India's fashion industry faces challenges to go global
- 22 March 2011
- From the section Business
Fashion, flamboyance and looking good have always been integral parts of Indian culture.
The high-end of fashion was long the preserve of the country's elite. However, that is no longer the case.
As the middle class grows, wages rise, and style becomes more accessible, the Indian market is turning into a place of great opportunity, for both local and international designers.
Lakme Fashion Week, the country's premier fashion event, has now entered its 13th year.
Some 78 designers from across India converged on Mumbai, the country's entertainment and financial capital, to showcase their wares as part of this season's fashion week.
From commercial collections to haute couture, experts say that by and large they put on impressive shows.
Event organisers say it has, over the years, witnessed a steady rise in attention from international outlets, fashion representatives and buyers.
According to official figures, last year close to 160 buyers registered for the five-day event. This year, that number has risen to some 190.
Of these buyers, 40 represent international firms and brands.
Organisers concede that these are not big figures when compared with the packs of hungry buyers and brand representatives that attend fashion weeks in London, Paris, Milan and New York.
But when it comes to an emerging market such as India, it shows that companies and some of the industry's most influential people are watching closely, and expecting more.
Anil Chopra, chief executive of Lakme Fashion Week, is convinced that deals are being done - though it is hard to ascertain exactly how much business is generated through such events because interactions between designers and buyers remain confidential.
Much of the interest is being generated by buyers from the Middle East, according to Mr Chopra.
The style and type of clothes that Indian designers tend to produce are well suited to neighbouring markets that not only associate with the aesthetic but rely on India for such output, he says.
When it comes to looking further afield, the production of garments for American and European markets is "not that significant", he adds.
And that perspective is supported by the numbers: Some 95% of business conducted as a result of fashion week is domestic.
Dressing the West
Indian designers are renowned for their flair and attention to detail. Those that produce traditional garments are singled out for their ornate craftsmanship.
Christian Leone, vice president of brand relations for online luxury website Gilt Groupe, says that while many of these garments are beautifully made, they remain hard to sell to even the most fashion-savy clients in the United States and Europe.
While buyers and stores may consider buying parts of traditional collections or outfits, selling them as a whole is, at present, difficult.
Essentially, international markets work on principles of commercial viability and wearability. This makes the traditional Indian look hard to push on shop floors.
The type of clients that Indian designers are trying to reach at home and abroad are very distinct, and both are looking for markedly different things.
Imran Amed, founder and editor of fashion consultancy website the Business of Fashion, points out that they have to be more decisive about which market they are looking to appeal to.
In recent years there has been a certain element of schizophrenia in the Indian fashion industry when it comes to picking what to focus on, Mr Amed says.
Mr Chopra says that India's top designers have toyed with the idea of chasing foreign markets.
However, the real money and prestige has always come from impressing domestic buyers.
In his post-show press conference at this year's event, designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee remarked that he sells to around 17,000 clients every year.
Given India's population, this it not a big number.
However, consider the average cost of a Sabyasachi shalwar kameez, around $500 (£308), and it is clear that he tailors his garments to attract India's monied elite.
Observers of the Indian market say that the growing wealth and disposable incomes of the country's middle and upper classes is creating big opportunities for local producers, particularly high-end designers.
As a result, their need then to look outside India for haute, niche and commercial success is limited.
There are, however, some designers that will always long for the runways of London, Paris and New York. And many of them, Mr Amed observes, are young start-ups.
For any fashion designer looking to crack the international business, knowing the statistics is critical, he says, insisting that for every 100 brands that are created only one is commercially successful.
Mr Amed says that some Indian designers still struggle with the fundamental ideals of what makes an international fashion label successful: Professionalism, reliability, and quality.
A major challenge that buyers and consultants foresee for Indian designers is that of supply and delivery.
Mr Amed says that the international fashion industry is speeding up. Production processes are getting faster and lead times are shrinking.
With the delicate production of most Indian garments, the question, analysts say, is simple: If Indian designers want to compete in international markets, can they meet these short deadlines and still produce high quality clothes?
The Indian fashion industry is still in its infancy.
When pondering its potential growth, experts point out that India is where Brazil was 15 or 20 years ago.
They add that Brazilian designers are now gaining global recognition for their ability to serve both local and foreign markets well.
The trick, however, is deciding who to create for and who to sell to.
For Indian designers, the possibilities on either side of the equation are large: A domestic market with more than one billion potential clients, as well as an international market keen to see them combine traditional flare with Western commercial viability.