A recent report estimates the Indian women’s wear market to be over 1.2 billion people. This massive opportunity for women’s wear brands in India is further fuelled by the growing disposable income of women in the country, increased accessibility to fashionable Western wear that’s influenced by international trends, as well as the growing urge among women across age brackets and sizes to dress well. Through this article, some existing and new-age brands in the segment help us understand the opportunity better.
‘The goal is to connect, collaborate, contribute’
Lubeina Shahpurwala, Chairperson, FICCI FLO, began her journey at the organisation as a key member of the organization, and was soon nominated to take on a position in the Executive Committee where she worked to achieve the goals of the Chamber as Chairperson. “I am honoured to be bestowed with this role and to be part of the FICCI FLO community where promoting economic empowerment and equal opportunity for women is the main focus. The goal is to develop and sustain a network of women business owners and professionals while working with civil society, government and the private sector,” she adds.
Established in 1983, FICCI FLO, the women’s wing of FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry), is an all-India organisation for women with 18 chapters across the nation. The Forum, headquartered in Delhi, represents over 8,000 women entrepreneurs and professionals.
Shahpurwala believes that it is essential to see more women participating in industry forums and interacting to bring to light their concerns and be able to make workplaces better suited for women. “Women are apprehensive to be a part of associations that are away from their comfort zone and I am very delighted to say that we have been able to create a safe space where we have seen a lot of participation by members,” she adds.
Also a partner at Mustang Enterprises, her business acumen and a hands-on approach has helped the brand introduce cutting-edge technology and innovation in design. And while her natural love for fashion and the business of fashion remains, Shahpurwala wishes to stay committed to promoting economic empowerment and equal opportunity for women by developing and sustaining a network of women business owners and professionals while working with civil society, government and the private sector. “The goal is to Connect, Collaborate, Contribute to changing the lives of working women. I was focused on supporting women in the professional streams of health and wellness; the power of design (which includes textiles, handlooms and craft, lifestyle products, accessories, architecture etc); education and skill development and rural entrepreneurship amongst women during the year 2021-2022.”
Having worked with rural women, she is committed to changing the life of women working in textiles, accessories, handicrafts, apparel and health industries. With her core focus on entrepreneurship, Shahpurwala is also working towards creating sustainable livelihood for women and youth in the Palghar region.
She adds, “More than 85% of graduates from fashion schools are women, but only 14% of major fashion brands are run by women. There are more CEOs in aerospace and finance. Women are still running shop floors or design studios instead of running design houses even though they are qualified and ambitious. A recent study called ‘The Glass Runway’ showed that men run and dominate the fashion industry even though women spend over 200% more than men. We need to, as an industry, hire more women, pay equal wages and create an ecosystem where women have a voice. That way, we will be able to see more women as innovators, leaders and change-makers.”
‘Women are shedding the chains of misogyny’
“Clothing labels and their tales have always piqued my interest. So, while studying fashion designing in Italy, I looked at the business models of several well-known fashion firms like Zara. Inspired by their success, I launched Aks in May 2014,” says Nidhi Yadav, Co-founder & CEO, Aks Clothings. With a seed capital of Rs3.5 lakh, a small warehouse of fewer than 1,000 items and a 7-month-old baby in tow, Yadav set out to overcome any and all hurdles that came her way.
She believes that since the day she entered the business of fashion, there has been a significant shift in the market. The industry has expanded beyond essential clothing to include personalised and designer apparel, focusing on comfort and style. “In the Indian fashion sector, women are shedding the chains of misogyny that have held them back for so long and are blossoming into strong and independent individuals,” she adds. Their expectations and requirements have risen, and the country has seen a significant shift in their choices and priorities. Gone are the days when women were afraid to ask for their rights and compensation. Women entrepreneurs increasingly want to take the lead and get to the top in the same way men do, she believes.
Women entrepreneurs continue to defy gender stereotypes and commonly accepted cultural standards, but they have a more difficult path to tread. Obstacles such as pervasive competition, shortage in finance, reservation from society, a low-risk appetite, lower literacy and so on are frequent among women. “When I first started Aks Clothings, I had a similar experience. When you’re a woman entrepreneur, the most challenging thing isn’t starting your firm; it’s keeping it operating and healthy once you’ve started. The challenge is to identify reliable investors and distribution channels for your goods. However, if you have a clear goal and a strong team on your side, obtaining additional ancillary parts will be a piece of cake,” claims Yadav. But, despite the hurdles that female leaders face, they continue to break through barriers to fulfil their goals and achieve their full potential. Today’s women understand the value of self-respect and are willing to battle for and attain their goals.
