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Club Couture

BUSINESS INDIA
Suman Tarafdar
26 July – 8 August 2010

Paris Couture Week, arguably the world’s most prestigious fashion event, has just got over. The headlines haven’t been kind, pointing out that the Week has been dying a slow death over the past two decades, as clients move away from the ensembles showcased at the event. An epitome of customised luxury in its heyday in the decade following World War II, the event has increasingly become a place for corporate showcasing of logo-encrusted products as falling revenues have forced many a couturier to focus on the less prestigious, but far more financially lucrative, prêt-a-porter.

This is precisely the time that Indian fashion has chosen to highlight its version of couture by starting not one, but two couture weeks, making Mumbai and now Delhi only the third and fourth cities in the world to have couture weeks after Paris and New York. Almost concurrent to the recent couture week in Delhi was the Tarun Tahiliani Bridal Couture Exposition. What makes the Indian ‘fash frat’ so confident, especially as most openly admit that they are not as good as their western counterparts in prêt and have anyway missed that bus as brands such as Mango, Tommy Hilfiger, FCUK, Promod, Benetton and, of late, Zara look to capture a major share of the Indian market?

Indian fashion, that oxymoron of a term, is having as busy a time as it ever has. While leading Indian designers stake their claim sporadically to global red carpets and irregular clients, new designers are jostling for space on the runways, even as the number of weeks has increased manifold over the past two years till, as some point out, it makes little sense. Critics have dubbed last fortnight’s Couture Week organised by the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) in Delhi as more of a ‘bridal’ week, given the preponderance of wedding and related occasion wear therein. "The purpose of the weeks is not crystal clear," says Puneet Nanda, design head, Satya Paul label, part of Genesis Colors. "We are not, as a fraternity, booking orders six months in advance."

Indian signature

Defining Indian couture is not the easiest of jobs either. "Couture consists of masterpieces created out of the best quality fabrics, intricate embroidery and detailing, which is time-consuming is done to perfection and the Indian touch is omnipresent," explains Pradeep Hirani of Kimaya, a couture retail chain, refuting allegations that it is limited to wedding costumes. "Indian couture today is exploiting the avant garde classicism of the past and infusing a contemporary twist to it, thus displaying a spectacular fashion panorama, which not only echoes the intrinsic charms of the land, but is also a pleasure to beholders."

Designer Anju Modi points to historical wealth of couture in India – zari, zardozi, chikankari and many others made specially, for erstwhile royals. Fellow designer Ritu Kumar explains that India has always had a tradition of made-to-order, and events such as couture weeks will help it get more formalised. She admits that while couture is struggling in the West, as Indians live larger than life and want to celebrate it, couture has a brighter future here.

Designer J.J. Valaya, known for his opulence of presentation, says that Indian couture has carved a distinct identity for itself and should be recognised as such, stressing on its bespoke nature. "Couture is not that much of a business proposition as it is about the romance of it. Each ensemble is a masterpiece, which sets the trend for the less elaborate collections to the season."

Valaya, however, says it is increasingly becoming a loosely used word like luxury. "Everybody does great jackets," he points out, "but only those eight or nine selected names count as couturiers. Indians who aspire to be couturiers should be able to work within the ‘Indian signature’," he stresses. Modi agrees, saying that Indians are still colonised in their mindsets. "Our couture could be global only if we stick to our core design aesthetics." Prices apparently do not matter but a starting point of a lakh is what most agree on.

Designer Jaya Rathore, one of the installation designers – among the seven of the 19 participating designers, who was not on the ramp, but had an installation in the Delhi Couture Week – stresses that the most important facet of a couture collection should be its selectiveness. "The garments should be a limited edition," she says, pointing out that the demand for couture will always be there. Sunil Sethi, president, FDCI, points out that an unbelievable 57 designers applied for the Pearls Couture week. "Even globally, there are just a handful of couture houses," he says (see box). He stresses that it would be a mistake to measure Indian couture with Parisian yardsticks, as Indian couture and fashion are still in their infancy. "Many started as mom-andpop stores," he says, pointing out instead to the enormous talent that these designers possess.

Volume woes

Worthy words, but even those optimistic about the future of Indian fashion admit that, despite its deep roots in diverse local textile, fabric and embroidery traditions, it is failing to live up to its potential and make its mark on the global fashion arena beyond the Middle East. While no data is available, experts estimate the top end of this sector the designers’ labels – to be collectively worth just Rs300-500 crore.
Indian couture represents the top end of the fashion scale, and also perhaps exemplifies its frailties.

"There is no estimate of the sector’s size," admits Sethi, who points out that few designers are willing to share their sales figures. FDCI’S plan to commission a study to understand the sector in India, which has been in cold storage for over half a decade now, even as internecine rivalry and multiplying weeks have ensured that "FDCI has become a joke," says Modi, decrying the insecurity associated with many of her colleagues.

KPMG did a study on the sector in 2003, along with FDCI and predicted the sector’s net worth in a decade would be about Rs.1,000 crore. Nearing the deadline, not even the most optimistic cite that figure. The Indian designer markH is a measly 0.3 per cent of the total branded apparel market, says Hirani, who estimates an annual growth of 15 per cent with East Asia, the UAE and Europe have large consumption of Indian designer wear.

