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BW Businessworld

Beyond Bridal Wear

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To make a film work, you need Shah Rukh Khan or sex. This statement by Neha Dhupia struck a chord and got her more headlines than her Miss India title or any film she’s done since. What she said also rings true (with a minor tweak) for Indian fashion — it needs either weddings or Bollywood to sell.
 
There is no question that today Indian high fashion is an industry, with designers finally talking turnover. Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s turnover touched Rs 60 crore last year, putting him in the league of India’s most commercially successful designers. But even he admits that almost half of this figure comes from the saree — a ubiquitous item which he drapes around many a Bollywood star and also what makes up the core of any bride-to-be’s trousseau. 
 
Says Tarun Tahiliani, another design success story with five flagship stores across India: “As a critical mass we still buy couture only for weddings. For the top echelons of Indian society, yes, once in a while couture moves beyond the wedding.” After weddings, it’s the reel connection that brings in the big bucks for Indian fashion.  Tahiliani (the man behind the wedding ensembles of Shilpa Shetty, Sussane Roshan and Mehr Rampal) drives home the point when he says, “Indian fashion is greatly influenced by Bollywood. Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what Kareena Kapoor is going to wear at her wedding (to Saif Ali Khan in October). Almost akin to Kate Middleton when she married Prince William, except our population is far larger than that of England. So you can imagine the sheer numbers influenced by Bollywood!”
 
But things are changing within this scenario as the market begins to show signs of maturity. Evoluzione, one of India’s leading multi-brand stores with outlets in Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi, recently hosted the couture showings of Anamika Khanna and Gaurav Gupta. While there was a lot of wedding wear in their collections, there was also couture for other occasions. This signalled a move towards taking Indian couture beyond weddings. Atul Malhotra, the man behind Evoluzione, offers an explantion: “For a multi-brand store, wedding wear contributes about 25 per cent of the turnover while the rest is occasional wear. For a designer, however, I would say 50 per cent of value, if not volume, comes from bridal sales.”
Courtesy: Tarun Tahiliani

So, what explains the shift, albeit slow? International media (with Vogue, GQ and Harper’s Bazaar) launching in India and international fashion brands’ entry have helped tastes evolve. Vandana Mohan, managing director of The Wedding Design Company (the firm behind the recent Jindal wedding in Florence and the Mittal wedding in Delhi) says, “There is not one international brand that has not wooed the wedding market. This has made Indian designers sit up.” Net result: Designers have started looking at couture more seriously. Many who previously only did western silhouettes like Varun Bahl, Nachiket Barve and Atsu are now looking at doing more and more Indian shapes. As Tahiliani says, “Most women now wear western for regular everyday dressing! Having said that Indian couture will always belong to Indian designers — given that they understand the Indian woman’s body far better than any international design house.”
 
Again, designer wedding wear has changed and, in a way, become more western. Tahiliani explains, “We still have our wonderful heritage of luxurious embroidery and textiles; in my opinion, more beautiful than anything that you would find elsewhere. But Indians are now more demanding, having been exposed to international fits and constructs which are now being translated into the Indian aesthetic. Couture in India is now more about lighter fabrics, elegance, finish and comfort. Over the last 20 years, I have seen duppattas being pared down in weight and size. We are doing concept sarees which just are zip-ups, so no more draping, giving the age-old 6 yards of fabric a whole new twist.” The concept saree means you can now be in a bridal outfit in five minutes flat. It makes a bridal outfit acquire more “re-wear potential” and edited embellishments show a move away from the dikhavat attitude. The lighter sarees are also the choice of many to wear to cocktail parties, thanks to their ease of draping. This explains why so many younger stars in Bollywood are opting to wear the saree to red carpet functions.
 
Which brings us back to Bollywood — a topic fashion industry insiders love to hate. Says Malhotra, “The fact is we have always imitated Bollywood, back to the Rajesh Khanna days and earlier. And even in the West, fashion has a close relationship with celebrities. It is all part of being an aspirational industry.” Having said that, Bollywood too is becoming more fashion-conscious and dressing better, making stars good role models. “Look at Sonam Kapoor. She really is one of India’s best-dressed,” says Malhotra. Fashion designers may not like to admit it, but they often court actors to wear their clothes: at the recent PCJ Couture Week, Madhuri Dixit, Sharmila Tagore and Sridevi all took to the ramp. Mohit Rai, one of the stylists behind The Wardrobers, a style consultancy that works closely with Bollywood, says, “For designers it directly translates into sales. I have had many designers tell me that when I put their clothes on an actor, they immediately get calls asking for that outfit. Bollywood is the best way for fashion to reach the masses. For Bollywood, it is an important part of an actor’s brand image; now, they all work with designers and stylists closely. Better dressed women tend to get the better endorsements.”
Designers who only did western silhouettes are looking more and more at indian shapes

So yes, Indians’ taste in couture is maturing, but let’s not get lost in glamour and remember that fashion, at the end of the day, is serious business. A growing number of venture capitalists is looking at fashion (Franklin Templeton recently invested Rs 60 crore in the multi-brand Kimaya). Fashion stores are no longer the domain of just Delhi and Mumbai. The fact is that Indian fashion is growing despite the influx of international brands. So what if weddings and Bollywood drive it — with both these businesses getting larger, it can only be good news for those in fashion.

Sujata Assomull Sippy is the former editor of Harper's Bazaar & fashion consultant

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 24-09-2012)