Women’s fashion, too, has made a significant contribution worldwide. “Probably because women are the most mindful of what they wear and the regular release of fashionable clothing. The fashion business, particularly in women’s apparel, is believed to be worth over US$600 billion and employs more people than most other major sectors globally. Anita Dongre, Priya and Charu Sachdeva, Falguni Nayar, and many more outstanding women entrepreneurs are ruling the fashion industry, and many more women entrepreneurs are on the way to revolutionising the Indian fashion sector,” adds Yadav.
‘The industry is not representing what its audience looks like’
“It’s ironic that a field that is geared more by women has traditionally been dominated by men, and while over the past few years women representation in leadership roles has increased, the pendulum has not really swung in our favour. Men are still the tastemakers and providers of fashion, whereas women are chosen in more ‘women-friendly’ fields such as marketing, PR and human relations,” says Tanvi Malik, Co-founder & CEO, FabAlley & Indya.
She adds that what companies haven’t understood yet is that by excluding women from key positions, they are missing out on intuitive insights and perspectives required to serve their customers. “Women know how women want to dress and shop, and hence can draw from real-life experiences to give better solutions. Yet, the industry is not representing what its audience looks like,” the CEO firmly believes.
Malik began her journey in the fashion industry back in 2012 when she, along with her co-partner Shivani Poddar, launched High Street Essentials Pvt. Ltd., followed by the launch of Indya in 2016. Hiring the right talent then was a challenge for High Street Essentials, being a bootstrapped start-up spearheaded by two young women entrepreneurs. “Some key hires that should have taken weeks, took months as the right talent was hesitant to throw in their lots with us. We didn’t have the pedigree and people assumed we were ‘hobbying’ – a stereotypical notion about women entrepreneurs. Had we been two male founders, we would’ve definitely been taken more seriously,” she says, adding that in their early years of fund pitching, the duo was often asked whether they were married or had children – “a supposed indication of how much time and effort we’d devote to our work.”
But, over the past few years, parents have become a lot more open to giving their daughters the same opportunities as they would to their sons, making them better equipped to take on the journey to success. “This definitely helps shape women in their formative years and gives them the confidence to not mask their ambitions or feel daunted about taking up more challenging roles. Also, there are now so many more women role models for young girls to look up to versus how many there were a decade ago. In India and globally, a number of small and big businesses with inspiring and successful journeys are led by women, be it as founders or as holders of key leadership roles. With that, there’s also more mentoring and guidance available by women for women,” believes Malik.
High Street Essentials is associated with Ssrishthi India Trust and Etasha Society, two NGOs that work towards uplifting underprivileged women by empowering them financially. With them, the company runs a number of programmes and workshops for women spanning from vocational, digital and legal learning to creating work opportunities for them by outsourcing tailoring work.
‘A sense of pride and self-respect is what entrepreneurship brings’
The daughter of a trained tailor, Susmitha Lakkakula, Founder, Cloudtailor, grew up wearing home-stitched dresses. Right from my childhood, she understood the process of tailoring. “I come from a software domain and have been extensively researching on the presence of tech-enabled solutions to the problems faced by women when they deal with tailors or boutiques. This is when I decided to start Cloudtailor as the ‘physical + digital’ solution to the unorganised personalised fashion market both in India and across the world,” she shares.
But the path to entrepreneurship was full of challenges. “Since my husband, co-founder at Cloudtailor, is also a software expert, I always had like-minded support from him and we could discuss and arrive at conclusions on strategic requirements faster. I feel the extended family is a good concept for that valuable support system while we need to push ourselves a little more to overcome business hurdles,” she adds.
Lakkakula believes that fashion, in India, primarily a readymade-focused market, was hastened into adoption of digital and brought to the fore the advantages of D2C and online retail owing to the pandemic. “Women designers such as Anita Dongre, Ritu Kumar and Neeta Lulla, and many others in each city, have been able to carve a niche for themselves by inventing, re-inventing and amalgamating colours, styles and fabrics. At the micro-entrepreneur level, millions of women have adopted multiple D2C channels to sell their merchandise to their online customers. This sense of pride and self-respect is what entrepreneurship brings to all of us and helps in becoming icons and role models,” she shares.
The women of today have become bolder in taking up more challenging roles and increasingly proving their mettle. According to Lakkakula, one of the primary growth drivers has been the ever increasing penetration of mobile devices, low-cost 4G data and low-cost mobile phones in the hands of billions of Indians. “This has simultaneously increased the confidence level and opportunities out there for women, to be able to cross their comfort threshold and get going with taking bolder decisions and starting as entrepreneurs like never before,” she says, adding that with the digital ecosystem giving an impetus to the Indian fashion sector, digital access and usage of modern-day training will be vital to bring women micro-entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs alike up to speed.
