How many of you still remember the name ‘Stencil’? Not many I suspect. I won’t blame you. But it is quite ironic that the brand that started the readymade branded shirt trend in India in late 80s disappeared quickly within few years of its advent and has also vanished from public memory. Nevertheless, it gave birth to not only readymade branded shirt segment but to the readymade and branding movement for the entire fashion industry.
We are still seeing the waves of that early ripple today as more and more segments of our wardrobes are shifting to readymade branded clothes. The latest being occasion and festive wear that Manyavar identified, created and continues to monopolize.
It is also astonishing to recall that no textile company immediately followed up on this trend. Raymond or Vimal or Grasim or OCM, the erstwhile market leaders of branded fabric market, all of them continued promote their fabric offers and did not consider readymade apparel as an exciting or viable forward integration. The company that tried to latch on to this trend was not even from the textile industry but was the leader of branded footwear at that time – Bata. Yes, it is unbelievable but true that after the initial success of Stencil, Bata launched a shirt brand called “Ambassador” that was retailed only through its own stores. Even Ambassador did not survive too long as Bata’s core footwear business was struggling due to labour unrest in its factories near Kolkata.
The third company that noticed the success of these two early brands was Madura Coats, a sewing thread manufacturing and marketing MNC. Just to refresh our memory, Madura Coats used to be number one company to work for even above Unilever (Hindustan Lever) in the 80s and 90s. The brightest from IITs and IIMs with a passion for marketing aspired to work with Madura Coats. It was the pride of Bengaluru as much as in later years, Infosys and more recently Flipkart. Madura Coats management was quick to notice the acceptance of readymade branded shirts by urban professionals, around early 90s. The newly liberalized Indian economy encouraged corporates to go on an expansion spree to service emerging urban middle class. The corporate or office jobs necessitated a certain dress code that was well served by wearing readymade branded shirts as compared to traditional tailor-made ones. Wearinga readymade branded shirt was fast becoming a sign of being a modern professional. Madura Coats management chose one its bright young manager, Sriram Srinivasan (I am certain you all know of him), to be the CEO of Madura Garments and lead the launch of their premium men’s shirt brand Louise Philippe. And as they say rest is history.
So if we analyze it closely, the Indian shirt market has, from the very start, been created and dominated by international companies and their brands. Be it Bata or Madura – both being European MNCs – they all brought western models to the Indian market. Even Arvind Mills entered the readymade shirts market by bringing Arrow from America. Arrow was the first brand to launch exclusive single brand stores back then and was truly a pioneer. All those branding efforts of early years made Arrow the most premium and today one of the largest men’s wear brands in India.
Readymade Branded Shirts
Parallel to this, Zodiac was a carving a niche for itself by bringing well-constructed shirts to the market. Zodiac management learned the art of shirt making from their European customers to whom they were manufacturing formal shirts in their factories in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
The readymade branded shirts opportunity was so hot back then that after few years of successfully leading Madura Garments, Sriram and his senior team left to start their own VC funded venture – Indus League – to launch a clutch of menswear brands. This probably was the origin of startup culture in Bangalore as well as India!
We can safely say that Indus League probably was the first true blue Indian shirts’ company, in a market clearly dominated by international companies and brands.
Given that shirts were the first category to be sold readymade and branded, the share of readymade branded shirts is the largest in the overall shirts market as compared to other outerwear clothing items. Actually the market has come full circle from tailor-made being cheaper option and readymade branded being the premium one, the tailor-made shirts today becoming more and more premium and are called custom made.
For years, the branded shirts market meant formal office wear shirts. Allen Solly, another international brand’s license by Madura, brought the concept of Friday Dressing to Indian market, and gave birth to numerous copycats. A new and exciting segment of casual and smart casual shirts gave a major fillip to the shirts industry.
The Advent of International Brands
Inevitably, this market caught the attention of international brands some time around 2005 or so. The Indian consumption story was beginning to grow, even as the Indian economy became one of the fastest growing one in the world. Brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, GANT and few others landed in Indian market. While these brands are seen as smart casual or sportswear brands elsewhere, however in India these were seen as premium shirts brands by aspiring consumers who were looking for something better than erstwhile brands to stand away and out from the crowds.
In fact, the advent of some of these international brands opened up new and higher price points for the shirt industry, otherwise the industry was stagnating and was unable to move their price point any further. Actually, due to lack of any real innovation most of the brands had begin to look like each other, hence the consumers had no reason to pay more. However, the incoming international brands positioned themselves at much higher price points that created a space for incumbent brands to move up without being seen as too expensive. We must give credit to brands like Louis Philippe and Arrow who took full advantage of this opportunity. With higher prices, higher margins and higher budgets, these brands invested in product development, consumer engagement, category expansion and excellent store experience. So while the international brands did take a certain market share, the erstwhile brands took lion’s share and that to while becoming profitable after long years of continuous losses.
One can safely say that advent of new international brands unintentionally helped older ones grow profitably. However, the impact has not been universally positive for all brands. Take the case of Colorplus which was India’s answer to Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. After blazing initial success and then acquisition by Raymond, the brand lost its way and its base of loyal customers. It had built tremendous brand equity and loyalty amongst premium consumers. However, while poor management was one reason, the arrival of international smart casual brands hastened its downfall. Colorplus has made a comeback in last few years but is nowhere close to its lost enviable position.
The advent of some of these international brands opened up new and higher price points for the shirt industry, otherwise the industry was stagnating and was unable to move their price point any further.
Another case to be looked at is of Zodiac. The brand just could not break away from its shirts only image. Despite years of efforts, consumers have never responded to it is as a full wardrobe menswear brand. It has become a victim of its own strong and unique brand equity in a market dominated by multi category, full wardrobe lifestyle fashion brands. With the arrival of major international brands, many old brands managed to make that transition and have reaped the rewards in terms of increased market share and profitable growth.
Complete Wardrobe Solutions
The market that grew first only on the basis of product offer with the promise of quality has moved to brand promise of certain image and now to offering full wardrobe solutions.
In the process, major players created different brands for different consumer segments by creating differentiation through product and price, and also through imagery. Lately this process of identifying or creating different segments has slowed down and it seems that most players are defending their market share and position. The market seems ripe for some disruption and shaking up. I guess this disruption will not come from any of the current players, but from an upstart who will be able to see what larger and older players are missing.
There are two companies that are doing some really different stuff . One is The Bombay Shirt Company and the other one is Iconic store. While the first one is creating a full solution off er for discerning customers in a way that most brands fail to do. The second one has taken a simpler route of bringing lesser known, smaller but fashion forward brands from Europe. Both of them are challenging the status quo and I hope that they will bring in if not lead the next wave of change in the Indian shirts’ market, as Stencil or Madura or Indus League of Colorplus did in their time.