In the 1990s, a visit to a Fabindia store would be all about experiencing a certain comforting familiarity. With a vivid display of colourful and handcrafted pure-silk kurtas finely combed through and placed alongside tall and neatly stacked piles of Chanderi silk saris, the cult brand – regarded more as an institution – would give urban consumers the much-needed Indian-ness in their sartorial experience.
Fabindia’s contemporaries such as Anokhi, Kilol and Biba, followed by Westside in 1998 and Sabhyata and Cottons Jaipur in early 2000, too, made a mark, if not similar, with their exclusivity in crafts-based, hand-processed, natural, and contemporary products. These businesses saw immense success at a time when brands were few and far between as far as a legacy of traditional retail, Indo-western and ethnic offerings was concerned.
Today, this retail experience is becoming more dynamic. More than 1,000 new brands in the Indo-Western and ethnic wear are creating a buzz in the fashion retail space, mostly piggybacking on the phenomenal success of ecommerce giants such as Amazon and Myntra, and technological advancements in e-retail. Fabindia might have started fashion’s ‘India story’, which helped it remain unique for decades, today, however, a slew of lifestyle and fashion brands are cashing in on the trend.
This leads to a pertinent question. Where do these traditional ethnic wear brands stand today, given an explosion of new-age players and direct-to-consumer (D2C) platforms, especially in terms of prints, pricing, quality, customary colours, sizing, online presence, and more? Are they facing the heat from these businesses in the ever-evolving fashion retail space?
This in turn has set the clock ticking for traditional ethnic wear players like Fabindia, Biba, Westside, and others to innovate, improve and reinvent, not just for growth but also to retain loyalists.
The Fabindia phenomenon
Founded in 1960 to market the diverse craft traditions of India, Fabindia started out as a company exporting home furnishings, with the first Fabindia retail store opening in the Greater Kailash area of New Delhi 15 years later. Over the years, it has turned into a multidimensional lifestyle business with ‘Experience Centres’ offering garments, organics, home, and personal care products, a FabCafe serving healthy Indian comfort food, an interior design studio to help create memorable spaces with its design solutions, a wellness centre, and an alteration studio. The latest is its partnership with Dolomite Restaurants to open Jamie Oliver’s branded cafes at 14 Fabindia Experience Centres across the country .
However, despite operating 357 stores in 127 locations across the country, apart from 13 international outlets in Singapore, the UAE, the US, Malaysia and Mauritius, Fabindia ended its July sales, which started early this year, offering deep discounts of over 50% flat across India-based stores for the first time ever—a possible post-Covid strategy where traditional doorbuster sales seem to drive a significant portion of purchases.
This is in sharp contrast to its past record, as Fabindia has traditionally stayed away from sales as a deliberate brand-strengthening strategy, unlike Anokhi that has a few outlets for discounted goods, and Biba and Westside with their seasonal and select sections for discounted items. Fabindia has also never encouraged advertising in the mass media. There have been in-store promotions and exhibitions for Indian handicrafts and craftspeople, but it never had any offline sales so far.
In fact, the plan to go public last fiscal to raise $482 million was also pulled back due to a rough market. The group operates in the intensely competitive consumer retail market, deriving almost 60% of its revenue from the apparel segment, wherein a large number of strong players vie for consumer spends.
Fabindia posted revenues of Rs 1,392 crore during the year ended March 2022 with net loss of Rs 39 crore. In FY21, it had Rs 1,081 crore in revenues with a net loss of Rs 117 crore. Either Tata Consumer or ITC is looking to acquire Organic India, which Fabindia owns nearly 40% of, and has seen generating 30-35% of Fabindia’s overall revenue in mid FY23. While the acquisition of Organic India has benefitted the diversity of the Fabindia group, dependence on the apparel segment remained high, said rating agency Crisil in its last rating report of June 2019.