‘Now the world is a bit more educated about women’s rights’
“Being a woman, I do feel pleased to say that at Deebaco, we do have women leading the brand. From embroidery artists to fashion designers, women in our brand are leading day-to-day activities. At Deebaco, our main focus is on providing jobs to women so they can inspire and lead the business,” shares Sarita Singh Rawat, Founder & Director, Deebaco.
She believes that with the help of technology, women can now connect to each other in a far better manner, allowing them to better voice their opinions and concerns. This has also been fuelled by a level of education that is far superior and more widespread than what it earlier was. “Now the world is a bit more educated about women’s rights. It does indeed help us to show what we can do,” Rana adds.
The Deebaco founder has witnessed more participation of women in the fashion sector, but believes that the society needs to work harder towards making sure that talent from smaller cities of India can make an impact. “Hence, having the support of the government is crucial as good policies can do wonders for women in the Indian fashion sector. It can increase jobs and at the same time, more women entrepreneurs can come from all over the world,” she recommends.
‘Women today are aware, forthright and breaking stereotypes’
Establishing a woman-led business could be an aspiration for many, but for Disha Singh, Founder & CEO, Zouk, the main motivation was to address the unrecognised rich heritage and craftsmanship that exists in India. The idea for Zouk was born during her MBA days at IIM-Ahmedabad and marked the start of her journey in the Indian fashion sector.
“Being a woman entrepreneur has been exhilarating and comes with its set of challenges day in and day out. As a woman, some parts of the business seemed to have an inherent bias against me. For example, it was hard to convince folks to join us on our production side under my leadership. Today, that production team consists of 300+ expert artisans,” she shares.
Singh believes that over the years, more and more women-led businesses, including start-ups, have made it in the fashion world. Women entrepreneurs have positively impacted the Indian fashion ecosystem by creating equal opportunities and positions, and pushing the right kind of talent ahead. They have also received a lot of recognition in terms of the work contributed by them and positive impact generated on business revenues.
“Women of today are aware, forthright and breaking stereotypes in every field. I think what makes them bold is their conviction to do something different and worthwhile, and add value to society as a whole. I applaud our women brigade, because I believe only we can balance our emotional quotient, be empathetic and get the job done at the same time. We truly know how to balance and I know some women who do such a great job at it! It is very inspiring,” Singh shares.
Taking up more challenging roles only becomes more rewarding for the women of today, because this is how hardcore and trained they are to do what they love. “Women in the Indian fashion space have grown considerably in stature. When we hear the stories of Masaba Gupta, Ritu Kumar and Anita Dongre, we feel inspired. Women leaders like Falguni Nayar, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and others also give many of us the confidence to build something big of our own. But, that said, there is still so much more that women in the Indian fashion space can achieve and will achieve. I look forward to the next decade where I expect a lot of women-led fashion brands going the IPO way,” Singh adds.
‘A woman has the ability to build and nurture a team’
When Veena Ashiya, Founder & Chief Energy Officer, Monrow, began her entrepreneurial journey, it took her quite some time to reach her goals as she navigated an unchartered territory. With a passion for fashion and a love for heels, and after having worked in the industry for over 15 years, she finally decided to pursue her long-cherished dream of having her own brand and founded Monrow in the year 2015. Ashiya adds, “Women have a lot of potential to lead the fashion industry as it needs an intuitive design understanding, and their contribution is nearly 50 per cent. If women make up 50% of the fashion market, then the leaders must also be on par with the figures. Anita Dongre and Ritu Kumar were among the most famous fashion names in the 1990s, but today, it is rare to find women at the helm of large-scale fashion brands. It is, however, my hope that this will change soon.”
According to her, the main challenge that women face is the burden of preconceived notions of what women are good at. Typically, it is believed women are good in the design team or marketing team. Ashiya, on the other hand, good with finance, put in a lot of effort to break that perception. “Another misconception that I faced was the concept of a solo founder. This perception is levied on women founders extremely heavily. There are a lot of successful male solo founders around the world, but when it comes to females, there is a biased opinion about them being single mothers, single women and, of course, single founders. I would want to prove that if a woman has the ability to build and nurture a team, it’s ultimately a team that wins,” she shares.
