Newlywed Sneha Kapur Manchanda tattles off a list of five ‘luxury wedding’ exhibitions she’s attended in five-star hotels recently. That’s not including the several others that the 25-year-old attended before her wedding to Delhi-based businessman Saurabh Manchanda a year ago. “There’s always a wedding in the extended family every year,” she explains of the ‘need’ for such expos, where fashion designers, jewellers, home décor retailers and wedding card printers converge to lure the wealthy, and where cash registers ring with five-figure sums within a few minutes of opening doors. “One must be up-to-date with the latest trends, after all.”
Set against a gloomy backdrop of a slowing economy, rising inflation and falling value of the rupee against the dollar, the luxury wedding market in India shines so brightly with its zardozi gold threads and kundan-studded glitter that one is tempted to label it ‘recession-proof’. Nowhere is this buoyancy more vivid than in the fashion and designer-garments category, where haute couture as the international definition of the priciest made-to-order clothing is almost synonymous with wedding-wear. Established fashion designers admit to have invested more than half of their businesses in ‘ethnic couture’ and younger designers are quick to follow suit. Succumbing to the hoopla, even the legendary Manish Arora, India’s only export to Paris Fashion Week and the country’s doyen of international fashion design, launched a line catering specifically to Indian wedding-wear a few months ago, after a decade in the business of award-winning Western-wear.
Bridal-wear = Couture
Telling enough of the link between luxury fashion and wedding-wear is the title Delhi Couture Week (DCW), an event by the industry body Fashion Design Council of India, where a handful of top Indian designers are invited to specifically showcase their bridal collections every year. Designer Anju Modi, the opening act this season, says 70 per cent of her now 23-year-old business comes from bridal-wear, and explains that this market is “unchallenged by any other occasion that could be the focus of the Indian haute-couture collections, especially since we do not enjoy many high-profile events like ballets, black-tie dinners and cocktails that follow a dress code.” In addition, she figures, the sheer number of events that lead up to an Indian wedding, not to mention the newer trends of ‘destination weddings’ and theme-based functions, call for “a wider range of ensembles and pieces” designed for the elite.
Senior couturier JJ Valaya, who opened India Bridal Week this year, considers the wedding-wear industry “clearly the champion” when it comes to couture in India. “Anyone who is serious about lasting long here will have to get into bridal-wear,” opines the designer whose two main collections every year have an 80 per cent ‘ethnic couture’ component. “This is the DNA of Indian haute couture; it cannot be confused with the French concept. There are only a handful of couturiers in Europe, and their designs are worn by only a few hundred women around the world. India, however, is the only country that creates and consumes couture with equal fervour. We do not produce bespoke, extravagant outfits out of a mere love of fashion, but due to a real need,” he emphasises.
Known for his stunning wedding-wear collections, designer Varun Bahl equates the made-to-order definition of haute couture with the one-of-a-kind finish required in Indian bridal-wear. “A lot of emotions are involved so immense attention is given to details,” he says explaining why these garments cannot be sold off the rack. Though the current prices for his lehengas start from Rs 1.5 lakh onwards, he says his expansion strategy has kept in mind the Rs 2,00,000 crore Indian wedding market and will soon include tier-2 cities where his garments will be made available at more affordable prices.
Challenges of Intricacy
The key strengths of Indian fashion – craft and craftsmanship – are also its biggest challenges. Renowned designer Tarun Tahiliani, who employs close to 900 employees across 54 points of sale in the country, and whose bridal ensembles range from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 20 lakhs, says, “Getting the correct fit and finish is a challenge as the entire process is very complex.” He admits he ‘was pushed’ into designing bridal-wear soon after his debut as a designer in 1990 due to the high demand, observing that today’s customers are far more discerning than before.
Costume designer and wedding couturier to stars such as Kareena Kapoor, Manish Malhotra adds two major challenges that he faces in his quest: The time factor required in creating not just ‘glamour’ but also intricate craftsmanship in a market where demand is always more than supply, and the high inventory and sampling cost. The designer, whose bridal garments start from Rs 2.5 lakhs and go up to Rs 14 lakhs for the kind Deepika Padukone recently wore at DCW, recently turned his existing Mumbai store into an exclusively bridal studio and has launched a new flagship store in Delhi converted from a 100-year-old haveli as one that will stock ‘lighter luxe and wedding wear all under one roof’.
