AS AN UNDERGRAD in the US, Pernia Qureshi had studied Criminal Justice, English literature and Dance, but when it came to internship, she went for fashion styling stints in Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. Soon, she landed her first “adult paying job”, a rather plum project— that of costume designer for Sonam Kapoor-starrer Aisha in 2010. The subsequent adulation and critical acclaim for the film’s costumes—which still tops the list of the most fashion-forward films Bollywood has ever produced—meant that Qureshi could afford to take risks with her career. And she did. She launched her own luxury e-boutique PerniasPopUpShop.com from a basement with a staff of three.
It went on to revolutionise designer e-commerce in India.
For someone with neither a technical background nor experience in online retail, Qureshi was nonetheless an avid online shopper influenced by global e-commerce giants like Net-a-Porter.com, NeimanMarcus.com and Barneys.com. “After returning to India from the US, it struck me that there was no equivalent of these sites here. It was a huge gap waiting to be filled,” says Qureshi, an alumna of Woodstook School, Mussoorie. It took her eight months to launch her website, a curated portal offering designer garments and accessories made in India. “When we started the website, there was no existing template. Now others follow ours, but we still have the first- mover advantage,” she says. Born to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother in Swat, Pakistan, Qureshi studied Kuchipudi and Kathak in childhood, and played the lead female role in Muzaffar Ali’s 2015 film, Jaanisaar. It was an interesting diversion, but the focus has always been her website, which has partnered with over 500 designers over the past four years. New collections are loaded every day, and she now leads a team of 60, including those handling logistics and editorial shoots. She has also launched her own eponymous line of clothing, offering designs she loves “to wear personally”.
What Qureshi did for Indian fashion was unparalleled. Her site was essentially a stylist’s boutique that carefully sifted through designers, adding Qureshi’s own personality and celebdom to the oeuvre. Unlike other larger websites at the time such as Exclusively.com—which has now been swallowed whole by Snapdeal—one would not only find established names on Pernia’s Pop Up Shop, but also unknown labels from upcoming designers. Such was her influence that she became the springboard for several newbies who went on to become established names within months, including Delhi-based designer Ridhi Mehra, now a favourite in Bollywood. It was, and still is, a major coup for a new designer to be handpicked by Qureshi; her editorial eye is still the USP of her portal, even if more commercial considerations guide collaborations.
Indeed, what sets designer e-commerce apart from mass fashion e-retail—besides the luxury price points—is the curation quotient, the fact that these products you see on your screen are the ‘chosen ones’ that have made the mark out of hundreds of others; it is the difference between editorial versus advertising, and between pull versus push models of promotion. No doubt fashion e-commerce has boomed in India in the past few years with the onset of Jabong and Myntra, both of which have now been taken over by Flipkart. Every third query on Google is related to fashion, a trend that is growing at 65 per cent annually, and online apparel sales are predicted to grow four times in the next five years. In fact, a Technopak report estimated that by 2020, a third of India’s online retail revenue would be generated from fashion e-commerce.
But this growth in mass fashion still does not address the needs of fashion elites who seek high-end designer garments delivered conveniently at home, matched with the courteous service, considerate touches, and fancy packaging that one would expect from a luxury product. Indian designers themselves do not know how to reach out to these customers—especially those from tier-2 cities or the diaspora, who can afford their designs but do not have access to physical stores in their cities. Regular e-commerce models do not suit their branding requirements and customisation needs. They need a different digital retail solution, and celebrity-curated content such as Qureshi’s fits the bill nicely, with buyers dropping in as much to ‘check out’ the latest trends as much as to actually shop them.