Lately, however, with women taking on more challenging roles and showing their mettle on a growing basis, they have become more confident. The millennials have a greater percentage of women who have graduated than previous generations. In addition, workplaces are now more secure than ever before. “Women are much more assertive in the workplace now due to the success of the #MeToo movement,” she adds.
And while women are significantly rising in the fashion industry, especially at the execution level, leadership roles remain the barrier. “In my opinion, there are many reasons why enough women are not achieving leadership positions. I think the best way to solve this problem would be to promote young leaders. It will surely help women to progress more quickly to leadership roles,” Ashiya believes. At Monrow’s head office, more than 50% are women that are in senior positions.
‘With each new generation, we are breaking old traditions’
Shweta Nimkar, Founder & CEO, PAIO, took the plunge into starting her own business at a young age of 25 years. Completely unaware of the various aspects of running a business, the journey was not bereft of challenges and difficulties. “A big change, however, that I’ve seen is in the confidence of young professionals today. Women are no longer hesitant about becoming entrepreneurs; they are willing to take the plunge and break new ground. Young graduates are aware of the career opportunities and are not afraid to choose previously-deemed-uncertain career paths,” she says.
When Nimkar began PAIO, a lot of the company’s current vendors were unsure of working with a woman-led business. “They assumed and expected it to be a part-time hobby and would not give it the importance due. This has definitely changed over the years,” she shares. The founder believes that over time, a lot of aspects, such as education, a shift in societal mindset, a sense of belonging, a want to prove oneself and the confidence to stand up for what one believes in, have taken women on a long, arduous and extremely gradual journey to where they stand today. “With each new generation, we are breaking old traditions and finding our footing,” she adds.
But, even after having broken a multitude of barriers, there is a long way to go for everyone. “Women today are industry leaders – running some prominent fashion houses, accessory and footwear brands – and I think we will see a lot more women carve a niche for themselves in the coming years!” Nimkar advocates.
‘The industry has become more democratic and empathetic’
“While nurturing my new-born daughter, I found myself imagining moments I would enjoy with her as she grew older. I imagined what she would wear and began creating designs in my head for my future adolescent daughter. This never-ending dialogue with strengthened my passion for aesthetics, art and design, and in this joyous imagination, a brand was born,” shares Reshma Dalal, Founder, Tara & I.
She believes that like most industries, fashion, too, has also become globalised over the past decade. “The industry itself has become a lot more democratic and empathetic. It is more open to different cultural perspectives and conventions, and also more open to different body shapes and sizes. Designers like Anita Dongre and Ritu Kumar have created strong institutions that will grow as our country prospers. Falguni Nayar has redefined retail in India with Nykaa, inspiring others with her creative and financial success. Indian influencers like Masoom Minawala and others are not just merchandising products for large brands but are also helping channel information to both Indian and international brands regarding Indian consumer choices. The appointment of Leena Nair as CEO of Chanel is especially inspiring for those in the fashion industry and sets the benchmark for what Indian women can achieve in the world of fashion both domestically and internationally,” Dalal says.
Being a mother to both a baby and a brand at the same time was challenging for her. “I had to deliver both and to both. But most important, I had to do it for myself. It was tough to multi-task at times; I felt a barrage of emotions and guilt at times. How I did it comes from a mix of inner resilience and ambition to create my own brand,” she shares. Tara and I’s in-house team comprises only women. The brand contributes to social welfare proactively and supports initiatives in this field.
While the Indian fashion industry is a better place for women today than it has been in the past, Dalal feels that there’s still a long road ahead. “In our industry, designers such as Masaba Gupta and entrepreneurs such as Saroja Yeramilli will encourage other women to go full throttle. I would like very much to see women in positions of leadership across the entire fashion value chain though, in all the steps between textiles and retailing. I would be especially pleased when some of the most talented but underappreciated members of this industry – the artisans – get the real credit and reward they deserve,” she asserts.
‘It’s time for a significant shift’
“It is difficult to establish a name and reputation without the use of auxiliary labels and assumptions. There has been a positive trend, but it is time for a significant shift,” asserts Kanika Rana, Founder and Jewellery Designer, Kanika Rana Fine Jewellery.
Having been fascinated by diamonds and jewellery since childhood, Rana began by developing her limited knowledge on the gem through valuation and grading courses in Surat followed by a jewellery designing course. She started on a small scale from home and eventually got many orders in real diamond jewellery. This was the start of her career as a jewellery designer.
“I have always been a family person. There was a time when I was going through some health issues, so I spent my time sketching whenever I felt depressed. This soon became my strength. My sketches acted as a catalyst for new, creative ideas and that’s when I began my entrepreneurial journey,” Rana shares.