Seven years ago, when former magazine colleagues Karuna Laungani and Gauri Verma started Jodi Life, it was to address the gap in the market for affordable, handcrafted fashion. "We had high street brands like Zara and H&M, and Indian designer brands whose price points were often not reachable to all," says Laungani. Now, of course, it's a different scenario.
The past decade has seen exponential growth in the market with the birth of home-grown labels across segments and the entry of global brands like Uniqlo and Massimo Dutti. "The apparel market is a 500K crore market overall, and the branded mid-market segment is valued at about 40 per cent of it," says Abheek Singhi of Boston Consulting Group.
A few weeks ago, Karishma Swali, one half of the duo behind Jade, the bridal and couture label, launched MoonRay with her 14-year-old daughter Avantika. The e-commerce focused brand, with a ready-to-wear range under Rs 15,000 describes itself as culturally and ecologically conscious, committing 50 per cent of profits from all products towards children's education and animal welfare. "We wanted to reach out to Gen Z," says Karishma of this move, "Avantika always tells me that we need to speak to her generation."
At the peak of lockdown this past year, Akshay Narvekar of the Bombay Shirt Company acquired Pause and launched CityOf, "an elevated, everyday basics brand that offers a really nice tee with good quality, detailing and comfort-a reflection of how we were dressing during the pandemic."
These three labels, though vastly different, tick the conversations we've been having in fashion for the last two years: conscious consumption, a need for everyday dressing, being vocal for local and having a solid digital footprint. But what we forget, as industry insiders who bandy around terms like diffusion, couture and heritage, is that the Indian consumer poses a simple query: "Where can I buy well-priced, quality, everyday clothes locally?" Almost always, followed up with, "You know, besides Zara and H&M?"
It's no secret that before the pandemic, Indians made up some of the world's most significant destination shoppers, thanks to a growing middle class with an increase in purchasing power, an affinity for international brands, tax-free incentives and easy shopping. But given the situation these past two years, consumers have had to look closer.
"I am always looking for indie brands, but the biggest issue is the lack of a proper marketplace. While pop-ups and exhibitions are great, there isn't one permanent place. The average person doesn't have the time to scroll through multiple Instagram accounts or visit pop-ups. As a result, it's a lost opportunity," says fashion stylist Anaita Shroff Adajania, who documents her finds through a hashtag #ASAselects on social media and is a frequent visitor to many pop-ups in Mumbai.
For Gauri Pohoomul, founder member, Sahachari Foundation, giving indie labels a platform has been the underlying ethos of the Design One exhibition, which takes place in Mumbai and Delhi twice a year. "Our USP is that you get the first look at young labels that are available at accessible price points." Everyday dressing, she says, is an incredibly important segment given the shift in how women are approaching their wardrobes. "They want smart clothing that takes you through the day." During the pandemic Design One went online, and Pohoomul says that the response has been positive.
Shopping online may have seen an uptick during this time but what holds indie labels back is a question of sizing. Adajania and Pohoomul admit that for global, mass-market retailers, a uniform size code makes purchasing a more seamless experience. For local labels, issues with sizing and fabrication tend to make them more appealing in an offline scenario. A fact echoed by Summiyya Patni, the influencer and content creator behind House of Misu, who admits that they are often "On the hunt for hidden gems, local treasures and up and coming labels. But due to the pandemic, it's intensified how tricky it's to buy from brands which you have never tried on."
There's a common perception that Indian labels are priced higher. Designer Kanika Goyal says, "We're at par with global brands when it comes to a mid-market price bracket, which the same client is willing to purchase. So, it comes down to perception. For us, we ensure a consistent omni-channel consumer experience that encompasses physical, virtual and emotional aspects. Our quality standards meet global protocols. We don't produce large quantities to avoid surplus, and hence the cost of raw materials is higher. Skilled labour is expensive, and although we try to source fabrics and trims locally, 40 per cent of it is imported due to the lack of infrastructure and inconsistency of quality. All this comes at a cost." But Goyal is astute and aware of a need to widen her base. Towards the second quarter of 2022, she plans to launch a lower price bracket brand, building on her diffusion line "KGL capsule".
For Shyma Shetty and Pranav Mishra of Huemn, the pandemic saw them shift in a new direction, from a global focus to a local outlook and saw them dropping their price points. "Our objective has always been to create an authentic, socially relevant and responsible brand that can add value. [For young labels] finding the right fit is key; however, pricing largely depends on the supply chain. The biggest myth is that keeping the prices high will project your brand as niche. But the culture is changing. We have worked hard on our supply chain and production for the past year, and our prices are a by-product of the planning and work gone behind creating that infrastructure," says Mishra.
Singhi believes that the market is ripe for evolution, and soon pricing will be weighed against design. "Consumers will seek [indie labels] out proactively and will pay a small premium for a similar product." "You can't compare the joy of an indie brand," adds Adajania. There's been a lot of introspection during this time, and the stories behind some of these labels are filled with emotion. November Noon works on the concept of separates. Exhale expresses the designer's experience through clothes. You buy into the philosophy of the brand, and that kind of connection cannot be undervalued."
Two months before lockdown, I had my second child. As a result of the pregnancy and the ensuing pandemic, I haven't updated my wardrobe much. During a recent wardrobe purge, I was somewhat chagrined to discover that despite working in the industry, the majority of my labels skewed global across segments. But the designed in India labels were vastly outnumbered.
"You have to give global brands their due. Young people in India did not have access to quality clothes that were modern and made them feel stylish at prices they could afford," says Narvekar. "You can walk into the high street stores, on a whim, to buy something to wear for dinner. You have the whole gamut at a lower price point and across the board. Of course, it's not a sustainable solution. With indie labels, you have to work to make them your own," adds Adajania, listing her favourite at the moment labels: Olio, Dhora, Sui, Adisee, Flame, Malie, Aish Life, Bhaane, Koi, Hane, Kaka Sumi, Yam, Anu Merton, No Grey Area, Smoke Lab.
All the insiders I spoke to believe that the modern Indian woman's everyday wardrobe is a complementary mix of high street and contemporary global brands, along with Indian labels. But they admit that a move towards local and indie brands, especially for Gen Z audiences, are authenticity, a conscious conversation, a relationship with craft, a desire to wear unique clothes, culturally identifiable pieces and a pride in home-grown design.
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