The digital revolution enveloped the Indian designer landscape around four years ago, with multi-label brick-and-mortar stores like the UK-based Aashni + Co and India-based Carma launching online outlets around the same time. Aza, a highly respected multi-designer store set up in Mumbai by Dr Alka Nishar in 2004, got a new identity when her daughter Devangi Parekh returned from the US armed with a Bachelor’s in entrepreneurship from Cornell University and an MBA from Wharton to launch AzaFashions.com in keeping with global omni-channel retail trends that she had observed abroad. “It’s the golden link— having both an online and offline presence,” she explains of her digital strategy in taking Aza to a global audience two years ago, and scaling rapidly with more than 25 per cent growth month- on-month. “The online store offers a larger catalogue to potential customers and makes them familiar with the brand, while the offline store adds credibility and trust. If a bride has to buy a Rs 5 lakh Sabyasachi lehenga online, she wants to be sure of getting the real deal,” says the 28-year-old second-generation entrepreneur, whose technocrat father Atul Nishar’s fame in founding Aptech Computers and Hexaware Technologies probably has something to do with her own ease in the digital space. For her, both models of retail need different management strategies. “Even if the merchandise is the same, driving traffic to a website is a different ballgame. People don’t just step into your store and look around; you need to learn the nuances of search engine optimisation and digital marketing. Plus, navigation is key,” she says, adding that the transparency of tracking online sales has given a fillip to Aza’s offline sales strategy and store placement as well. “Besides, gross margins are definitely higher online,” she says with a smile.
Multi-brand e-stores such as Parekh’s have given Indian designers a taste of what online retail could do in terms of drawing in new audiences. Jyoti Sachdev Iyer, a designer who has been retailing out of Bangalore and Kolkata for almost two decades, finds that having a presence on PerniasPopUpShop.com has been profitable even in difficult times of demonetisation, since orders usually come in from abroad and are all cashless by default. “It’s a nascent industry, but it’s picking up; the past few months have been good,” she testifies. Some designers set up e-commerce options on their own websites, such as Mumbai-based Payal Singhal. Having launched her label in 1999, Singhal received so many unexpected orders through email that she decided to add a payment gateway three years ago on her website and now caters to customers worldwide. “Even though we retail through physical stores like Ogaan, Aza and Ensemble, the range you can offer online is almost unlimited,” she says, adding that all online sales are made-to-order, and no ready inventory is required. Her label is present on multi-brand websites as well as her own, both of which have their own advantages. “On shared platforms, we end up with less profits, but we also get greater visibility [among] new audiences who find us while searching for other designers. On our own website, we can control the customisation process better. We ask lots of questions about measurements, and even make new sketches if required,” Singhal says, narrating a case when a US-based bride could not choose between three sketches of cholis for her bridal lehenga that Singhal’s team had sent, and finally ordered all three of them.
But Singhal is one of the few established offline designers to have adopted the digital approach successfully. Websites of most Indian fashion bigwigs like Manish Malhotra, Sabyasachi and JJ Valaya are disappointingly marked ‘under construction’ and unless they have a tie-up with a multi-brand e-store, it is difficult to shop for them online. Not surprisingly, digitally savvy designers are mostly from the younger crop, such as Tarini Nirula. The Delhi-based bag designer began her retail journey on Facebook in 2012, taking orders over messages and receiving payments directly through bank transfers for her first collection of minaudieres, which completely sold out. After retailing through online multi- brand majors such as PerniasPopUpShop.com and LimeRoad.com for two years, she launched her own portal in 2014, and has now mastered the art of digital retail through Instagram and Facebook targeted marketing and using the correct hashtags. With most customers in the age group 25 to 45, and coming in from as far as Turkey, South Africa and the UK, her online sales far outweigh offline ones through brick-and-mortar stores and local exhibitions. “This is definitely the best way going forward,” she avers.
Keeping in mind the needs and limitations of younger designers, Mariya Khanji, a Mumbai-based stylist who had worked in Elle and L’Officiel, and designed costumes for Karan Johar’s film Student of the Year, came up with Nete.in, a portal for the wired generation that thinks on its thumbs and is accustomed to swipe- through shopping. The 28-year-old fashion communications graduate launched her e-store in 2013 offering ‘sustainable fashion’ with an emphasis on recycled or ethically produced garments from lesser known designers. At present, she has 25 designers on board, many of whom create earthy, minimalistic lines exclusively for Nete (pronounced Netty), even if they retail elsewhere as well. “I focus on a younger clientele looking for exceptional everyday clothing that comes with certain values,” she says. Her buyers are mostly young Indian professionals who appreciate slow fashion, want to support Indian artisans, and also have an eye for design. Her small team conducts edgy-chic fashion shoots in Mumbai featuring regular women, not glamorous models or film stars.