Mix and match
At a time when shopping is being spurred by global fast fashion brands, the shopper, too, has become experimental. The younger generation is becoming a mix-and-match fashionista, blending tradition with modernism, and, in a nutshell, going big on fusion dressing.
Fabindia, too, has been working on reinventing its ideology of staid designs. The need to change its product portfolio, build a robust division of western wear and take the new-age customer and their behaviour in order to cater to different categories, while increasing its reach in cities and making the products accessible and affordable to the middle-class consumer base, are already pacing up.
In 2014, Fabindia launched Fabels, its first western wear line with jackets, shirts, trousers (for men and women) and tops and dresses (for women). They are priced in the range of Rs 1,200-2,000 for shirts and trousers, and Rs 3,000-5,000 for jackets. For the millennial and the Gen-Z customer, it also launched FabNu in 2021 to include fusion wear and accessories.
Incidentally, Westside had already created a niçhe in this segment a long time ago. In the late 1990s, it introduced a piece of clothing called kurti, or the modern version of kameez, which could be paired with jeans and skirts and started a revolution in the fashion world. The Tata Group’s flagship retail store has close to 97% in-house brands, catering to every section of society, and with overall apparel wear contributing to 79% of brand sales.
Trent, the retail company owned by the Tata Group, reported a 65% surge in Q4 revenues to Rs 21.8 billion supported by strong sales at its Westside and Zudio stores. Westside has over 22 labels all designed in-house, across women’s wear, menswear, kidswear, footwear, lingerie, cosmetics, perfumes, accessories, and home furniture. The brand has also calibrated its play in terms of scale and reach with 214 stores in 90 cities, as of March 2023, and additional online reach across India exclusively through Westside.com and Tata Neu.
The business has progressively evolved into on-trend fashion, aspirational brand experience and convenient access across store and digital channels. During FY23, Westside focused on scaling and leveraging the annual subscription-based customer engagement programme — WestStyleClub, accelerating reach coupled with focus on high-quality store footprint with prominent street presence, leveraging social media to grow reach and actively appeal to a younger audience. Aided by the approach, Westside registered 49% like-for-like growth in sales in FY23.
Switching to the use of sustainable fabrics like linen, muslin, khadi, and pure organic cotton has made these traditional brands experiment with newer silhouettes other than the usual kurtas and kurtis of the past. “One has to reinvent constantly to stay relevant and ahead of the game,” says Anuradha Ramam, designer and owner of Anuradha’s Creations, a fashion brand. “Traditional brands with a long history in Indian retail have strongholds in the ethnic and western clothing markets. Most firms took steps to proactively reinvent the plans targeted at modern tastes while still keeping its ethnic charm to stay relevant in light of increasing competition from D2C brands. They integrated modern aspects into classic aesthetics to boost the value of their collections to young consumers as well as wanting to reach a larger audience, several established firms started utilising websites to see potential of the exclusive strategy. Existing companies maintained their vast choice of materials, patterns, and pricing ranges to set themselves above newer ones,” adds Ramam.
Adapting to the wave
Despite the mushrooming of D2C brands, the traditional brands have proven themselves capable of adapting to the current wave, leveraging their extensive consumer data accumulated over the years to stay relevant and competitive in the ever-changing market landscape. Diksha Sachdev, founder and CEO of Fashion Solutions, a marketing agency for fashion and lifestyle brands in Delhi-NCR, explains: “Westside, for instance, has demonstrated agility by developing and retailing in-house brands exclusively available at their stores. Recognising the evolving preferences of their target audience, they cater to fashion-forward individuals seeking Western wear and trendy accessories while also addressing the growing demand for sustainable fashion with a dedicated eco-friendly line. Fabindia has expanded its offerings to capture a younger demographic, launching fresh and youthful collections, along with nightwear designed to appeal to the new audience.”
Another key advantage that the traditional brands possess over the newer lot of D2C businesses is the trust and loyalty they have fostered over the years. These established brands have not only kept up with market trends but have quickly embraced sustainable practices in response to the growing emphasis on eco-consciousness, solidifying their relevance and appeal.
