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Saree Affair: India’s relationship with the whole nine yards

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The saree is a wonder in itself. It’s unarguably one of ancient most form of apparel known to humankind, with references of it dating back to the Vedas as well as records from the Indus Valley Civilisation. Yet, from fashion runaways, Bollywood to every gali nukkad; from Millennials to their traditionalist grandmothers, the saree is ubiquitous in India’s wardrobes.

India is taking giant strides towards modernisation, yet the saree still holds its place as a key relic of the cultural representation of the Indian women. This versatile piece of fabric conveys a multitude of looks – from glamorous and opulent, mature and professional to ceremonial and culturally intrinsic to India. In cosmopolitan India, the saree is symbolic of tradition and culture, donned on special occasions as well as considered as a formal ensemble, ideal for working professionals.

The saree is also the sartorial testimony of India’s overwhelming cultural diversity. The seamless piece of cloth is worn in over a hundred different traditional styles across different regions of the Indian subcontinent. The drape of the saree differs according to region, community, functionality and sometimes occasion. “Walk across the length and breadth of India and you’re sure to see a million variations of the traditional Indian saree. From the prominent pallu used to cover the heads of women in the north to the unique drapes of the Kodavas in the south, from the lightweight Mangalgiris and Patolas to the heavy silk Kanjeevarams, India has a saree type for every region and culture,” says , Director, .

The Saree Market: Gaining Momentum

Even today, a majority of the women in India wear sarees, and it still is considered as a primary piece of clothing even in modern wardrobes. Sarees are a dominating segment of the Indian fashion industry and account for about 71 percent of the biggest retail segment in women’s wear segment, ethnic wear. “Today, more than 70 percent Indian women wear sarees — if not daily, then at least on selected days and occasions ever year. Sarees are a significant contributor to the ethnic wear industry, that capture 71 percent market in women’s wear segment,” says , Director, Odhni Sarees.

According to the , the retail value of the women’s wear market in India is estimated be around Rs 122,600 crore (US$ 19.2 billion) in 2017, of which saree alone contributed nearly 33 percent amounting to nearly Rs 38,000 crore, this segment is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5 to 6 percent between 2018 to 2023 owing to increasing demand for the saree from various segments across the nation.

Increasing disposable income and increasing penetration of e-tail are touted to be the most influential game changers of the saree market in recent times. “With increasing disposable income of middle class, increasing penetration of e-tail and acceptance of designer wear, the Indian saree market has expanded its consumer base. The consumer is smarter with the increase in the availability of options in style and price points to them. The exposure to social media through smartphones ensures everything is at the consumer’s fingertips. The end result –fashion trends reach people at lightning speed, becoming fads faster than ever before,” points out , Director, .

The Indian saree market is dominated by rural market accounting for nearly 60 percent of the overall saree consumption. This is why, the online market is one of the major reasons in the growth of sarees in India. As the penetration of the internet is increasing day by day in the hinterlands of the country, it is opening new revenue pockets for stockholders in Indian saree industry. Brand awareness is also increasing among this consumer base and hence they are exploring options based not only on the value but also on the brand.

“Our online category has been doubling in revenue since inception; and last year we tripled in revenue from the year before,” reveals , Vice-Chairperson, in a clear testimony on how e-commerce has been successful in breathing life in the Indian saree market.

Changing Preferences

Over the years, both the saree market as well as the sartorial preferences have been subjected to massive metamorphosis. Indian consumers are today, embracing the idea of fashion as a self-expression and are welcoming fusion and comfort even to their sarees.

Talking about the shift in consumer preferences, Jain from Odhni Sarees states, “Customers have become very choosy about designs and variety today. The saree market, as a whole, has improved incredibly, and these days, women have more options than ever. Pre-draped sarees and prestitched ethnic wear or readymade sarees, where pleats and pallus are pre-stitched, are more in demand and define modern fashion. Thanks to these hassle-free options, even the younger generation flaunts sarees not only on special occasions but for daily wear as well.”

When it comes to fabric, cotton used to be the most popular material for the saree traditionally. But over the period preference has changed. According to the Aditya Birla Group, manmade/ blended materials now account for nearly 72 percent of other overall market with cotton accounting for 26 percent whereas silk contributed nearly 2 percent of the overall consumption of fibres. MMF and blended fibre gained popularity due to it better appearance and lower cost as compared to cotton and silk, however with changing climatic condition lead to demand for skin friendly apparels and increasing disposable income women’s are preferring sarees made of silk or other similar fibre such as viscose.

“The fabric that enjoys most demand for us is silk. With the varieties in design and composition, silk is no longer restricted to a particular community. It is being worn by people all across the country and globally as well,” says , Director, Simaaya.

Echoing similar sentiments, Yatin Jain states, “Silk-based fabrics, brocade, and weaving fabrics are the most demanding fabrics in sarees. Customers look for fabrics which ensure elegance as well as comfort.”

Cotton sarees is expected to witness a growth of ~6 percent while demand for viscose fibres in sarees is expected to grow by nearly 8 percent between 2018 to 2023.

Evergreen Trends

Although both the market and the consumer have evolved tremendously over the years, the simple nine-yard saree still rules the roost, experts point out. “Personally, I believe wedding related sarees are always in demand. In addition, newer innovations, be they fabric innovation (e.g., modal silk or weaver-innovation (e.g., banarasi designs appearing on Kanchipuram sarees, linen bodies with Kanchipuram silk borders and pallu) also enjoy strong sales,” reveals Lavanya Nalli.

Talking about the recent trend in Sarees, she adds, “We see two distinct phenomena — there’s a lot of work by saree historians and revivalists, trying to bring back some of the traditional motifs and designs of yesterday. At the same time, we see a lot of innovation and cross-inspiration between the different designs and techniques from various regions. Plus, we see more contemporary designs turning up on saree borders or pallus too.”

Keeping with the trends in ethnic wear, the younger generation are even spicing up the saree with a western twist to it. “The most recent trends are fusion of the saree with western formal silhouettes like pants, skirts, palazzos, denims and even crop tops to having pockets and belts in sarees. But the best thing is that the classic saree still remains in demand and trend forever,” reveal Rachit and Mayank Agarwal.

The Future

According to experts, the overall demand for sarees is expected to remain significant. Despite the expected shift from saree to salwar kameez or western wear in urban and semi-urban markets, saree is expected to still remain as the predominant category among elderly and middle-aged women across urban and rural India.

“The women’s ethnic wear market including the saree market shall continue to see growth in the next 5-10 years. The demand will be for good- quality, affordable fashionable wear. The market trends are moving back to the roots with growth to be seen in heritage fabrics and motifs and embroidery. The future looks competitive yet bright and growing,” conclude Rachit and Mayank Agarwal.