
Time has since proven most of these predictions wrong. E-commerce, despite its strong growth, has failed to displace physical fashion retail as the top dog in the larger business landscape due to its own unique set of challenges. Shopping for fashion, for Indians, is an extremely personal decision dictated by emotions. Indian shoppers need to feel the couture that they are buying on their fingertips, they prefer to wear and see how the dress will look on them. This is just not possible with e-commerce. The instant fulfi lment that going into a fashion store and buying a new item to add to one’s wardrobe can provide is something that online shopping, despite its continued eff orts, has been unable to replicate. The kind of personalisation that shopping in a physical space provides, with expert advice from trained professionals at every step of the way, is again something that all the algorithms in the world fi nd tough to match.
But that is not to say that e-commerce hasn’t been benefi cial to the offline ecosystem. In addition to providing an additional revenue stream to fashion brands and adding to the shopping convenience of the new-age fashionista, technology has made it possible for offl ine brands to optimise their overall operations. Sourcing and supply chain management has become infinitely easier with the integration of digital technologies, as have other business-critical aspects such as marketing and visibility. New-age tech, like that of geolocation-based targeting, is being implemented by leading malls and physical outlets to reach out to prospective consumers with highly-personalised offers and greater accuracy, thus increasing the footfall at offline stores. Consumer data is being analysed to identify the state and unstated needs of individual customers, effectively breaking down the larger consumer base into a market of one, to provide fashion houses with detailed insights into what customers actually want and cater to their demands. Customers, too, increasingly prefer to use online as more of a research tool which provides them with information about the latest deals, offers, and style trends, before heading to their nearest retail outlet. This niche is being tapped through hybrid retail models currently being developed by leading shopping malls, which combine the best of both online and offline channels to the most optimum operations and end-user experience.
India, as we have said before, is a fast emerging fashion destination. Leading national and international brands have been expanding their bouquet of offerings in the country to cater to diverse needs of its fast-growing consumer base. Rising disposable incomes also mean that Indians have been spending more on products that they aspire to own, which is another positive for the country’s fashion industry. The future of fashion in India, it seems, is firmly secure, and the only way to go from here seems up.