Atul Malhotra is becoming a key player in the national fashion scene. In an interview to T. KRITHIKA REDDY, he discusses his expansion plans for the multi-designer retail stores Evoluzione and Evolv, the launch of a menswear brand “Sepoy”, his entry into real estate and, of course, the much-rumoured talks with L Capital

The glowing installation in the window display of the new Evolv store on Chamiers Road is an eye-catcher. The scissor-needle-thread-pins-and-button design is symbolic of an evolving fashion story. One that began a little over a decade ago in a nondescript 800 sq. ft. store in Besant Nagar, fanned out to eight swish spaces across the country and is today being wooed by none less than L Capital, the private equity arm of the world’s biggest luxury products group, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH).

In an age when style travels faster than jet planes and fashionistas are conscious about up-to-the-minute trendiness, Atul Malhotra, managing director of Chennai-based Evolv Clothing, plays a seminal role in the Indian fashion scene by executing concepts that are bound to strengthen innovation in design, improve quality, scale up production and enhance the retail experience. And it’s not just about the rich and the chic. It’s about entering an uncharted space and getting high-end designers to do high street. Think Gaurav Gupta tee with quirky dragonfly design for Rs. 1, 400 or a Rohit Gandhi-Rahul Khanna party-hearty frock for Rs. 4,000. In the ephemeral world of style, fashion+sensibility+affordability is a sure-fire formula.

“It’s about tweaking the retail format. A concept like Evolv is a stepping stone into the world of design for aspiring customers,” smiles Malhotra, almost merging with the row of mannequins fitted with elegant Gaurav Gupta shirts at the store. Evolv and Evoluzione are two different platforms. They are as different as factory finish and hand finish. While the former is about affordable Western-inspired practical dressing, the latter is more about prohibitive couture and occasion dressing. A lot of what’s available at Evolv is designed by top names in the business and manufactured by Evolv Clothing that’s well-established in the world of garment exports by supplying for several leading international brands such as Kenzo, Napapijri, G Star and Faconnable.

“The problem with our designers is they are not able to do numbers. So for the Evolv line this arrangement works. Fashion can reach a lot more people. This strategy has opened up a new avenue for the design fraternity as well. The initial scepticism about the concept has faded and now even senior designers are keen on collaborations. We already have four stores (two in Chennai, one each in Pune and New Delhi) and the fifth store is all set for launch in Ludhiana. We are encouraged by the response. We have seen 100 per cent sell-out in some lines in the first week itself and have gone for re-orders,” smiles Malhotra with a sense of contentment, looking at racks of prêt designs from top designers such as Abraham and Thakore, Malini Ramani, Manish Arora, Namrata Joshipura, Pankaj & Nidhi and a sprinkling of tees and dresses by Spanish brand Desigual.

Well-tuned to the glossy side of fashion as well as the grim side of business, Malhotra’s big move nationally came with the opening of the third Evoluzione store (after Chennai and Bengaluru) in New Delhi at The Kila. “Nobody expected a brand from Chennai to set a benchmark in luxury retail in a mature market where there were already several players. It’s a significant achievement for us. When you move beyond regional boundaries even the designers take you seriously. But having said that they know that Evoluzione has a strong and loyal support base in Chennai. My wife Tina who takes care of the entire sourcing is careful about the unique product mix and specific merchandise for every store.”

Roll out plans

Expansion plans are progressing like the fashion seasons. Over the next five years, Evolv Clothing plans to open 12 to 15 Evoluzione stores and about 40 Evolv outlets. “We have to identify the right locations. While there has been a rapid increase in the number of malls, we do not have enough quality high street destinations. Mall culture has a long way to go before it becomes a serious shopping culture in many parts of the country. These expansion plans include Western markets and some Southeast Asian countries. Indian designs have become a global phenomenon and deserve to be showcased internationally. But for the next three years, the focus is on India where we see maximum growth as both tier 1 and 2 cities show great potential.”

Also on cards is Sepoy, a brand by Evolv Clothing. “The collection is inspired by the various Sepoy regiments of the Princely states. It’s incredible to see the amount of influence this period (around 1857) has had on fashion. We launched it in some international markets (in Moscow and Hong Kong Fashion Week). It will be available at the Evoluzione stores soon.”

Talks with L Capital

As the conversation veers to the much-rumoured talks with L Capital, Malhotra sounds matter-of-fact. “It’s good to know that everybody’s taking notice. L Capital sees us as a forward-thinking group. They approached us because they felt that both Evoluzione and Evolv on a joint platform with some of India’s leading designers will create an opportunity for achieving scale in business. The parent platform of LVMH with a consolidation of several designers and retail formats in Europe has led to phenomenal growth of many brands. Here too, it will greatly benefit Indian designers and multi-brand stores in the category. Since it’s yet to be finalised, I’m not at liberty to discuss any financial detail.”

Designing homes

Real Estate is not something you will relate to someone in the business of fashion. But Malhotra is keen to test waters in what he calls ‘boutique-real estate.’ This involves building limited edition high-end homes, with all the design elements in perfect synchrony. “Work is on at a project on ECR. The architecture-interior are by Vikram Phadke. Evos, the boutique-real estate brand will be another new dimension to our work.”