Zodiac A WINNER BY DESIGN – How Indian garment maker Zodiac broke into the world of high fashion in Europe


May 12, 2013

Walk into high-fashion clothing chain Bijenkorf’s outlet in Krasnapolski Square in Amsterdam’s main shopping district and tick off the shirt brands on display. Armani, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Zodiac,… Zodiac? Doesn’t quite gel here, does it? Bijenkorf does not think so. You will find Mumbai-based Zodiac Clothing Company’s branded shirts jostling global brands for space even in its outlets in Holland’s other big cities, Rotterdam and The Hague. In the UK, 130-odd Ciro Citterio classic menswear retail stores have placed Zodiac shirts next to Polestar shirts made by the UK-based Thomas Pink, considered the world’s best shirt makers.

Zodiac is a high-end brand in India, but it sells only through exclusive stores in five-star hotels. Hence, you may often fail to include it among India’s top brands. If Zodiac stands out as the only Indian brand in the fashionable stores abroad, that’s because the Rs 124-crore group is unique among India’s 20,000-odd garment exporters. Yes, most of the world’s best brands – GAP, Tommy Hilfiger, or Ralph Lauren – are made by Indian firms like the Delhi-based, Rs-450 crore Orientcraft or the Mumbai-based, Rs 100-crore The Shirt Company. Yet, only Zodiac sells shirts under its own label abroad. Managing director Salman Noorani says: “We had just one mission – to make the best shirts in the world. The rest is just a consequence.” Says India’s largest domestic apparel maker Raymond’s president Nabankur Gupta: “Zodiac has done a good job.”

And what a good job that is. Last year, Zodiac sold shirts worth Rs 21 crore in the UK and the Netherlands. That is 17% of its total sales and a third of its exports. Zodiac shirts retail at 50 euros in Europe, nearly twice the domestic cost, and are more expensive than other private labels, which retail at 40 euros (higher-end brands like Hugo Boss and Armani sell at 60-plus euros). So, if volumes go up, the upside is huge. Noorani knows that. He is investing a “substantial” amount in building a 5,000 sq ft design centre in his office in central Mumbai. His next target: the German and the US markets.

Zodiac’s brand sales overseas may be tiny compared to India’s $5-billion garment exports. Yet it is significant. So far, Indian firms worked on a cost-plus basis with foreign retailers taking the bulk of the margins. Says Noorani: “In the long run, we will get more money for our hard work and the efficiencies we create.”

In reality, Zodiac is not too different from other Indian exporters. Like the Bangalore-based Goculdas images, it makes shirts in its fully-automated factory in Bangalore. It sources fabric from the same Indian mills that other top exporters buy from. It employs 3,500 workers, as much as any exporter of its size. Much of its income comes from making and exporting shirts for private labels abroad. So what makes Zodiac special?

Noorani shows you a series of cards with swatches of fabric stuck on them. These are designs and weaves that Zodiac designers have specially created for different markets. Based on these, Zodiac will make collections for different seasons – like the Florentine collection for summer. And this is where it begins to differ from others. Traditionally, when a GAP or a Wal-Mart buys from India, it supplies the exporter with a set of designs. The exporter translates the designs into shirts with little value addition.

Zodiac’s model changes that. When Noorani started selling in Europe in 1996, he set up design offices in the UK and Germany. These offices track international fashion trends and create shirt designs for every season. These are then fabricated into shirts and sent to Europe. The process does not end there. Designers in India modify those designs to create newer lines, which are then hawked to buyers who order shirts for their own brands. A few days ago, Dubai-based retailer Splash chose half-a-dozen designs based on the Florentine collection. As a result, Zodiac shirts for other labels export at 15-20 euros compared to 6-10 euros that other exporters make. Says Delhi-based textile consultant Creatnet Services’ Devangshu Dutta: “Design is the simplest way that Indian companies can move up the value chain.”

It is not that other Indian exporters don’t design. Mumbai-based Go-Go International’s director Rajiv Goenka buys garments from malls and exclusive showrooms in Paris and Germany, restyles them and shows them to foreign buyers. But this is only a way to get more business; Goenka gets no premium for his labour. Says Dutta: “Buyers are quick to realise these designs are not original and, hence, won’t pay anything extra.”

Zodiac’s design process is more intensive. A typical stylesheet that its international designers create contains the type of fabric, the weaves and the colours in vogue, and the like. Textile engineers in Mumbai weave a sample of that fabric style in their in-house unit and send it to the international designers for approval. Once approved, the fabric is produced at looms it has hired in three leading mills in India. The result: in three months, Zodiac has unique designs to offer to its foreign customers, way ahead of other Indian exporters.

Other Indian firms, too, are waking up to the opportunity. Last year, Raymond, which sells woollen fabric in Europe and the Middle East, bought a suit-making factory in Portugal along with its design team. Today, it sells 300-400 Parx suits a day in Spain and Portugal. Arvind sells its Arrow shirts in the Middle East, while Birla group company Indian Rayon has enlisted the help of European designers to dress up its shirts.

But it will not be easy. Zodiac cannot build its brand quickly. And Noorani does not want to sell his clubwear brand Zod! abroad yet even though a German chain has shown interest in it. That’s because reputed retailers do not stock single-product ranges. Hugo Boss sells perfumes, shirts, ties and wallets. Flagship Zodiac has built such a product line over the years; one-year-old Zod! is still to do so. Even if it wants to have a new product line, it will have to invest big money. For shirts, Zodiac invested Rs 20 crore. And a few months back, it bought Niryat Sam’s factory for Rs 25 crore as it wants to make trousers. In an earlier interview with BW, chairman M.Y. Noorani said: “In the shirting business, the more number of years you are in the business, the more respectable you become. Building a premium brand is really a long haul.”

Can Zodiac withstand that?

You can just about stand straight in the mezzanine floor office that Krishna Mehta (right) operates from. The 500-sq ft space inside Zeba’s showroom in Worli, Mumbai, also houses 22 other designers, a few computers, design books and loads of clothes. The ambience is chaos, exactly opposite to the order and sophistication Zeba creates in the lobbies of five-star hotels, companies and homes in India and abroad through its home textile designs.

What is Zeba? Simply, India’s leading home textile firm. Among its achievements, Zeba made a 17,000-sq ft carpet for a convention centre in Hyderabad. The Limca Books of Records considers it the world’s largest hand-tufted carpet.

Earlier, in Messe Frankfurt’s Heimtextil fair in Germany, Zeba was the only Indian home textile firm invited to the select ‘Trends Hall’. This year, it plans to open its own stores in Belgium, Morocco and Germany in addition to existing ones in the UK and Spain. All in the name of design.

Till three years ago, Zeba was like any other exporter. It sold to big stores across the world, but produced only what buyers wanted – till Krishna Mehta came on the scene, after a stint in New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Now 30% of Zeba’s Rs 60-crore revenues come from own-brand sales in India and abroad. Krishna expects the firm to eventually sell more of the Zeba brand than under the brands of other, big foreign buyers.

Krishna does not think that designing for global markets is hard. He draws ideas from the Internet, catalogues, while travelling and “any other source”. He has designers from the National Institute of Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology and institutes in Mumbai. Krishna says: “The most important aspect of designing is the final presentation to customers. That’s where most Indians fail.”

Besides design, detailed photo shoots of the product and cataloguing, too, has paid good dividends. Last year, when exports of other companies fell, Zeba’s customers increased orders by 25%. This year, while volumes from old UK buyers have not increase a lot, many new stores have signed on. Says Zeba director Rajan Mehta (left): ” Design has changed the way we do business. We are now in control.

This article is from the 12 May,2003 issue of Businessworld.