“Access to comprehensive consumer data and insights, coupled with their wide retail presence, allows these traditional brands to make informed decisions and tailor their products and marketing efforts more effectively. Combining their rich history of brand trust and loyalty with the agility to adapt to market trends, these brands have secured a strong foothold in the industry and effectively competed with younger D2C brands,” says Sachdev.
Ethnic wear brand Sabhyata introduced kurtas to the Indian women in the late 90s and still continues to provide 50 new designs every month for its customers. “It’s important in the competitive environment to be ever evolving to survive. Gone are the days when you could do away with minimalistic fabrics and designs. Our designers are reinventing the traditional ethnic wear designs by adding modern touch to it,” says Chayan Verma, the marketing head of Sabhyata that made Rs 130 crore in revenues during the year ended March 2022 and expects 20% growth y-o-y. “2023-24 should be our most successful year with 30% growth in the top line,” he adds.
For the brands to stay relevant, pricing has also been key. In the ethnic wear segment, kurta is the most competitive product that exists with over 10,000 different styles present online. Here comes the advantage of having pan-India stores (currently, it has more than 110 exclusive outlets), which help the brand understand the diversity of designs accepted in different parts of the country, specially the fabrics that play a key role as per the climate and traditions. “For instance, cotton is a dominant fabric when it comes to south India and south India has a specific taste when it comes to traditional ethnic wear that may not be popular in the northern region and vice versa. People in the north-east would prefer a slightly Indo-western approach, yet ethnic in nature,” says Verma, who feels online is predominantly a discounted market and it contributes not more than 3% of the company’s revenues. For Sabhyata, the US has been the most encouraging market for ethnic wear with Malaysia and Singapore being the second and third, respectively.
So, what clicks?
Traditional retail brands that rely on offline channels for sales, have had to rethink their strategies, especially post-pandemic, to launch either D2C channels or ecommerce to target mobile-savvy consumers. For instance, the Aditya Birla Group, which has several fashion brands in its kitty, is betting big on its own e-commerce platforms. Digitisation, easy accessibility as a result of the rise of ecommerce are a few reasons for the brands to foray into the segment. These brands now look at the changing market dynamics and consumer behaviour and keep up pace with mobile-savvy consumers to introduce their digital-only brands. Instant consumer feedback rather than driving sales and being ‘omni-channel’, are important market strategies today.
“D2C is a good opportunity to interact directly with consumers. Since first party data is made available through D2C, it provides rich insights on usage, consumption, attitude and preferences towards the product and brand, and is useful from a learning agility standpoint as the competition from the start-up ecosystem drives frugal innovation—especially around accelerating new product launches, managing hyper personalisation, and building innovative logistics/ fulfilment models,” says Anand Ramanathan, partner, Deloitte India. According to a report by investment firm Avendus Capital, the D2C segment is expected to have a $100 billion addressable market by 2025. India is one of the largest retail markets in the world, projected to surpass $1.7 trillion by 2025
and has added 80 million online shoppers in the past three years alone to reach 130 million.
Department store chain Shoppers Stop launched over 100 exclusive brands on its online channel in 2021 while Aditya Birla Group’s house of brands venture TMRW aims to become a $1 billion business and is expected to invest Rs 500 crore by growing its portfolio of D2C fashion and lifestyle brands from 8 to 10 by end of this year. In 2022, TMRW made a strategic investment in Bewakoof, a trendy fashion apparel and accessories brand. While India itself has emerged as a brand, industry experts feel PM Modi’s call for ‘vocal for local’ has given a push to several homegrown fashion brands. The last five years have seen an influx of amazing fashion brands emerging as torchbearers for ethical fashion, slow fashion rich Indian heritage and craftsmanship like Doodlage, Raffughar, Paiwand, Pieux that cater to the design sensibilities of Indian youth.
