History repeats – India’s role in global fashion

India has a rich tradition of textiles which dates back many centuries. The history of the Indian readymade garment industry, however, is very recent and can be traced back to the Second World War.

During the Second World War, as a contribution to the wartime needs of British rulers, clothing units for mass production were set up to manufacture military uniforms. With India’s independence in 1947, the industry stagnated as the policies of the Government were now diverted towards building a new nation. However, the industry began to expand after 1959 with the revision of the textile policy to allow the import of machinery for manufacturing.

The 1960s witnessed social shifts as a whole generation of young people questioned the very basis of their existence, and the hippie movement was born. Tired of their materialistic ‘man-made’ lifestyle, these young people began to seek answers in communing with all things natural, love and peace being the anthem. They began traveling, to explore, to seek the ancient philosophies of the East.

This voyage of discovery not only led to a change of lifestyle, but also the way they dressed. Natural fibres were rediscovered, and principally amongst them “Cotton”. India, with its natural abundance of this fibre, was an automatic choice of a supply source. Simultaneously, the growing settlement of Indian abroad led to a ready outlet for a variety of India merchandise and clothing textiles as an article of trade because of its growing demand.

This sudden demand for cotton garments resulted in the Indian industry growing by leaps and bounds in a very short period. Export of “High Fashion” garments from India started off with the cheap cotton kurtas and hand-block vegetable dye printed wrap-around skirts in cotton sheeting to meet the demands of the western youth.

Cashing in on the boom any and everybody got into the manufacture of clothing. The Government, realizing the potential of earning foreign exchange for the country, announced incentives and tax exemption for exporters. The fallout was an industry that grew in an unorganized manner and developed a reputation for producing low cost, low quality, volume merchandise.

The 1980s established that the industry was here to stay but, in terms of product profile, India still had not been able to move out of the lower end of the world market and continued to have an average unit value of under US$ 5.

The 1990s saw the industry make a conscious effort to shake off the image of being producers of cheap, low-quality merchandise with unreliable delivery schedules. The second generation had begun coming into the business, and contributed to reorganizing their firms for clearer structure and professionalism. Funds were ploughed back into the business with the emergence of large and modern production facilities. Even though most of the export houses were family-owned, trained professionals were inducted into the business for clear-cut departments and areas of functions. Consolidation and retention of business was the focus of the late nineties as the abolition of quotas planned for the new millennium became a reality.

The industry was euphoric but at the same time apprehensive of what the post quota era would bring. Many of the producers looking for a synergy in the business and also to sustain the large production facilities began tentative forays into domestic retail. The face of the Indian consumer was changing. Exposure to the western society via the electronic media helped in creating a ‘borderless’ world for lifestyle products, and contemporary fashion merchandise found a ready market in domestic retail.

The new global consumer over the years has evolved as a demanding and yet discerning individual. The novelty factor along with price and quality has become the watchword of the new millennium consumer. As consumers around the world change, so does the product strategy to keep consumer interests alive and ensure loyalty.

The new millennium has seen the emergence of the ‘Quick Response’ or ‘Real Time’ merchandising in fashion as a strategic solution to nurture, retain and grow the business. ‘Fast Fashion’ was born. Retailers could no longer work on the concept of two major retailing seasons with a couple of promotions thrown in. Product planning and the merchandise on the racks had to be constantly current and trendy.

Fast Fashion is not simply a solution to increase consumption by introducing greater product variety but a strategy to retain, consolidate and sustain the market through proactive product development and efficient product delivery to consumers, and thereby grow the market by increasing market share or developing new markets.

However, fast fashion has been tried and tested in different avatars through the years. In the 1960s and 1970s it was present in the quick reaction time of the unorganized sector to service the demand for block-printed ethnic clothing merchandise. In the 1980s and 1990s it was represented in the proactively researched product development at the source market level by wholesale importer/designer buyers (like Rene Dehry, Giorgio Kauten, Diff and Steilmann). Today it is technology-aided product research and development techniques (practiced by Anthropologie, Rampage, Zara and H&M), coupled with responsive buying processes.

In product design terms, India has moved on from producing and selling ‘fashion basics’ to ‘basic’ merchandise, and now back to ‘fashion basics’ once again. History says that this is where India’s inherent talents and strengths as a source market lie. Rather than reinventing the wheel or try to catch up with other competitors strengths, India should cash in on its strengths to practice and master fast fashion.

