India puts on the style in fashion fusion

Bedecked in diamonds and designer saris and dresses, Bollywood stars and celebrities crowded into the front row to see the latest styles on the catwalk in the five-star Palladium hotel in Mumbai.

It was one of the biggest events on India’s fashion calendar.

Dozens of lithe models walked the ramp at Lakmé Fashion Week last month, which took place between August 26 and 30, in outfits by Indian designers ranging from traditional handcrafted Indian wear to saris with contemporary fabrics to western-style dresses and suits. Among the crowd-pleasers was a disco-inspired collection of gowns laden with gold-coloured sequins by the Indian designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla.

India’s fashion industry has evolved in recent years, due to rising wealth in the country and a growing appetite for the latest trends. All of which is creating significant financial opportunities for local designers.

“Now I feel the industry is really ripe,” says Anaita Shroff Adanjania, the fashion director for Vogue India and a Bollywood stylist. “We are a country where people have a very strong sense of pride in the way they dress. Dressing has always been a part of our culture and heritage. It has grown from that, and the market is opening up.”

One of India’s biggest designers is Manish Malhotra. He is a favourite among Bollywood stars and international names such as the late Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue have also worn his work. His designs are rooted in traditional Indian dress with his ready-to-wear kurtas, for example, priced at about 40,000 rupees (Dh2,219).

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Tarun Tahiliani, Ritu Kumar, and Manish Arora are among the other top names in India. Within India, they are adored by celebrities and India’s wealthy as the Giorgio Armanis and Calvin Kleins of the country.

There is a mix in the market in terms of designers who focus on traditional Indian clothes and those who opt for westernised styles. But many designers merge the two styles.

In a country home to 400 million people who live on less than US$1.25 a day, such luxuries are out of reach of the majority of Indians.

But the country’s middle class is expanding – per capita income has risen by 37.6 per cent over the past four years to 88,533 rupees for the last financial year to the end of March – and its number of millionaires and billionaires is also growing rapidly, leading to rising spend on clothes. More than half of India’s population is under the age of 25, creating a sizeable potential customer base.

In the Starbucks at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai on a weekday evening, the young crowd of Indians is decked out in western wear, including jeans, T-shirts, blouses, and dresses, from brands such as French Connection, Nike, Levi’s and Converse.

A couple of the slightly older female customers wear kurtas, while on the street outside, a group of working-class women walk by in traditional brightly coloured saris.

The Indian apparel market, which was worth about $38 billon in 2012, is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9 per cent until 2022, according to Technopak, a retail consultancy.

“Indian consumers are lapping up fashion and men also now are dressing up fashionably, wearing colours,” says Saket Dhankar, the vice president and head, fashion, at IMG-Reliance, which jointly organises Lakmé Fashion Week with the cosmetics brand Lakmé. “There’s a new wave of Indian fashion, which is not bridal wear, which is not occasion wear. Indians are learning how to style themselves. Indians are spending more on phones, they are spending more on cars, so fashion is next. Indians are appreciating finer things in life.”

The National Institute of Fashion Design (Nift), which has branches across the country, is considered to be among the best design institutions in India, with Rohit Bal, one of the country’s leading bridal designers being an alumni of Nift Delhi. There are a number of fashion schools of varying quality that have cropped up to meet the demand.

“In terms of designers, India is churning out more than 20,000 design students every year,” said Mr Dhankar. “This year out of 100 designers 21 designers are making their debut [at the fashion week]. Designers are coming up at a very fast pace.”

This means that the market has become fiercely competitive. However, and not all brands survive.

Nitin Chawla, a designer from New Delhi, who was showing his work at the fashion week in Mumbai last month, says he is seeing “good growth” in his collection of western style wear but admits that it has been “tough”.

Other designers prefer to remain in the wedding space, with these more elaborate clothes selling for higher prices. Indians spend vast amounts of money on weddings, which often span several days and require multiple outfits.

“I started with western wear but I realised Indians spend more money on festive collections rather than regular wear so I shifted to Indian wear,” says Astha Narang, who has been a designer for three years and is based in New Delhi.

Ritika Mirchandani, a Mumbai-based designer who focuses on Indian festive and wedding wear, says she has incorporated elements of international trends, using a more western cut for some of her lehengas, which range in price from about 30,000 rupees to more than 100,000 rupees.

“Indian clothing has a lot of intricate hand embroidery, so that is something people are willing to pay for,” she says.

A number of multi-brand stores have emerged in India that sell the designers’ collections, including Ensemble and Aza, and designers are increasingly selling their clothes through online stores, which can reach even remote parts of India. Many designers have stand-alone stores in major cities too.

“The entire ecosystem seems to be evolving, from the retail side, from the designer side – a lot of sponsors are also coming in to support fashion,” says Mr Dhankar.

Ms Shroff says that shows such as Lakmé Fashion Week, which started 15 years ago and is held twice a year in Mumbai, have over the years created more “structure” for the industry. Other major fashion weeks in India include India Fashion Week, held in New Delhi twice a year, and Bangalore Fashion Week, which is also bi-annual.

“Before that, designers were working pretty much in isolation. They either had their own flagship stores or a private clientele list they were working with.”

India’s fashion industry and Bollywood are heavily intertwined. Fashion shows by famous designers often have a Bollywood star walking the ramp for them as their “showstopper”. The actor Ranbir Kapoor donned a maroon velvet suit by Manish Malhotra at his recent Lakmé Fashion Week show, while actress Kareena Kapoor Khan took to the runway for designer Gaurav Gupta, wearing a sculpted elegant black dress, at the grand finale of the event. The stars also attend these major shows to cheer on their favourite designers.

“You can’t hide from Bollywood,” says Ms Shroff. “I have seen some of the most avant-garde designers finally chasing Bollywood stars to wear their clothes on the red carpet. I think the reach that the Bollywood stars have is unequal to anything else. It is a very symbiotic relationship. The stars need to look their best and they do wear huge international labels but they always need that beautiful sari or that beautiful gown that has been tailor made. Regular people on the street are more in tune to looking at Bollywood stars wearing fashion than models, so they are the ultimate role models of style in our country.”

Also prominent is the growth of brands associating themselves with fashion shows in India to promote their products. In Mumbai last month, Philips teamed up as a sponsor of the Malhotra show, while Monaco Tourism associated with a Narendra Kumar collection.

“Indian designers are becoming very marketing savvy now,” says Mr Dhankar. “They want to build a brand.”

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