“The task is to invest in a marketing push to create individual brands in different sectors on the back of ‘zero effect, zero defect’, an approach that is focused on creativity, reliability, smart design, and chic. And it is happening. Fashion weeks, online streaming platforms (OTTs), and the pervasive influence of social media have collectively and swiftly transformed the fashion sensibilities of both the Indian youth and the population at large. The younger consumers seek inclusivity, identity, sustainability, and uniqueness in their fashion choices. Brands have scaled up and adapted to the style-conscious millennials and Gen-Z. The need is to publicise our manufacturing excellence and skills to build brands and invest in converting these brands into cults,” says Professor Meha Jayaswal, associate dean, Department of Fashion Communication, Pearl Academy.
Suta, an artisanal brand that is reviving heirloom crafts with a contemporary twist, was founded in 2016 by sisters Sujata Biswas and Taniya Biswas. It aims to reintroduce traditional crafts through a contemporary lens, to make them wearable and fashion-forward. “We’ve reimagined the kasavu saree (the zari (gold thread) used in the border of the Kerala saree) with colourful accents and paired them with regal jewel-toned and zari embellished blouses, besides sarees and blouses with lightweight fabric blends, for a ready-to-wear statement blouses that fit like a glove. For most people, comfort and ease of wear are as important as the overall aesthetic of the garment. That’s where our designs shine through,” says Sujata Biswas, co-founder, Suta. The revenue collected by the brand in last financial year was `56 crore and hopes to double this year by constantly experimenting with fabrics, colours and crafts to offer a wider variety of products and to engage more weaver and artisanal clusters across India.
“This year, we’ve launched ruffled sarees in mul cotton, Jamdani weaves, indigo-hued drapes with quirky animal motifs and bright prints to cater to diverse tastes. We will keep innovating in the months to come, infuse designs with fresh sensibilities. We’re also in the process of launching Aador, our new sub-brand for artisanal stitched garments,” adds Biswas.
Suta’s offline stores are present in Thane, Kalina (Mumbai), Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kolkata and the collection is present on Suta app, website, Nykaa, Myntra, Flipkart.
Similarly, Mantra, a sustainable label by designer Shalini James launched its Mission Malabar SS23, paying homage to the rich 150-year history of the handloom industry in the Malabar region of Kerala, with an array of ivory and pastel-coloured garments with an understated version of luxury with a price range of Rs 4,000 to Rs 12,000. Drapery Silk, a south-based saree brand that has stood firm in promoting Arni handloom sarees originate from a place called Arni located in Tamil Nadu, renowned for its skilled artisans who use weaving techniques such as the revered Korvai technique, known for its thick zari borders, Jacquard weaving with finely detailed patterns woven into the fabric.
Also, there is innovation at both product and presentation level to strategise customer focus. Fashion designer Masaba Gupta’s festive collection ‘Ila’ features versatile saris, printed kurtas with baggy salwars, plain Chanderi kurtas and statement saris for those who embrace a personal style, and are more conscious of their choices. Tilfi Banaras, a Banaras-based brand known for its exquisite handwoven textiles and deep-rooted craftsmanship, has crafted ‘Yatra’, a handcrafted installation for the new Parliament Building by its skilled Banarasi artisans.
The installation distils the legacy of Varanasi’s storied past through contemporary Banarasi silk brocade weaving, zari embroidery, and metal repousse, and showcases the unrivalled skills of artisans. Weaving expertise passed on through generations made it possible for Tilfi’s specialised artists and craftsmen to undertake an artwork spanning over 32 feet, meticulously translated onto the loom using an astounding 42,000 Jacquard punch cards or naksha-pattas.
Among the affordable premium clothing sector, there’s London-based online fashion brand Urbanic, founded in 2019, offers affordable prices and revamped identity recently centred around inclusivity with the tagline “We are because you are.” Alongside the new visual identity, Urbanic has launched a website and a new app and much-awaited new summer styles this year.