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The changing definition of women’s formal wear in India

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For years, Indian clothes have been rooted in the vastness of the country’s culture, the richness of its ethos. But with changing times, and changing demographic and psychographic profiles of Indian consumers, retailers are beginning to adapt to global trends and India’s fashion scene has started evolving at an extremely fast pace.

Women’s ‘formal’ clothing, which was primarily confined to monotonous monochromatic colours, sober solids and stripes, has undergone a sea of change today, transforming into a youthful, chic and classy choice of clothes for contemporary women. The segment has broadened its spectrum to include dresses, gowns and formal tops besides the always present shirts, skirts, trousers and blazers. It has also taken under its wing, segments like semi-formal, smart casual, business casual, all of which are marginally different from the main segment.

“There has been an overall lifestyle change which has led to a change in preferences in the type of clothes women are choosing. This coupled with high disposable income, easy access and awareness to e-commerce and social media has led to the rise of the formal wear segment in India,” explains , Founder, .

“Younger women, today, seamlessly switch from ethnic to western wear – an ability that Indian women employ fabulously – while senior female managers in professions with customer interfaces like banking still rely on the elegant saree. There has been an increase in preference for western formals among younger professionals like doctors and lawyers leading towards a similar consumption pattern.”

, Founder and CEO, shares, “The rise in the number of women getting into the workplace is another major factor in the rise of the segment since stepping out of the home space and into the professional space requires them to dress better.”

Also, women want to project a serious image and look fashionable and trendy at the same time – a trend which is especially seen in metro cities.

Looking at the emerging middle class with its disposable income, access to the Internet, smartphones and exposure to innovative technologies used to create experiential e-commerce, she is optimistic that the projected fashion consumers will grow to more than 1.2 billion by 2020. The good news for the fashion retail industry is that the majority of these new consumers are within the 16 to 24 and 25 to 34 age groups.

According to Khanna the Indian women formal wear market stood at around US $460 billion in 2017 with a growth of 4.9 percent in the same year. It was anticipated to grow at a CAGR of around 6 percent during the period 2017-2024 with the revenue reaching to more than US $690 billion by 2024. The global women’s formal wear market is expected to achieve an incremental opportunity of US $46.3 billion in 2024 over 2023.

“The sector holds 38 percent share in the Indian apparel market. It has been estimated that the Rs 1,02,358 crore women’s wear market will grow at a CAGR of 11 percent to reach Rs 2,89,518 crore in 2025,” Khanna adds.

, Co-Founder, also shares that the women’s wear segment contributes to 38 percent of the total market in the country. Within this, the women’s formal wear category is growing at an average of 15 percent as compared to 8 to 10 percent growth in the menswear category.

“Brands nowadays have started tapping the women’s formal wear segment because of the increase in the number of working women over the years. Also, this change has led to an increase in purchasing power which makes the women’s wear segment contribute so much to the total apparel market of the country,” he says.

“A broad market with infinite home-grown and international brands competing to off er the best results in pocket-friendly prices brings to the Indian women, a never-ending list of formal wears to choose from. Of course, with more women stepping into the corporate world, the ratio of women wear is inclining day by day,” he adds.

Despite the fact that the Indian women’s formal wear market is evolving rapidly it is highly under-penetrated with just about 3 to 4 brands predominantly selling in this segment. The fact that so few brands are operating in the space has left a lot of white spaces for a brand like us to come and grow in this segment,” states , Co-Founder and CEO, .

Demand & Innovation

With changing lifestyles, the demand for utility, comfort and versatility is taking precedence in formal wear today. According to Sharma, women are looking for superior quality products that are driven by all these elements. They want to look and feel great at their workplace so they can put their best foot forward. She believes that along with design, functionality and fit will be the key drivers in this segment.

“There is a growing need for comfort and practicality in everything we purchase with the main objective being convenience. Our fast-paced lives demand functionality and ease. Today’s woman is looking for products that off er these facets,” she says.

“Women spend countless hours fiddling with pins on shirts to avoid peeking, always having to carry a bag for essentials because they won’t fit in tiny (or nonexistent) pockets and constantly worrying about visible bra straps and panty lines. Most of the formal wear available today is devoid of these small but crucial details that make a garment practical to use and this is the gap we aim to fill.”

A lot of research has gone into the sizing and measurements that Ombré Lane follows for its garments. The brand has taken measurements and interviewed over 2,000 women to understand body types, size variations and fit requirements. They consider all of these aspects at every stage of design and prototype development, which helps them create the right fit for Indian women.

“Earlier, workwear was classified as boring but nowadays many experiments have been introduced to this segment. It is about the impact of power dressing while keeping market trends in mind,” says Tolani.

Salt Attire offers bespoke clothing, which is made and manufactured in the same capacity as other items. “Our design process involves many facets; from the usual trends and weather to most importantly ensuring functionality in the design process. We have certain basic design principles, that ensure the garments are work-appropriate, which all our garments must satisfy.”

“Women these days have multiple roles and prefer cross functional clothing that they can wear from boardroom to dinner. We design stylish yet practical wear. We focus a lot on practical details like pockets, sitting comfort, high quality buttons and fasters, etc. We off er custom sizing which has seen a lot of popularity from our customers,” affirms Khanna.