One of her top-selling designers Doodlage, in fact, specialises in upcycled fashion made using industrial waste cloth. Kriti Tula, who founded the label in 2012 after completing her Master’s from London School of Economics, was hesitant about retailing online at first. “For online sales, you need to create several pieces of the same design. But in our work, no two pieces are ever exactly the same,” she says, adding that Nete ensured that the variability factor was made clear before a sale was made. She also now retails through the eclectic Jaypore.com and Arvind Lifestyle Brands’ NNNOW.com, launched in May last year. “The best part of online retail is that everything is transparent, and data is easily available. So we can target our marketing to specific audiences or cities, and find relevant customers,” says Tula.
ONLINE DESIGNER RETAIL isn’t just limited to garments; ease of customisation and digital innovation has made it possible for an established shoe designer like Nirali Ruparel to launch her own ‘design-your-own’ online shoe store called AchillesHeel.co. The only such website in India that offers 100 per cent customisable footwear, the label offers shoes starting Rs 10,000 with all details— colour, sole, pattern, design, material and so on—available in 3D visualisation so that the customer can see the final product before hitting the purchase button. The Mumbai-based designer was once a fitness consultant and later worked in Hello magazine until luxury men’s footwear beckoned. “There were lots of apparel designers but no Indian equivalent of Louboutin,” she says, explaining her reason for setting up her own bespoke label in this category. Focusing on handcrafted luxury footwear, she caters to the likes of Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan and Rana Daggubati, besides corporate honchos.
Having learnt Italian footwear production techniques from Naples, 32-year-old Ruparel initially offered ready-to-wear shoes on her website like a “regular e-commerce portal”. However, inspired by the Burberry and Alexander McQueen stores in London, which offer gesture-based mirrors where you can see the entire catalogue on yourself, she decided to go in for a more advanced online offering. With support from her husband’s firm Trimension Labs, which specialises in augmented reality and 3D walk-throughs, she developed Achilles’ Heel over a year. The site needed over 1.5 million permutations in colours, material and design before it was complete. Even now, she adds four new designs every season. “Imagine how many new images are rendered for each shoe, and all of these are high- quality images so that you get the real look and feel,” she says. To minimise the return rate, the site has exact measurement parameters. “We’ve had no return till date,” affirms Ruparel.
CUSTOMISATION IS ALSO the buzzword in online designer jewellery retail, with the likes of VelvetCase.com offering 3D printed personalised jewellery and a ‘disruptive supply chain model’ with designer partners from around the world. Headed by Kapil Hetamsaria, the website has grown 2.8 times since last year in terms of revenue and 8.5 times in terms of units sold, and has already been written about as a case study by Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, published by Harvard Business Publishing. Hetamsaria had attended a training course for diamond manufacturing and trading when he was a Mechanical Engineering student. “It was an on-ground, unsexy way of learning,” says the entrepreneur. Having worked in the in the US for several years, including at McKinsey, Dell, British Telecom and Microsoft, Hetamsaria was keen to understand how a customer derives value and how technology can be an enabler. He launched his jewellery portal in 2013, after observing that jewellery purchase patterns in India had changed: millennials no longer relied on ‘family jewellers’, and were open to 100 per cent certified jewellery bought from respectable sources online. He also noticed that with escalating real-estate and gold prices, the cost of keeping a large inventory for a customer who would just make one or two purchases all through the year was not justified. “The jewellery landscape needed a change,” he decided, adding that his mother, a jewellery designer herself, was his biggest critic. “How can you make money out of just showing pictures?” she asked him. But Hetamsaria stuck to two principles. The first is ‘consumer’ focus instead of ‘product’ focus: “We offer customers individual choices based on budget, taste and need. We aren’t pushing an already existing product on to them. There’s a difference.” The second is to carry no inventory: “No inventory, no pressure to push a certain product.”
In July 2016, the website took another big leap: it is now a hybrid marketplace for jewellery designers who can use it to host their individual stores, customise jewellery, offer the widest possible range, and even hire other vendors to manufacture their products. “The designers have their creativity, and the manufacturers have their machines and know-how. We are the platform that brings them together,” says Hetamsaria, who has gone from zero to 400 partners in just 15 months, and is looking to achieve a thousand this year. The site retails a whole range of jewels from gold, diamond and silver to fashion jewellery and even Swarovski products, and also offers style-based and look-based curation by an in-house stylist. “How does a Chroma still survive in the face of an Amazon or Flipkart?” he asks hypothetically, referring to the gadget retailer. “They specialise.”
With all the innovation going on in designer e-commerce, there is no doubt that the next retail revolution is upon us, starting from the computer and ending in our closets.