June 20, 2007

Ranjana Kaushal

Veering to the left of the Hero Honda roundabout in Manesar, Gurgoan is a nondescript road. A 100 meters down this path stands a building, which symbolises the rising global acceptance of India’s fashion design industry—the 3,50,000-square feet designing and manufacturing unit of Orient Craft, one of India’s largest export houses. On the ground floor of this Rs 750-crore company, in a glass cabin overlooking the work stations of 100 associates, 42-year-old Anoop Thatai, Joint Managing Director & CEO of the company, is busy discussing the new spring collection for a US customer. Finally, after hours of discussions, a few cuts, silhouettes and fabrics are short-listed. Then the design team of around 100, along with a support staff of 700, begins work on rolling out the products. Says Anoop Thatai: "The team has to complete the project in the next 14 days. Then we begin work for a major European retail brand. I am running at full capacity. Besides manufacturing prototypes, we are developing our own design lines."

For Orient Craft, it has been an eventful journey, for, just 10 years back it was manufacturing apparel for international clients with little value addition. But the company has climbed up the value chain. Says Sudhir Dhingra, Chairman and Managing Director, Orient Craft: "Out of the 65% women’s wear produced by us, almost 40% have our own design input and we produce 2,000 design samples a day. This differentiates us from competition and certain clients get back to us for particular designs."

The design element in the apparels and accessories industry—apparel alone is a Rs 30,000-crore market—has risen by almost 80%. Graduating from assembly line operations for Western labels, Indian design firms are now creating their own lines based on strong in-house R&D capabilities. Says Devangshu Dutta, Chief Executive, Third Eyesight, a Delhi-based fashion consulting firm: "The days of cut, copy, paste are coming to an end as every exporter looks for a distinct image. This is possible only if you innovate in design."

While big export houses like Orient Craft are enhancing their businesses by emphasising on design, international firms are looking at India as an outsourcing hub. This is spawning many start-ups, such as Bangalore-based Munch Design and Delhi-based Bricolage, which are developing lines of apparel and accessories for global brands like Nike, Reebok, Esprit, Adidas, Zara, Guess, Macy’s and Gucci. Says Narinder Mahajan, Founder, Bricolage: "Clients depend on us for forecasts and trends. Right from deciding on the theme-based collection names to the final sampling, everything is done by us." Bricolage is now developing a casual clothing division for Reebok and a range of shirts and tees for Benetton.

A Cut Above The Rest

Design in apparel as a key differentiator comes at a premium. According to industry sources, a prototype consignment of 10,000 shirts to the US would cost $10 per shirt. But with elements of design like embroidery, embellishments and cuts, the same shirt would cost $20 or more. Says Vijay Agarwal, President of Apparel Export Promotion Council: "India’s strength is design, whereas China is a mass producer. We need to balance the two—numbers and design innovation—for enhancing exports."

However, not just exports, the design element is slowly creeping into the lives of domestic consumers too. No more the plain shirts for the Indian male. The choice has widened to embroidered, pleated, crushed, crystal-laden and metallic shirts. For women though, there’s practically no end to the need for choice.

Homegrown companies like Pantaloon and Madura Garments are busy satiating the design needs of Indian consumers. Says Hemchandra Javeri, Senior Executive President, Madura Garments Lifestyle Brands and Retail: "The importance of design will be further heightened in future as Indian consumers get more in sync with global trends. Indian companies will have to compete in design, branding and retail. I see these as the key differentiators of the future." Madura Garments owns brands like Allen Solly, Allen Solly Womens, Peter England, Van Heusen, SF Jeans, Louis Philippe, Byford, Elements and San Frisco. "We try to balance fashion, innovation and commercial logic," he adds.

Pantaloon Retail too offers a variety of apparel and accessories targeted at men, women and kids. Says 43-year-old Kishore Biyani, MD of Pantaloon Retail: "We are a design-centric company. Right from kids wear—the Gini and Jony range to middle class brands like Big Bazaar to high-end fashion like Pantaloon—each product has a strong design element. This, I would say, is the biggest value add-on."

Points out Kailash Bhatia, CEO, Apparel Line: "Designers travel a lot, get customer feedback from surveys and marketing before launching a line for a particular season." Bhatia is aided by a team of 30-inhouse designers. For global players with a presence in India, apparel design is a key element. Says Manjala Tiwari, Brand Head, Esprit India: "Our business has grown three-fold over the past two years. We present the same range in India as overseas. We cannot present a six-month-old Western line in India."

Sums up fashion designer Ritu Beri: "When I joined the industry in 1990, fashion was a diversion for a small elite. Now, it’s more about being well dressed all the time."

More To The Design

The impact of design has spread to bags, shoes, hair clips and even interior furnishings. This has resulted in institutes such as NIFT launching courses to address this new market segment. Says Jatin Bhatt, Professor, Department of Fashion & Lifestyle Accessories, NIFT: "Seeing the market demand for trained accessory and interior designers, a four-year degree course, called Fashion and Lifestyle accessories, was launched. We now train students in leather, metal, jewellery and interior designing."

At Magppie, one of the first branded steel accessory players, products are designed by 10 designers in India and 28 overseas. Says Vinod Jain, MD of Magppie: "For an accessory player like us, design is the only differentiator. Consumers are ready to pay a premium for better designed products."

Agrees V Govind Raj, Vice-President, Tanishq: "9 out of our 10 customers prefer designs in terms of jewellery." Every season, the Rs 3,000-crore company introduces a new collection developed by its in-house team of designers. "We also promote our designs through cinema. Actress Rani Mukherjee adorns our jewellery in the movie Paheli. The soon-to-be-released Jodha-Akbar too will have our collection," he says. Earlier, Madura Garments had promoted its range of formal wear for men and women through the film Corporate.

Handbags and purses have also undergone changes over the years. From being a utility item, these have assumed the status of a style statement. Global brand LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is looking to acquire 20% stake in the Pondicherry-based leather goods maker Hidesign. Dilip Kapoor, Founder and MD, Hidesign reveals: "We will retain our brand identity and not be the outsourcing destination for LVMH. My team of nine designers is working closely with the team of LVMH to develop new collections."

The old idiom ‘A man is best known by the shoes he wears,’ stands true even today, as shoemakers Bata, Liberty, M&B, Nike, Reebok, Mirza Tanners and Adidas invest heavily in the Rs 11,000-crore domestic shoe market. Points out Bhupinder Kharbanda, ex-Head of Design, M&B: "The concept of having multiple pairs of shoes of different designs for different occasions is new in India. People are now paying more for a better-designed product than they were five years back. However, we are still at the tip of the iceberg."

With international and Indian consumers becoming more design-savvy, the dynamics of design is sure to change in the coming times.