By Pavan Lall, Fortune India
Jun 9, 2023
For fashion designer Tarun Tahiliani, getting funding from a corporate house was incidental. It happened through a high-profile customer, none other than Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla. Birla had been a customer of Tahiliani’s Ensemble some three decades ago when he was getting engaged. They stayed in touch over the years and at one stage discussed the need for an Indian fashion brand focused on scale and accessibility. “It came out of a conversation and was a two-year ambling route. I had asked if they were expanding their designer brand footprint, and he (Birla) told me to meet the Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail (ABFRL) CEO for a deeper chat,” recalls Tahiliani.
The result was Tasva, a sub-brand that Tahiliani has a minority stake in. The focus was to zero in on the ethnic space, not lose out on the homegrown touch, yet keep user-friendly clothes in traditional silhouettes at accessible price points that were not haute couture. Launched in December 2021, Tasva primarily caters to the premium occasion-wear segment, and has been growing at a fast pace.
Tahiliani, who got ₹67 crore funding for a third of his company with an option to further offload up to 20%, isn’t the only one to see corporate finance push capital into his designs and stores. Sabyasachi Mukherjee of Kolkata, who opened a large multi-level store in a heritage-style building early this year in Mumbai, sold a little over half his company to Birla, reportedly for around ₹398 crore. ABFRL has also bought a 51% stake in House of Masaba Lifestyle, the entity that houses apparel, personal care, and accessories businesses under brand ‘Masaba’ owned by designer Masaba Gupta. Besides the Aditya Birla Group, Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Brands has bought a 52% stake in Ritu Kumar, 51% in Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla, and 40% in Manish Malhotra. Earlier, in 2008, Kishore Biyani’s Future Group took a 23% stake in Anita Dongre, which was later sold to private equity player General Atlantic for ₹150 crore.
“While we are reaching a sense of critical mass in terms of consumer base, luxury is not new to India. Designers have been flogging their wares for decades,” says Devangshu Dutta, founder of Third Eyesight, a consultancy firm focused on consumer goods and modern retail. “What has changed is the size of the target audience.”
According to a recent Knight Frank wealth report, India is set to see a projected 58.4% increase in ultra-high-net-worth individuals, those with a net worth over $30 million, from 12,069 in 2022 to 19,119 in 2027. The domestic apparel market, too, was pegged at $60 billion last year, not far behind the developed world, a McKinsey’s FashionScope report has said.
“Earlier, India was a country that just produced for the world. Today India is also becoming the largest consumer market. International brands are keen to invest in business relationships with India. India will change the game for luxury. Where else will you get a billion people who are of a young age, and will be the future luxury buyers of brands?” says Sabyasachi.
“The economy has expanded beyond bigger cities, which has raised the consumption size” adds Dutta of Third Eyesight.
“Corporate involvement helps scale faster than organically, and a lot of designers are tying up with companies with technical expertise and go-to-market for smaller towns and cities,” says Anita Dongre. “For a designer, having a corporate brings in processes, technical expertise and management know-how, and helps her focus on designing,” she adds. In Sabyasachi’s case, too, a new CEO — Sumati Mattu, as well as a new HR head and COO, were brought on board to prepare for the brand’s expansion.
For Sabyasachi though, it has helped in creating a safety net, especially for his employees, more than anything else. “Right now we have two investors — me and Birla together, so it makes me feel protected. Nothing else has changed. The only thing that has changed is that we have a great HR policy with the Birlas; they will be able to look after my people better, as I have created a beautiful safety net for all my employees.”
Dutta, on the other hand, says that “for large companies in the fashion space such as Aditya Birla, it is a natural step to buy into an established brand with scale since brand recognition combined with capital and organisational structure make for a win-win. The platform of fashion is currently at the right juncture to replicate networks and create scale,” he adds.
Other designers, including Manish Malhotra, who has also received funding from Reliance, say, “corporatisation of fashion houses in India has brought about a safety net for luxury brands, making us push for larger creative forces and expansion in terms of scale, branding and customers.”
Growing Into India
Tahiliani says we have opened 55 Tasva stores and will reach 90 in this financial year. Tasva crossed around ₹60 crore in annual revenue in 2022, and is set to hit ₹200 crore this year, he adds.
Similarly, Dongre, widely regarded as the largest designer and fashion house by revenue, has around 150 stores across brands, and Global Desi, a substantial increase from the 10-15 stores she ran before receiving her first funding. “The added benefit is that such funding helps push into international markets.” While Dongre launched her stores in Dubai and New York a few years ago, Sabyasachi launched a New York-located store in West Village last year.
So, what’s the road ahead?
“Corporate India has successfully built large-scale fashion businesses and acquired international brands, but has not been able to create a homegrown luxury brand of cultural or social significance. That will change now,” says Sabyasachi. Jewellery is set to be his focus, along with sunglasses, beauty, shoes, and other categories. “Jewellery is a very important category in the country, a great revenue earner,” he says.
“The film industry was corporatised because its potential was discovered, now it is fashion’s time,” adds Manish Malhotra. “Corporatisation lets designers look beyond bridal-wear, occasion-wear, and focus on newer creative strategies as there’s more space and potential for experimentation.”
Tahiliani agrees that compared to overseas, the trend is an expected one. “Most of the brands abroad have seen stellar growth because they have been aligned with corporate houses.” He points to the famous Alexander McQueen, who started in 1992, and was discovered by Isabella “Issie” Blow. The tie-up allowed him to expand his label, open boutiques around the world, and push into the categories of perfume, eyewear, accessories trainer and clothes for men.
Globally, France-based Kering group owns designer labels Gucci, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga, among others. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, commonly known as LVMH, owns Loro Piana, Fendi, Christian Dior, Kenzo and Marc Jacobs.
The question then is, with all the global exposure and corporatisation, will there be a shift in Indian design sensibilities?
“Now you see people wearing bold gowns or black ties for one or two events, but Indians have kept a unique spirit of celebration and culture unlike anywhere else in the world. Bollywood has played a huge part in amplifying this because of the song and dance and colours and events such as Holi and Sangeet,” feels Tahiliani.
The bottomline: Luxury fashion is now more inclusive, and regional customers are the next big target area for brands.
(With inputs from Priya Kumari Rana)
(Published in Fortune India)