By Sharmila Katre
Indian fashion has true potential to grow exponentially in the next decade. But before that, argues Sharmila Katre, there are many issues that the creators and producers of fashion need to address.
Students of fashion design are taught the definition of fashion as ‘a reflection of lifestyles’, and truly the growth of the fashion industry in India in the past decade substantiates this. Fashion as a lucrative business proposition came to pass in the late 1980s with the advent of ‘salon’ stores like Ravissant and Vichitra Sarees that were the natural progression of the ‘boutique’ culture of the late 1960s and 70s. What caused this fast forward demand for ‘designerwear’ labels and home-grown couture apparel could be attributed to the liberalisation of the economy in the last decade of the previous millenium.
Fashion is a reflection of lifestyle. It is a reflection of the growing affluence of urban India – the upwardly mobile 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 known as the WIFW, the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, which is eagerly awaited both by the producers and buyers of fashion in India. And, 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, Indian fashion is yet to truly make its mark on the international scene. The Indian fashion fraternity is still waiting for its Issey Miyake to make his triumphant appearance on the international fashion arena and put India on the global map of the fashion world and make Delhi an international fashion destination.
What is it that ails our industry that we are not able to bridge that last gap? Are we so overwhelmed by our traditional crafts and cultural heritage that we cannot break free of its shackles and come up with innovative design? For India to have a true design identity, do we have to link it to its ‘craft’ design past? Is there not a designer amongst its design fraternity that can create modern Indian design sans chikankari, dabka, kasab et al, or give these traditional techniques a modern international identity and acceptability to create global fashion? Where is the innovation in form, use of textiles, textures, finishes, print designs and value-added techniques? Where is the spirit of entrepreneurship, a sense of business purpose?
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, the merchandise in no way can be 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 its cotton crepe kurtis and ‘drawstring pants’, and its handblock printed wrap skirts. Indian fashion laid the foundation of an industry that today employs over 35 million people and contributes 14 per cent 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.
“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.”
Most importantly what comes to mind is design discipline combined with business discipline, understanding the commercial viability of design and realising 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 Louis Vuitton handbag. The signature design element itself becomes the product’s brand identity.
“The business of fashion needs to be pre-emptive, and proactive rather than reactive. Product design needs to be clever and production-friendly to ensure timely deliveries without 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 business of fashion requires business strategies, planning, organised 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 ongoing and continuous process, very much like the R&D processes, that are the norm for all other lifestyle products. The business of fashion too, therefore, needs to be pre-emptive, and proactive rather than reactive. Product design needs to be clever and production-friendly to ensure timely deliveries without 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.
International fashion designers have to realize that for fashion to last and be profitable, and businesses to grow, designs have to move down several market segments, evolving as it moves down, but holding true to the design concept/signature. And rather than have an original and innovative design idea copied and morphed into a product that would shorten its life cycle with the fashion leaders and fashion followers, it is better to give the original design idea to the followers of fashion in the form of a prêt collection. Prêt-a-porter collections allow designers to expand their market reach, give the much required production quantity volumes and also contribute to a healthy bottom line to grow the business. The success of Giorgio Armani’s business model of Emporio Armani and Armani Exchange is a good case in point. Roberto Cavalli is another successful business model of a fashion designer’s label straddling several market segments. Roberto Cavalli: the premier couture line featuring women’s clothing, sunglasses, men’s clothing, women’s and men’s shoes, handbags, timepieces, underwear, beachwear, and eyewear; Just Cavalli – a more affordable Cavalli line, well-known for its denim, featuring men’s and women’s apparel (mostly sold in upscale department stores) and men’s and women’s accessories; Roberto Cavalli Angels – the childrenswear line.
The fashion industry in India most certainly needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It needs to grow out of the ‘fashion boutique’ business mould of designing wedding trousseaus and ‘diffusion’ collections, and think ‘fashion corporate’ business. International brands, both the prêt collections of well known design brands, and the lesser known ones, have started entering the domestic market. If the fashion industry is not quick to react, the fashion followers and the large upwardly mobile middle class segments would gladly convert for the want of innovative and exciting home-grown design merchandise. And then we could be witnessing a unique ‘trickle up’ situation in the fashion scene where the fashion leaders may follow the fashion followers and shift loyalty to the better known international design labels!