Quo Vadis Indian Fashion Industry?

Fashion merchandising textbooks state – a society that is fashion aware and fashion conscious is a society that is economically healthy. Thus Fashion is a reflection of lifestyle. In the Indian context it is a reflection of the growing ‘affluence’ of urban India – the upwardly mobile Indian middle class, more so, the upper middle class. The growth and progress of the Fashion Industry in the last ten years has even warranted the institution of the bi-annual Fashion Industry event, which is eagerly awaited both by the producers and buyers of fashion in India. Every year the fashion fraternity, glitterati and media await this event with much excitement and impatience. For weeks leading up to the event one reads of the who’s who of the International Fashion scene, the top of the line buyers expected to attend the event ……and yet, when the dust settles, Indian Fashion is yet to truly make its mark on the international scene.

Internationally the Indian apparel industry is better known as a supplier of competitively priced, mass produced, ‘fashion basic’ apparel merchandise sold by various retail chains and discount stores. In design terms however, that merchandise cannot be truly distinguished from any of the other merchandise on sale in the same outlets that have been produced in other Asian, Caribbean or east European countries. So where is the uniqueness of Indian fashion/design visible globally??? And yet when India forayed into the global clothing business in the late sixties it was its design identity of unique silhouettes, textiles and value addition techniques that gave it international acceptance and demand. What sold very happily and profitably at that juncture was ‘Brand India’ through it cotton crepe kurtis and ‘drawstring pants’, and its hand block printed wrap skirts. Indian fashion laid the foundation of an industry that today employs over 35 million people and contributes 14% to the GDP of the nation.

Indian Fashion has true potential to grow exponentially in the next decade, but before that there are many issues that the creators and producers of fashion need to address.

Most importantly what comes to mind is design discipline, understanding the commercial viability of design and realizing that the business of fashion is like any business enterprise. To grow the fashion business, fashion merchandise has to reach out to market segments beyond the fashion leaders and innovators and consumers of bespoke fashion or couture apparel. Product design through design discipline should enable a product to be scalloped and extend the product’s life span to justify the cost of design development. The product line has to evolve beyond the all encompassing design technique perspective. It has to have an individual signature that has a sense of permanence and identity of ‘unique’ design like an Hermes scarf, a Chanel jacket, a Bill Blass sheath dress or a LV handbag. The signature design element itself becomes the product’s brand identity.

The Business of Fashion requires business strategies, planning, organized marketing and selling, promotion and positioning. Design research based on market and consumer feedback, lifestyle trends, market economics, raw material resources, colour palettes, textile trends and other factors need to be done in depth and in all seriousness. Fashion merchandise is highly perishable and dynamic. Product research and development needs to become an on going and continuous process, very much like the R&D processes, which are the norm for all other lifestyle products. The business of fashion too, needs to be pre-emptive, and proactive rather than reactive.  Product design needs to be clever and production friendly to ensure timely deliveries with out taking away from the design innovation factor. Market potential needs to be studied vis-à-vis the adaptability of the design/fashion content of the product to enable growth in the market share and business by straddling consumer segments. The time has come for the talented Indian Fashion fraternity to truly shift the focus to the Business of Fashion.

The Profession of Social Entrepreneurship

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”
Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka, a global nonprofit organization devoted to developing the profession of social entrepreneurship

One of the exciting by-products of the increased awareness and practice of corporate social responsibility has been the emergence and growth of social entrepreneurship as a serious social and ‘business’ trend in the last two decades. The potential of successfully marrying the competencies of business generating sources and markets, with solutions to social and environment issues is the main principle that underlies the concept of successful social entrepreneurship.

Today’s social entrepreneur is a dynamic, committed and driven individual who is able to identify sustainable solutions to social problems. He uses earned income strategies to pursue a social objective, and the outcome is directly connected to his commitment to resolve the social or environmental malaise he chooses to address through this enterprise. The profitability of a social entrepreneurship is driven by both financial and social returns, with the financial returns being redeployed into the enterprise to further its growth and sustain the ‘business’.

The future of permanent and lasting social change lies in the ability of these social enterprises becoming independent and self sustaining, moving away from philanthropy and becoming financially independent.

