- Brands from Uniqlo to Ralph Lauren are entering the lucrative Indian fashion market, which will be worth an estimated $60 billion by 2022.
- There are complexities to navigate, including local brand loyalty and region-specific consumer tastes.
- Many brands partner with Indian designers and logistics partners to resonate with customers.
As India closes in on becoming the world’s sixth-largest fashion market, international labels are crowding in. Brunello Cucinelli, Ralph Lauren and Uniqlo are among the global brands that opened stores in India this year. Their prize? Access to an industry that McKinsey forecasts will be worth nearly USD 60 billion by 2022, while India’s GDP is expected to increase 8 % year over year. Figures released by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry in India show the Indian luxury industry is worth approximately USD 30 billion.
But, winning over customers in Asia’s third-largest economy requires a more tactful strategy than simply showing up, and new entrants can learn from past missteps. Etro, for example, entered the market in 2010 and shut down operations four years later. Pucci’s Delhi store, which opened in 2013, lasted around three years before shuttering. Neha Lidder, founder of luxury retail brand advisory Platoon, says brands that do not succeed in India typically don’t match the aesthetic preferences of most Indian shoppers. Pucci, for example, entered the region with its resort wear collection, which wealthy Indians were not willing to pay top dollar for.
Brands also struggle to account for the complexity of Indian wardrobes. Ethnic wear makes up 71 per cent of womenswear spending, and the sari is the single most popular item of clothing, according to Indian consultancy Technopak, but women also have separate wardrobes for socialising and work. “[Visiting] a woman’s wardrobe here is like going to a mini department store,” says Vogue India editor-in-chief Priya Tanna. “The good news for international brands is that there is a vibrant market and a space for all.”
The fashion houses that thrive in India tailor their collections to local customers, respond to the complexities in Indian wardrobes and cater to different needs throughout the country’s diverse markets.
Made for India
To resonate with Indian shoppers, international brands have designed collections with their style in mind. This often translates into pieces unique to the market and partnerships with homegrown designers to get a local perspective. Nine years ago, Italian menswear brand Canali introduced a collection in its six Indian stores that included a Bandhgala, a closed collar suit common in Indian men’s wardrobes. The Nawab Collection — Nawab means viceroy in several Indian languages – has been successful, with new colours and fabrics added every season, according to Deepika Gehani, senior vice president of public relations and marketing at Reliance Brands, India’s largest distributor of luxury goods. In 2011, Hermès released a limited-edition sari in India. More recently, Giorgio Armani launched an exclusive Indian capsule collection of Achkan jackets for Autumn/Winter 2019. The first drop sold out.
Collaborations with well-known designers also help, as India already has established luxury designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee with whom wealthy shoppers have a history. For instance, the country has a reputation as a producer of hand embroidery. International brands that work with established homegrown talent can build on their efforts, instead of starting from scratch and potentially missing the mark. “International brands need to be aware they will be compared to Indian labels,” says Gehani.
Uniqlo, which opened its first store in India, in New Delhi, in October, is selling a special collection based on the kurta, a collarless tunic-shirt, as well as dresses, pants and stoles. It was designed in partnership with Delhi-based designer Rina Singh and will be available at stores in other Asian countries. In 2016, Christian Louboutin launched a collection of shoes and accessories with Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi. The partnership has resulted in four collections to date and mixes classic Louboutin styles like the Loubi Queen sandal and Mary Jane bucket bag with local twists, including hand embroidery and festive colours.
“Consumers develop an emotional connection only when you respect and work towards making products that are best suited for the country that you are selling them in,” says Christian Louboutin’s country head Anjali Gaekwar, adding that successful brands manage to balance both their own aesthetic and local cultures.
Different approaches for different markets
While luxury brands often tailor their approach to each market, they must be even more nimble to crack India. There are about “20 different Indias”, and each has their own consumer preferences, says Cecilia Morelli Parikh, co-founder of Mumbai-based multi-brand retailer Le Mill, which introduced Isabel Marant, Zimmermann and Dries Van Noten to the country.
Le Mill hosts trunk shows in eight cities outside Mumbai. Among her learnings: avoid white for cocktail dressing since the colour is associated with mourning; seek out garments with shorter hemlines even if short isn’t trending globally; and avoid pieces that look similar to kurtas but aren’t. Northern regions like Delhi are partial to flashy jewellery, Platoon’s Lidder adds.
The rules also change quickly. For example, more women are now pairing their saris with boots and cross-body bags in a shift to more contemporary styles, says former Dior India vice president Kalyani Saha Chawla. This applies even during weddings and other festive occasions where traditional clothing has typically dominated. “They’re celebrating their heritage but staking a claim for themselves as global citizens,” explains Morelli Parikh.
International labels that do not want to compete in the sphere of traditional wear can instead tap into the opportunity by offering complementary accessories. Jimmy Choo, for instance, carries a large assortment of low heels and open sandals, as well as gold and silver shoes and clutches to match festive attire, says Gehani of Reliance, which retails the footwear brand.
“In India, we localise global trends,” says Vogue India’s Tanna. “Indians are truly global nomads when it comes to dressing.”