With stalwarts in the arena tilting heavily into wedding couture, younger designers seem just as enthusiastic about hitching a ride. Ridhi Mehra, a 23-year-old designer who found fame earlier this year after her ornate jumpsuits debuted on stylist-designer Pernia Qureshi’s popular fashion portal Perniaspopupshop.com, says almost 90 per cent of her creations can be classified as wedding-wear. Mehra is already retailing from several multi-designer stores and wedding exhibitions in four countries. Operating with an all-women team, she says innovation is key in a crowded market where ‘anyone can keep a tailor’. “Sabyasachi (Mukherjee) and Anamika (Khanna) aren’t just pricey labels; they are labels because they offer really good products,” she says.
Quality and modernisation are also key aspects of young designer Gaurav Gupta’s work, who believes, “Innovation always trumps recession.” Within just five years of introducing his unique sari- and lehenga-gowns to an aspirational Indian market, he has already begun retailing from several tier-2 cities despite their price sensitivity, and sees 70 per cent of his turnover coming from wedding-wear. “My garments aren’t entirely ‘Indian’. But Indian customers are now more open to wearing cocktail gowns even for major wedding events, so there’s a huge scope in this segment,” he elaborates, citing better retail environments as the most important pathway to future growth.
Innovation has also driven the first wedding-wear line to emerge from Bollywood. Last month, Yash Raj Films announced a new fashion line, Diva’ni, in collaboration with the Delhi-based KBSH group. Headed by Sanya Dhir, the line will offer a ‘360-degree ethnic-wear solution’ for weddings and a ‘cinematic’ feel in its garments ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10 lakhs. KBSH, a three-generation old sari wholesaler and retailer that employs over 2,500 people, already saw half of its business from bridal-wear, and has big hopes pinned on their first branded, global bridal line. “The slowdown hasn’t affected this aspect of our business,” says Dhir, “but with this line we want to make the industry more organised and structured.”
In fact, in an industry that is almost 90 per cent unorganised, jewellery makers like Jaipur’s award-winning Amrapali find that handling ‘people’ is the most difficult challenge of them all. “Due to copy-pasting off the Internet, designs that were traditionally made in one part of the country are now being made everywhere else, leading to dilution of age-old crafts and loss of originality and authentic techniques,” says Tarang Arora, designer and head of international operations. Even so, the company, which currently hires 2,000 people and has 35 points of sale across five countries, has seen a constant, moderate growth post the 2008 slowdown.
It’s not just Indian players cashing in. In the past few years, brands like Canali created a Nehru-style ‘Nawab Jacket’, and Hermès made us a sari. Minauderie designer Judith Leiber tied up with Indian couturier Suneet Varma besides also offering Ganesh and Maharaja Elephant embellished clutches. Maker of the sexiest shoes in the world, Christian Louboutin now also offers a special Indian bridal range. Austrian firm Swarovski – which has an annual global turnover of 3.08 billion euros – made its foray into the Indian bridal market with their Fall/Winter 2013 collection that features the India-inspired Vaiata range of jewellery, including a maang tikka. With 30,500 employees worldwide, the company’s fashion jewellery is positioned as a ‘stylish and viable’ alternative to gold and diamond jewellery traditionally favoured in India. “I do feel the market will brave the recessed economy to provide room for sales growth and employment opportunities,” says Sukanya Dutta Roy, managing director, Swarovski CGB.
Clearly, the writing is on the banquet wall. “We have stayed relevant for 21 years by focusing on our wedding-wear,” says Valaya. “You need to believe in India.”
Major players in the international wedding planning sector are now setting up India operations.
The UK-based luxury wedding planner and wedding bible author (www.SarahHaywood.com) had been keen to access the growing wedding market in India. “Most of our clients are ‘international’ in that they perhaps have homes and business interests across the globe,” says Haywood, adding that their budgets range from half a million to several million US dollars. “The worldwide luxury wedding market is becoming fused so that cultural elements are crossing continents and with larger budgets and more lavish celebrations. The challenge is to ensure that the meaning and significance of the event is not lost or overshadowed,” she adds.
Acclaimed American wedding designer and author of five books, Preston Bailey has catered to celebrity clients ranging from royal families to Hollywood stars, CEOs and millionaire athletes. Famed for his ability to create jaw-dropping backdrops, Bailey has tied up with Vikaas Gutgutia’s Ferns N Petals, India’s largest floral décor company, to execute his designs in India. “I have had the privilege of doing weddings and events all over the world. I think none compares to the weddings in the Indian market. It’s a great platform to explore new technologies. They have always pushed the boundaries and continue to do so,” he marvels. “There is a lot of room for dreaming.”
First published in the November 9 issue of Outlook Business magazine