In a video advertisement released by women’s wear label Biba this March, titled Change for Progress, a happy Indian wedding scene is punctuated by an unusual question from an older ‘uncle’ to a younger man, a student: “What’s the point of all this studying if you only have to settle down and run the home?”
The female protagonist, the boy’s peer, asks the viewer: “Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Sounds odd to us, too.” The idea is to shatter the stereotype of women being homemakers by showing its ludicrousness in context. Interestingly, all the women in the scene are shown wearing Indian-wear—the juxtaposition of their traditional clothing and confident, modern statements is important.
In fact, this theme of having regular girls-next-door dressed in traditional outfits, demonstrating very modern ideas on marriage and career, has been a favourite of Indian-wear brands, especially those that cater to e-commerce audiences.
Anouk, a contemporary Indian-wear label by e-commerce biggie Myntra, had run a series of videos in 2015-16 that challenged popular stereotypes and gender roles; one showed a young wife relocating to another city when she got a lucrative job offer, even though her husband had to stay behind. She was dressed in a very simple cotton kurta in the advertisement.
That’s not always the case in popular Indian movies which often portray the ‘modern’ girl in Western clothing, and the docile, ‘domesticated’ one in salwar-kameezes or saris.
The fact that some of India’s largest e-commerce fashion brands, which can be lucrative only if they appeal to the masses, choose this concept reveals who their major buyer is: urban, working, modern, financially independent, and someone who expects gender equality. She also dresses in Indian-wear.
ECOMMERCE & INDIAN FASHION
Ecommerce has changed the way Indians shop – from 60 million fashion shoppers in 2016, they are estimated to reach 135 million by 2020 according to a 2016 study by The Boston Consulting Group and Facebook. That will account for nearly 20% of the total fashion shopper base in India, says the study.
Women’s wear is also the fastest growing category in fashion e-retail, as women will account for nearly half (48%) of all online shoppers by 2020, up from 39% in 2016. More of these women will be from tier-2 / 3 /4 towns than from metros.
This partly explains why women’s ethnic wear is expected to dominate online fashion retail by 2020 – from 26–28% of all sales in 2016 to 30–32% – as against women’s Western-wear, which will grow from 14–16% at present to 16–18%. The largest category in 2016 – men’s casual-wear – will fall from 27–29% to 21–23% in the same period.
With women’s Indian wear showing indications for such a surge, it’s no wonder that the past few years have seen a spike in new labels that specialize in this category. A quick search through ecommerce websites will reveal a stunning variety of labels for ethnic wear, Indian formals, kurtas, suit sets, saris, lowers (such as churidars, salwars, pants, palazzos, skirts and leggings) and even dress material.
Having mushroomed in a very short period of time, these labels – theoretically accessible to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in India – are competitively priced and driven by mass appeal. Worn by regular women – from students and retirees, to homemakers and working professionals in all parts of the country – they defy the usual rules of fashion design and retail that preoccupy loftier minds in the fashion industry.
For instance, they follow no ‘seasons’ or ‘global colour trend’. Sabah Mahajan, creative director and COO of the Indianwear label Ahalyaa which is based in Surat, says a brand can’t enforce a ‘Pantone colour of the year’ on buyers, nor can they wait for months to come up with a new range. “This ‘seasons’ concept is all bogus for India. Customers buy whatever colour they like, and you need to offer new looks every few days,” says the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Hyderabad graduate, who did her Master’s from National Institute of Design, Bangalore.
However, her brand does follow international and Indian fashion leaders on Instagram for design cues when it comes to silhouettes. Inspired by high fashion, they keep a strict watch on the garment-manufacturing process to ensure low price points.
“Manufacturing in bulk for a mass audience means we have to understand the human psyche,” says Mahajan, whose label specialises in almost 50 techniques of metallic printing to give a ‘festive’ look to affordable garments in the range Rs 699 to 1499. “We observe women around us: if they mostly say ‘Main sleeveless nahi pehenti (I don’t wear sleeveless)’, then we avoid those kinds of silhouettes.”
THE BUYER MINDSET
Her reasoning is echoed by Nidhi Yadav, founder and CEO of the label Aks, which comes up with almost 150 styles a month for e-retail. With 600 workers across her various factories across India working on nearly 400 machines, her Gurugram-based firm Yuvdhi Apparels churns out nearly 1.5 lakh garments per month.
“We keep all kinds of fabrics and prints ready in-house. If we like a new idea or silhouette in a magazine or online, we can make a sample of it in just two hours and put it online to see the response,” says Yadav, a computer-science engineer who studied fashion buying and merchandising in Florence. “That’s why it’s called fast fashion.”
Having observed fashion major Zara’s model of supply-chain management while she was in Italy, Yadav says she’s learnt to make clothing “not like a designer, but like a buyer”. “I may not like a particular design for myself, but it may sell 30,000 pieces,” she explains. Her team aggressively adheres to feedback from customers, fixing sizes, shapes and fabrics based on reviews.
“As an online seller, your product has to market itself,” says Yadav, whose label was picked by Myntra for a five-year accelerator programme. Priced between Rs 899 to 1999, the garments have a low profit margin as she sources quality fabrics in bulk from craft clusters around India.
“I personally try every sample we make,” says Yadav. If something doesn’t feel right, she has it changed before it goes into production.
Self-testing for a garment’s quality and style quotient is a habit that Sheetal Kapoor, joint managing director of Shree – The Indian Avatar, has also perfected. The company’s fashion team, based in Delhi, follows WGSN trend forecasting released by international runways, but ‘Indianizes’ it for their audience. “Indian colours are more vibrant,” says managing director Sandeep Kapoor.
With a sizeable presence on ecommerce portals Amazon, Flipkart, Limeroad, Jabong and Myntra, the apparel brand makes almost 3 lakh garments every month, and is focused on everyday wear for modern women.
“Our garments are more functional down to the details – even something as small yet as vital as pockets and side-slit locks. Indian female bodies are mostly pear-shaped, which is why they prefer side slits for convenience. And pockets are every woman’s best friend,” says Sheetal.
Her observations are in tune with a Technopak study that found ecommerce fashion sales are set to rise with more women entering the workforce, becoming financially independent and enjoying higher discretionary spending power. Catering to this audience is imperative for any ecommerce label.
Shree’s bestsellers vary from region to region, though linen kurtas make up 35% of sales. Like Indian wear majors Biba and W, the label follows an offline-online model, and has 30 brick-and-mortar stores across India. This means they can take direct feedback from customers and modify designs frequently.
Besides selecting fabrics based on the weather in different parts of India, and colours based on the time of the year, Indian brands also have to keep in mind varying sizes of Indian women. “North Indian consumers are larger than the consumers in the west so our displays in north India are mostly oversized and loose,” says Sandeep.
Though online labels usually take 5’3” as the average Indian woman’s height, there hasn’t been any industry standard when it comes to body measurements so far. That is set to change, however, as the ministry of textiles has just commissioned a Rs 30 crore National Sizing Survey to come up with an ‘India size chart’ for the garment industry.
For this survey, NIFT will sample 25,000 people aged 15 to 65 across six cities using high-tech 3D whole-body scanners. Launched last month, the project is expected to take two to three years to complete.
In the meantime, Indian wear labels will continue with their heterogeneous sizing. And making up their own rules for everything else as they go along.
First published in The Voice of Fashion