Modern day social entrepreneurship therefore, is actually about sustaining social change and growth through self-sufficiency instead of charitable contributions and government grants and subsidies.


Organized Retail and Instant Noodles!!!

As a working wife and mother who wants to run her home as competently as she runs her business, the advent of ‘organized’ retail, super markets and well formatted MBO’s seemed like an answer to one’s prayers. Yes, this was certainly what I dreamt of whenever I raced against the clock to get the month’s grocery shopping done in time to get home to cook dinner; or when the family had to subsist on instant noodles because picking up one’s dry rations and veggies from different locations at the end of a working day didn’t work out because of time and logistic constraints.

‘Organized’ retail is the answer to everyone’s prayers – the consumer and the producer…..or is it?

Products sit beautifully packaged on shelves which are easy to access, saying – BUY ME!!! Or BUY ME and get another like me free (oops, sorry! The free stock just ran out!)! Today I whiz around well lit and well laid out stores picking up products I need, and also don’t need, in double quick time to end up in a traffic jam at the cash counter!! And while I stand there watching the harried sales clerk struggle with the operation of a temperamental bar-code reader and the rush of shoppers waiting their turn to pay, I begin to notice (and miss) the many differences in my shopping experiences of the bygone days. I miss the ‘soft’ skills of the friendly neighborhood Lalaji who would notice and gently point out deviances to one’s standard shopping list; his mammoth memory bank that didn’t require him to cross check prices of unmarked/bar-coded products; his verbal promotion of new products; his ‘home delivery’ service of products that may not be in stock ……and all in all the complete warm, social and informative shopping experience.

For ‘organized’ retail in India to become an indispensable part of the shopping needs of the emerging segment of the urban Indian working women, retailers need to address many issues that go beyond large stylish stores, slick visual merchandising and bargains. Store planograms need to stock merchandise as per an Indian housewife shopping list which follows a pattern of ‘Dal’, ‘chawal’, ‘atta’, ‘tail’, ‘masala’…..rather than the western format which starts off with breakfast foods and so on. Shopping for Groceries in India follows a monthly pattern rather than a weekly pattern, and this needs to be taken into account while merchandise planning and stocking is done, so that stores are adequately and correctly stocked. Most importantly, deployment and training of staff needs to address peak and trough periods of the store traffic, and the ability to deal with client claims and returns efficiently.

Till then, either which ways, instant noodles will be the standard family fare on the nights that ‘mom’ goes grocery shopping!

CSR – Philanthropy or Empowerment

We’ve been discussing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and whether its implications (and need) is fully appreciated by businesses.

A couple of years ago I did a project with the weavers of Chanderi and it was a good reality check of the India that struggles to live behind the facade that the world thinks real India is. India really isn’t only about Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata, or Jaipur, Jodhpur, Agra for that matter. Neither is it about the stage set villages with its token computer/cyber point dressed up for visits of foreign heads of state. The potential to develop an economically sound India actually lies in its rural areas, in its cottage industries, in the small scale businesses of the unorganized sectors. The talent, the pride, the dignity of human life, the shrewd and competent business brain all exists there, but need to be nurtured and developed and most importantly need to be given a fair hearing and chance. Rural India is not looking for charity or ‘assistance’ – it is looking for empowerment. Unfortunately most of us don’t understand the difference. Corporate Social Responsibility is about empowerment, and does not mean ‘giving’ but ‘encouraging, developing, nurturing and sustaining’. CSR practiced in its truest sense would be a ‘win-win’ for both the buyers and the sellers in a given business environment.

With the growth of consumerism and wealth in urban India, businesses must realize that community awareness and service is not an option but a requirement. CSR can no longer be a sub-department of the personnel and HR division of the company. There is need for the ownership of CSR at a much higher level, on par with all other activities and decisions that drive the business. Corporate activism must be sustainable and accepted as a valuable change agent of today’s business environment. Corporate Social responsibility must have a much broader implication in modern India and reduce dependency on the government for social change.

Empowerment and concern for the society is often misunderstood as socialism. However one must realize that a capitalist economy only thrives when every citizen is a contributor and a participant in it and has the opportunity to succeed. As a recent example, ITC’s e-Choupal has demonstrated the success of such a concept in the current business environment, as did the success of Amul and Mother Dairy co-operative movement of the pre ‘CSR’ era of Indian business.

And yet, there is so much more to be achieved.