Small town India is the latest frontier for Indian designers, says Gargi Gupta, with garments worth lakhs flying off the shelves.
Rakhi Bhutani was a familiar figure at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2011 held in New Delhi earlier this month. As the owner of Aura, the 12-year-old multi-label designer store in Nagpur with a branch in Raipur (opened less than a year ago), the four-day event was an opportunity to catch trends, liaise with designers and book orders for the coming season.
Fashion weeks are, primarily, trade fairs. But, curiously, the only time business gets talked about is when foreign buyers come calling. The opening of a fashion frontier in the smaller towns of India, a trend that’s opening a huge market for Indian designers, gets hardly noticed or reported.
Who would have thought that Raipur, with a population of barely seven lakh (Census 2011), would have the buying power to sustain a 5,000 sqft store where a Sabyasachi saris costing Rs 2.5 lakh are regularly bought? “A lot of buyers from Raipur would come to my store in Nagpur [it’s a less than four hour drive] and kept asking me to open in their town,” Bhutani says, explaining her decision.
Clearly, small town India is no longer small in its buying ability or in its appetite for fashion. And they are providing a ready and growing market for many fashion designers, especially upcoming, and thus more affordable, ones.
“As much as 35-40 per cent of our traffic and shopping comes from smaller towns, places so far off the fashion radar as Ambala, Bhubaneswar, Jammu, Gangtok and Siliguri,” says Pearl Uppal, CEO of Fashionandyou.com, a leading online fashion retail website which offers brands at discounts.
No wonder then that there has been a rash of store openings in recent years. In Indore, BLU opened in 2007; its owners, Aarti Sanghi and husband Rajeev, opened a branch in Bhopal a week ago. BLU stocks fashion labels such as Anju Modi, AM:PM, Vivek Narang, Raw Mango and others. Soh-Koh opened in Sector 26, Cha ndigarh two years ago; it stocks A-listers such as Rohit Bal and Rajesh Pratap Singh as well as upcoming designers like Siddhartha Tytler and Soumitra Mondal. Kimaya, the well-known fashion chain, is opening a 2,500 sqft store in Ludhiana’s premium MBD Neopolis mall next month, while another, slightly larger one will come up in Surat’s fashion high street Ghoddod Road in late May. Chandigarh will follow in June, then Jallandhar, Hyderabad, Pune and Ahmedabad sometime next year, says a company spokesperson.
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The last three bigger metros already have several designer apparel stores. Hyderabad, especially, has around a dozen — Elahe (the first to open), Origins, Also, Oorja, Orange Feathers, Kheya, Taamara, Anonym, Rewania, Krizia, Peach Tree, The Project and Anahita, the last five opening within the last year. Pune has a few — Araliya, Rudraksh, Iris, Syntoni, EnVogue; and so does Ahmedabad — Elan, Anshu’s Designer Studio, Deval, Nautanky and so on.
But does fashion have a large clientele in small town India? “It was tough going for the first four-five years,” says Bhutani, “and required educating people about fashion and designers. It’s a lot better now, and sales have been growing around 20-25 per cent annually.” “There are only so many people who can buy,” says Aarti Sanghi. “The same crowd comes over and over again,” says Vinita Passary, a partner in the Hyderabad store Anonym, that has carved a niche for itself for catering to alternative/ecological fashion. “The city is just too small to cater to so many stores.”
For Pradeep Hirani of Kimaya, the earning capacity of a city is not of as much importance as its propensity for consumption. “Which is why we will open a store in Ludhiana and not Mangalore,” he says. Fashion awareness and the presence of other brands in the city are other parametres that Kimaya, the largest fashion retailer in the country, looks at when it enters a city.
For Naini Gupta, a partner in Chandigarh’s Soh-Koh, for whom the challenge was to tap the small but spendthrift clientele in the city and its vicinity “who would earlier go down to Delhi to shop”. This she did by working with designers to ensure that her prices were no higher than those in the bigger cities, and also by ensuring better services such as customisation of fit, exchange within 15 days and so on. Even so she gets clients who baulk at the Rs 5,000 price tag of a cotton garment. “But we can get them in the local market for Rs 200, they say, and this does not even have any embroidery. And then we have to step in and explain all about cut and fit; and often it does not wash. The feeling that embroidery is good is very deeply set,” she rues.
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The one thing that most retailers agree on is that designer apparel buying is no longer restricted to weddings. “Daily and resort wear, work wear, Tees, all of these sell equally well in small towns on Fashionandyou. In fact, the frequency of purchase is higher in smaller cities, because access is less,” says Uppal. Bhutani speaks of her Nagpur clients buying to build a collection — buying a style or a designer now “for some later occasion”.
As for taste, Bhutani vehemently denies that small town India differs in any substantial way from the metros. “We were the first,” she says, with immense pride, “to stock Sabyasachi’s experimental clothes, his jumpsuits and palazzo pants. We were the first store to understand Gaurav Gupta’s concept saris. Uppal and Gupta are both agreed that the shifts in taste are more regional, rather than reflecting the rural-urban divide. “North India is more conservative, so no low necks and sleeveless,” Gupta says. There is also the problem of size. In the North, women are generally taller and better built than elsewhere, and often a size 8 or 10 does not work. Designers, she says, must understand the need to customise their garments.