Fashion

Satya Paul and the new rules of retail

A snapshot of Satya Paul’s new store   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Opening new stores at a troubled time may seem counter-intuitive, but there is enough historic precedence to show that it is actually a smart thing for retail businesses to do.

This is why I was not surprised to be invited to the opening of the newly-remodelled Satya Paul store at Delhi’s DLF Promenade mall in September.

Far-sighted businesspeople know that property becomes more accessible when a calamity, let’s say a global pandemic, hits and smaller players are forced out. They also know that however long it lasts, there will be a time when human nature will become inured to its horrific reality, and shop. We will always shop to mark our personal and family milestones, and to feel alive.

With this realisation, I look at the story of brand Satya Paul’s revival with great interest. And if we allow ourselves to, the Indian fashion industry can learn a lot from this iconic label’s new direction.

“The first thing we did,” says Darshan Mehta, President and CEO of Reliance Brands (RBL), “was to shrink the label almost to half its market size”. This process began in April 2019 after Reliance Brands upped its investment in Genesis Colors, Satya Paul’s holding company. By June, designer Rajesh Pratap Singh had come on board as Creative Director.

Darshan Mehta, President and CEO of Reliance Brands

Darshan Mehta, President and CEO of Reliance Brands   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Before the hiring of one of India’s most talented designers, though, were the Dark Ages; a decade or so when Satya Paul’s brand name, made iconic by the founder’s groundbreaking saris since the mid-1980s, stood diluted with badly-regulated franchisees across the land and indiscriminately offered product categories. These ranged from logo-ed wallets and tie pins to cut pieces of cheap digital prints on Chinese satins, crepes, and georgettes. Corporate gifting catalogues touted ready boxes of tie-pocket square-cuff links combos sourced from our infamously productive neighbour nation, while the in-house design team tried feebly to break into the wedding market with digital-printed ‘couture’ lehengas and gowns. It was a Pierre Cardin situation. And bringing hot young talent Masaba on board in 2012 didn’t help either, because she never truly had the run of the brand.

Most Indian designers who have been around for a few years will resonate with these struggles. But today, with the industry as a whole having suffered first the exodus of its artisans during the CAA-NRC debacle and then facing the realities of a global pandemic for a year and a half, Satya Paul’s long struggles can become teachable moments.

The big clean-up

“Given the history of the brand, we had to do something drastic,” adds Mehta. “As part of the new strategy, we began cleaning up the market.” Consequently, the label closed all of its franchisees, and even bought back stock from the distributors who would sell to MBOs, no matter which collection or season it belonged to.

From the collection

From the collection   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We needed to go back to the beating heart of the brand,” says Mehta. And this is where Rajesh Pratap Singh came in. In terms of design, Singh went back to the brand archives, pulling out old examples of the founder’s work with the weavers of Benaras and Telangana, as well as his floral prints and his experiments with colour and printmaking. “How would Mr Paul design ready-to-wear if he were here now? What can we do with the medium of digital printing without making it excessive and, therefore, meaningless?” are some of the questions that he asked, and answered through his first two collections for the label.

“We went back to the Ikat weavers Mr Paul had worked with and made double-palla saris in double Ikat, as well as a whole line of Jamdanis in floral Art Nouveau motifs that we dug up from the archives,” he adds. “Likewise, we did Khaduas and a few Phekwas from Benaras inspired by Mr Paul’s floral motifs. Printmaking came with a load of history and baggage, so the first thing was to clean up the palate. These are not seasonal products; this is an ongoing process,” says Singh.

Making of a global Indian brand?

Today, with its numerous franchisees closed and its owned stores going through makeovers, Satya Paul’s retail presence across India is beginning to look more like the tightly-managed brick-and-mortar strategies employed by luxury brands that concentrate on experiential touch points rather than chasing numbers. “I have become tired and a little defensive about a question that has been coming at me for the last 20 years: why isn’t there a luxury brand coming out of India? Now I feel it’s time we give a fitting answer, even if it takes two or five or 10 years,” says Mehta.

Rajesh Pratap Singh

Rajesh Pratap Singh   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

To do this, he has a two-pronged approach. Giving Singh complete freedom to take the brand forward in a direction in keeping with the earliest values of the label — bold prints, colour, and luxury — while restraining the retail spaces. “The store at Promenade in Delhi is already open, and we’re opening a flagship at the new Jio World Drive Mall soon. Another store will open at Delhi’s Khan Market in late November…” he lists. “We’re looking at around 10 to 12 locations at the most.”

For Singh, it’s a strategy that works, whether it’s for Satya Paul or in general. “We’ve been told for so long that physical retail is on its way out and everything is going online, but the truth is that when it comes to luxury fashion, people do want to come and interact with what they intend to buy,” he says. The key, apart from great service and storytelling by the sales staff, is to bring people into the brand universe.

Satya Paul’s new store

Satya Paul’s new store   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It is a straightforward strategy that will need time to prove itself, as does anything that the stakeholders are willing to commit to. Perhaps, amid the new wave of Indian brands being acquired by corporate bigwigs like Reliance Brands and the Aditya Birla Group, it can show India’s fashion designers the way forward when it comes to making their mark in retail. And before we chalk it up to the money such companies bring, we must remember that the designer labels being acquired today are the ones who remained steadfast to their creative visions. Even when they stumbled and fell, remember that they got up again and again.


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 9:03:28 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fashion/satya-paul-retail-new-delhi-dlf-promenade-2021-fashion/article37002559.ece

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