The South is the new land of opportunity for Indian designers. Sujata Assomull Sippy checks out the changing scenario.

There seems to be a new trend in high fashion — and it has a very Southern feel. Indian designers and luxury brands right now seem to be focused on cities in the South — Bangalore, Chennai or Hyderabad are new style cities of India.  Many Indian designers are looking at altering their design ethos to suit the South's very rooted and robust sense of style. Entering Chennai this year is international fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton. In fashion there is belief that the entry of Louis Vuitton is always the start of a city's love affair with luxurious fashion. And normally this is correct after they opened in Delhi (in 2003), Mumbai (in 2004) and more recently in Bangalore (in 2008), nearly every other large luxury brand started making a bee-line to these cities.  And brands like Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo and Etro are all happy with the progress they have made in Bangalore all of whom entered after Louis Vuitton.

Says Karen Wilson Kumar of Ferragamo, “We are in Bangalore and the growth over the last year is encouraging. We have now been doing trunk shows in Hyderabad and Chennai and they were well received.” Gucci too has been exploring this city, though nothing is final yet. You can be sure that they all waiting and watching to see how Louis Vuitton Chennai does. Burberry is the exception to the rule and is already in Bangalore which opened the year after Louis Vuitton but they have already entered both Hyderabad and Chennai. Indian designers realised about two years ago the need to pay attention to the south and have recently stepped their Southern activities. So much so that the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) is working on doing special projects focusing Chennai and Hyderabad and will announce their plans soon.

Sabyasaachi is looking at opening a store in Hyderabad and is even considering doing a store in Chennai. Nachiket Barve has been to the South twice in a matter of few weeks for promotions. Designers like Sabyasachi, Namrata Joshipura, Gaurav Gupta and Anamika Khanna now regularly travel to the style cities of the South for collection launches. Two years ago this was unheard of. Multi brand Indian designer store Kimaya is relooking at Chennai (they had closed their store there) and their new store will open by September and their store in Hyderabad is near completion.

Evoluzione revolution

Having made their mark in the North in Delhi and in the West in Mumbai, the South looks like the new land of opportunity for fashion. Atul and Tina Malhotra started the multi brand store Evoluzione ten years ago. It started as a small 2,000 sq.ft. store stocking a handful of designers. Today it is a 7,000 square foot store on three floors and houses over 30 Indian designers. “When we started everyone wrote us off,” he says.

For many designers today Evoluzione is one of their highest grossing stores. But to be in the South has required designers to change their game a little. Sabyasaachi believes he is successful in this region as he has a strong traditional bent. “It is about purity of design and tradition,” he says. Atul Malhotra seconds this — as he has found that are understated with more traditional look do well in his stores in Chennai and Bangalore — among his top three would be Sabyasachi, Anamika Khanna and Pankaj and Nidhi. Kimaya's Pradeep Hirani expects the more design and textile driven designers like Pero's Aneeth Arora, Rahul Misra and Abraham and Thakore to be big hits. This is not so good news for some of India's more senior designers who tend to rely on the bling thing. According to Abraham and Thakore's David Abraham, (who hails from Bangalore) you need to be price sensitive too. He has a standalone store in Bangalore and finds pieces between Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 8,000 sell out. “In the North, price is not such an issue,” and that he sells more smalls. “And the North is definitely more bling,” he adds.

As Hirani of Kimaya says, “One man's food is another's poison,” and he will be making sure his buy for Kimaya's in the South is different from that in the south. He opened his first store in Mumbai nine years ago and started looking at the South three years ago.

Sunil Sethi has been president of the Fashion Design Council of India for four years now and in his tenure he has seen how the South has gained more and more mindspace from designers. “It is a far more textile oriented market, and we have seen designers become more textile and handloom-based in the last few years.”

At the recent Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai there was even an Indian Textile Day, which featured the works of Bangalore's Deepika Govind and Mumbai's Anita Dongre and Krishna Mehta. Designers have had to mould their product slightly. Says Malhotra, “In the North, people buy to belong here; people buy because of a belief of a product,” he says buyers in the South like iconic pieces that have heritage. “Designers are making sure to be personally present for events and promotions and this shows that Indian designers now feel that the South requires their time and effort,” says Sethi.

By coming they get to understand the pulse of the market better and know what works and what does not. As Hirani says, “After conquering the North and the West, it is natural for one to look at the South, especially since the East needs more time.” Which is probably why targeting the south tops the agenda for many luxury brands who are in India. One of the reasons for the South being ready for luxe fashion is the fact they are media aware and enjoy reading. Bangalore's Raj Shroff of the fashion label Ravage, “This used to be a conservative market but it has been now bitten by the bug of fashion. One of the reasons could be the arrival of good international fashion magazines and women here love to read,” he says.  

Lavish spending

Vogue launched almost five years ago and Harper's Bazaar just celebrated its third anniversary. Another factor he believes is that the South has become more cosmopolitan as more and more people from the North and West are moving here. “Today a typical Bangalore kitty party will include a mix of people from the North and South,” and there has been a rub-off factor. “Well-heeled women here used to spending Rs. 40,000 on a kanjeevaram are now thinking why not try something new.” He welcomes this change as he has seen a steady 25 per cent growth in sales from cities in the South. Also, just as the North has a pull from second tier cities like Ludhiana, Amristar and Chandigarh, the South are now seeing the same phenomenon. “Hubli is like the Ludhiana of the South,” he says.

Wilson Kumar concurs as she says, “There is not so much North-South divide. State borders do not matter anymore,” she says. Though she does believe it's a certain type of international brand that will do well. “It is more about luxury than fashion for the South,” She believes brands that are more discreet and less logo driven will do well in this market. But you can be sure that Armani, Dior and Fendi will not be far behind. Brand buys will probably tweak their buys to be more discreet, more accessory and more value driven in stores in Delhi and Mumbai. So shopping in the South could soon actually be more stylish than the North and soon shoppers from the North may actually prefer the selection of designers in the South to their own home cities.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012