That couture is crucial is uncontested. "Couture is experimental, and allows a designer to design free of the usual considerations," says Rathore. Fellow designer Raakesh Agarvwal says, a couture collection is more of a personal collection. Couture establishes the designer’s brand, which can then be used to develop prêt lines, which provide the volumes and profits. A distinct brand can then attract capital, helping the brand grow further, a model widely followed globally. Therefore, there is also a certain amount of despair at the competing weeks that are currently on. What is also uncontested is the desire for Indians to don ethnic wear for occasions – be it a wedding, a birthday or even a party – a demand met almost wholly by Indian designers at the moment, but even here brands such as Armani and Canali have begun to make forays into the menswear market.

Valaya equates weddings to life blood of the sector. Indians need to marry more; multiple times perhaps. And attend weddings of as many people as they can. For that could be a service to the couturiers.

"Weddings are the main artery as 70-80 per cent of the sales are related to needs to grow them in India." Designer Pallavi Jaikishen puts it at an even higher estimate. "As much as 90 per cent of my couture sales are from weddings," she says.

Increasingly, especially after the recent economic downturn in the West, designers have been forced to look inwards into the domestic market. Sethi even says the main market is domestic, not international.

However, designers such as Valaya point out their international clients. "Eleven first families of the Middle East are my clients," he says. He launched the Alika jacket at the recent Week, which introduced a silhouette that will not change over the years – and something, he hopes, will become iconic over time.

His list of top Indian couturiers who, he estimates, sell about 75 per cent Indian couture include Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal, Abu-Sandeep and Sabyasachi, besides himself.

The designer, who is opening a 10,000 sq ft store at Delhi’s MG Road later this season, is confident that the market for couture in India is as large as the ready-to-wear market, and says the super luxury business in India is thriving and operates at a rarefied level. Designer Gaurav Gupta points to his clients such as Priya and Cham Sachde\!: of the TSG group, who are ready to sport experimental gowns. His solution to growing Indian couture: send a designer to the Paris Couture Week.

Colour of bottomlines

This sector still needs to grow beyond its minuscule level in its modern avatar. Even with the obvious given that design is an extremely individual activity, the Indian fashion sector’s lack of organisation is beginning to affect its growth at this fairly nascent stage. "Fashion weeks have become less and less important even in India," says Dilip Kapur of Hidesign, who points out the almost complete absence of accessories, the staple of runways and healthy bottomlines for most global brands, at events such as fashion weeks.

The few attempted tieups with corporate houses, such as Manish Arora and Reebok, or Narendra Kumar and Banswara Syntex, have not been seen as successful, while Raymond’s venture with designers, Be: did not quite work out. Some designers have attempted creating an entire lifestyle brand a la their western counterparts, but those haven’t worked here either. Sethi says production tie-ups are on the cards, but admits that designers are often unwilling to let go of control over their labels. Agarvwal points out that abroad there are tie-ups with corporate houses for even couture collections, something still to happen here. "I would love a tie-up," he says.

"A certain amount of corporatisation has to happen," says Devangshu Dutta, chief executive, Third Eyesight, a consulting firm focussing on retail and consumer segments. He points out that, unlike in the West where even high end markets have significant volume, and is therefore possible for a designer to carve out a niche, but the Indian market is small. "Design is our strength, but we need to augment it with infrastructure, which if the government does not provide, will come from the private sector." He sees some movement, but says it could be much faster and needs co-ordination, which is missing.

Nanda feels the government has to recognise the sector as an industry and laments the fact few are taking the lead in this regard.

What has also been in question is the sponsorship at couture weeks. While the ones in Mumbai were sponsored by HDIL (Housing Development & Infrastructure Ltd), a listed real estate development company, the one in Delhi is sponsored by Pearls, a company dealing in real estate, hospitality, media and education. "We felt that associating with this industry will certainly give us brand recognition as well as our support for the best style statement, which is the ethics of all the businesses we are in," says Jyoti Narain, director and spokesperson, Pearls. The HDIL spokesperson had explained his company’s role almost identically.

Even the regular weeks are sponsored by Wills, Lakme and Van Heusen, "all of whom have certain demands," says a designer on condition of anonymity. Those in the fraternity bemoan such tie-ups as they dilute the core, they feel. "India’s weeks are sponsored," says Nanda, explaining that, if the shows are not supported, then the designer has to think about what he or she is presenting – a norm in global fashion. Though no figure is confirmed, it is estimated that a three year title sponsorship deal could cost about Rs 25 crore. Associate sponsorships are estimated to cost about Rs20-50 lakh.

So much priority did the French give to fashion that couturier Rose Bertin served as minister for fashion in the late 18th century. Even the more plebian-oriented Napoleon continued this office. India is to yet to grant even an industry status to fashion. Global evidence has amply shown that labels such as Dior or Pierre Cardin became global names after shifting to prêt. Given that many leading Indian designers do not even consider this option, the stress in couture is perhaps the only way ahead.

(To open a PDF copy of this interview, click here.)

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