“At Venn we make sure that we have clothes that are not only as per the present trend but are also environment friendly. We only use sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, bamboo fabric, Tencel, etc.”

According to her, conventionally grown cotton is a very thirsty crop. Over 2,700 litres of water is required to make one cotton t-shirt. That is enough water for a person to drink for two-and-half years! Cotton production uses 16 percent of all the world’s insecticides and 7 percent of pesticides.Organic cotton farming uses natural processes rather than artificial inputs. More importantly, it does not allow the use of toxic chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In comparison, organic cotton uses 71 percent less water and 62 percent less energy. It is 80 percent rainfed. The fabric is biodegradable and decomposes without any toxic remains. It actually feels better on the skin than commercial cotton as it is free from toxic chemicals.

“Unfortunately, sustainability in fashion is still not understood properly. Formal and informal wear both can be made easily in sustainable fabrics. There has been enough innovation in sustainable fabrics and there are ample fabrics available today to make sustainable formal wear,” she says.

Gurnani, tie-ups are trending for women and silhouettes which are comfortable and functional like culottes are also doing well.

For Gurnani, anti-wrinkle, hydrophobic and organic fabrics that last long are one of the prime innovations in the formal women’s wear segment. PostFold offers garments in smart fabrics like Supima, Tencel and Travel360 which are wrinkle-resistant, stain proof and comfortable to wear from 9 am to 9 pm.

“Classics and basics are the evergreen favourites of women to wear to the office. With functionality and fashion on their minds, the middle class and young working professionals are aspirational for better quality and stature, both factors which heavily affect their consumption patterns,” he shares.

“With the presence of international brands like , and in the market, the new Indian consumer prefers more of branded clothes over unbranded because of a more aspirational lifestyle. To cope up with the current scenario, Indian brands off er a new on-trend fashion in high quality with lower prices.”

Role of E-Commerce

A decade ago, e-commerce entered India and changed the lives of urban consumers forever. Today, with the penetration of Internet, e-commerce is changing the lives of Indians in small towns and beyond as well, owing to the convenience and wide variety of choice it affords a consumer. E-commerce provides a wide array of comfortable and stunning options for Indian women when it comes to western formal wear.

“The emergence of e-commerce has uplifted the entire fashion retail market. Various market platforms provide elegant yet comfortable outfits in less time, which is a perfect option for working women who otherwise don’t have a lot of time to spare for shopping,” states Gurnani.

“E-commerce improves visibility aside from creating a buzz in the industry. The digital world knows no geographical boundaries, and the possibilities of worldwide recognition, brand recall and sales are enormous,” explains Tolani.

“The reach of e-commerce is helping the category grow in a big way.”

“E-commerce allows us to reach our customers directly and take their direct feedback to give them a well-curated experience. Social platforms like Instagram and Facebook allow growing brands like ours to share the brand story and create a one-on-one connection with the customers. On the operations side, it allows us to analyse our sales, returns, and product level customer engagement data daily and react immediately if needed. We can optimise our inventory levels based on initial demand trends and not get stuck with unsellable inventory to liquidate,” adds Sharma.

Meanwhile, Khanna states that because of e-commerce people have access to fashion from across the globe and while they may not be buying from every brand, they are now aware of high quality designs and trends. “This helps women make more informed decisions about their clothing.”

However, Tolani finds that price is a major factor in the e-commerce segment. “Unfortunately, a precedent has been set in e-commerce to off er deep discounts and lower prices. The volumes may be high, but the margins are extremely low. Also, a lot of brands compromise on the quality of fabric to allow the prices to be low,” she says.

Nonetheless, this can be checked says Khanna. “If you understand who your target audience is and the price, they associate to the value your clothes bring to her. Price is not an outcome of just the raw material but has more to do with the positioning of the brand that sells it, and the relevance/ demand of the design.” For example, two dresses could have very different cloth, as a fast fashion brand the price range of both will be same because a consumer is coming to that brand for a short life garment. Whereas, if it is a comfort wear brand, then the price will be more as that is what the customer is seeing value in. “You price yourself for the value you are bring to the consumer. The rise in price of raw material would have an impact, albeit small, on the pricing,” she says.

The Future of Formal Wear

The formal wear segment has witnessed a major boost with many women entering the corporate world. Gurnani says, “The coming up of malls in Tier II and III cities has made the category undergo a transition with time. Also, with the increase in lifestyle and income level, women’s wear segment is all set to grow exponentially over the next few years.”

The future of fashion will undoubtedly be shaped with advancements in machine learning technology. Artificial Intelligence will help leverage inventory efficiency, reduce costs, and at the same time, create best in class shopping experience for the consumer.

There is also a need for a formal wear brand in value segment for women. It is largely, a fragmented market – in India – and even stores that are exclusively for ethnic wear haven’t been doing well,” says Tolani.

“We see a bright future ahead for the women’s formal wear category in India. There are innumerable opportunities in terms of innovation and incorporating state-of-art developments in fabric and design to make premium formal wear at affordable prices. There is never a lack of need for good quality products that are comfortable, durable and aesthetic,” adds Sharma.

“Formal wear for women in India is only set to grow. However, women no longer want men’s styles customised as women’s western wear. Women are looking for stylish, practical and well fitting garments for their formal wear,” concludes Khanna.

(With Inputs From Gurbir Singh Gulati)