Sunday, August 18, 2013

Exclusive: Inside India’s Big $38 Billion Wedding Market

By Jacky Maker / INN Bureau

On a recent trip to India to explore the country’s sizable wedding market, BoF editor-in-chief Ian Amed spoke to top designers, show organisers, media executives and former brides to learn why weddings are such big business in this fast-rising country of 1.2 billion people.

While the rest of the fashion world may have entered its late summer slumber, India’s fashion industry is gearing up for its prime time moment: the unfathomably large, opulent and over-the-top Indian wedding season.
Depending on whose numbers you believe, there are somewhere between one and ten million weddings in India each year. Last November, on a particularly auspicious date on the Hindu calendar, a staggering 60,000 weddings took place in New Delhi alone ­— all in one evening — bringing traffic in the city to a standstill.

The non-stop nuptials won’t begin in earnest until October, when the monsoon rains have disappeared and the summer heat has melted away, reaching a crescendo in November and December, and then again in the spring. But in preparation for this year’s wedding bonanza, Indian designers have already been meeting with would-be brides and their families at luxury bridal fairs and expositions held across the country over the last few weeks.

I landed in India just in time to take in the first of two back-to-back fashion weeks in New Delhi, where the country’s leading designers show their bridal and “couture” collections in runway extravaganzas that start with elaborate sets evoking everything from Pompeii at the height of the Roman Empire to mythical Kashmiri Lotus flowers and end with “showstopper” runway appearances by Bollywood’s biggest stars. But the designers I spoke to also seemed to be charting a longer-term course for a wedding market that is showing the early signs of change, after years of heady bridal fever.

Opulent Events
Each year, around 2,000 high-end weddings take place in India. These are multi-day extravaganzas that defy the Western imagination, complete with pyrotechnics, performances by gyrating Bollywood actors and international music stars, and thousands upon thousands of invited guests.

“The Indian wedding is the Indian wedding is the Indian wedding. There is nothing that comes close to it,” said superstar fashion designer Rohit Bal over breakfast the day after his bridal show in New Delhi. “Where else can you show off your extravagance, your opulence, your wealth?”

And, each year, these weddings seem to become more and more over the top, as prominent families aim to outdo each other with even more elaborate events, more exotic destinations, more expensive clothes and fine jewelry.

There was one wedding in particular that seemed to be front of mind for many of the people I spoke to. In June 2011, up to 6,000 guests reportedly attended the wedding reception of then 21 year old Mallika Reddy, daughter of a prominent Hyderabadi industrialist, to Siddarth Reddy, scion of the Indu Group, an infrastructure and real estate conglomerate.

Held in an “arena” next to the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, a special air-taxi service was arranged for VIP guests, including A-list Bollywood stars Amitabh Bacchhan, Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Rani Mukerjee. The three-day event was followed by a grand wedding reception in New Delhi, attended by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

For India’s ultra high net worth individuals, it seems no gift is too lavish and no event is too opulent during wedding season. Budgets for a high-end Indian wedding can easily reach around $2 million, including the cost of events, travel, food, clothing and especially jewellery. Each year, in India, there are dozens and dozens of weddings which cost $10 million or more. Several websites reported that the Reddy wedding cost more than 100 crore rupees, or a staggering $16 million at current exchange rates.

Finally, much of this is spent in cash. “A lot of our clients have got so much undeclared wealth, where else will they spend it?” asks  Bal. “They have to spend it somewhere and this is the only place they can spend it, undisclosed.” Vijay Singh, chairman of India Bridal Fashion Week, concurs. “In India, there is a lot of black money, so cheque writing happens less.”

Celebrating Family Alliances
“Historically big Indian weddings were a result of marriages being more of a ‘transaction’ than a bond of love,” says my friend Shaana Levy, a film producer who in March was married to Uraaz Bahl in a lavish — but by Indian standards, restrained — ceremony at the sprawling Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur.

“Families chose a partner for their children based on economic and social standing,” she says. “To celebrate these ‘alliances,’ big celebrations were expected more as a display of wealth and power.”

Even today Indian weddings are about more than just the nuptials of a bride and a groom. “The maharajas started this culture. Weddings weren’t just about the girl getting married to the boy, it was about one kingdom getting married to another kingdom,” adds  Bal. “Today, it is one family getting married to another family. It is the amalgamation and merger of two large business homes.”

Indeed, the now infamous Reddy wedding in Hyderabad was the coming together of two of the city’s most prominent industrial families. So while the golden era of maharajas may have ended, and many Indians now have so-called “love marriages,” they continue this tradition of opulent weddings for social competition, to enhance social standing in a public show of force.

“It’s this constant class struggle,” says designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who dressed Ms. Levy for her wedding reception and is one of the biggest players in the Indian wedding market. “There is royalty. Then there is old money. Then there is new money trying to look like old money. Then there is new money. Then there is new, new money, and very, very new money. Then there is upper middle class, and middle class. And everybody wants to move upwards.”

The World’s Biggest Bridal Market
According to Alex Kuruvilla, president of Condé Nast India, the average Indian spends a staggering one-fifth of the wealth accumulated in his lifetime on a son or daughter’s wedding, second only to the investment made in the family home.

Combine this long-standing tradition with the desire for upwards social mobility and a rapidly developing economy with hundreds of millions of newly affluent consumers entering the market, and you have a wedding business estimated to be worth $38 billion a year, according to figures provided to BoF by Condé Nast India.

At current growth rates of 25 to 30 percent annually, the Indian bridal industry will become the largest wedding market anywhere in the world within two years, surpassing the American wedding market, estimated to be worth around $50 billion annually.

It’s not surprising, then, that local and international players are trying to get in on the action, and the market is slowly becoming more structured.  Singh, set up India Bridal Fashion Week in Mumbai in 2010, and in the same year a “Couture Fashion Week” was created under the remit of the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), providing an additional showcase for bridal clothing and jewellery in New Delhi.

“Up until then, we did not have any platform for showcasing bridal couture in this country,” explains  Singh, whose main business in in the luxury hospitality sector, organising between 80 and 90 luxury weddings every year. “In the last 5 days more than 12,000 people have visited our exposition, and we have come to know, whose wedding is where, when it will take place. This generates a lot of leads for us to convert into luxury weddings.”

Earlier this year, Condé Nast got into the action too.  Kuruvilla staged the first ever “Vogue Wedding Show” exhibition and published an accompanying “Vogue Wedding Book”, featuring some of the very top names from across the Indian bridal industry.

“We believe that Vogue has the ability to connect the most affluent Indian families to the best brands in the bridal space,” he says, calling it one of the venerable fashion media brand’s most innovative brand extensions.

A Gold Rush and Couture-Level Pricing
The single biggest part of the Indian wedding industry is the buying and selling of gold jewellery. India is the biggest consumer of gold in the world and according to Vipin Sharma, the World Gold Council’s director of jewellery for the Indian market, about 50 percent of India’s gold demand can be attributed to weddings, which means more than 400 tonnes of gold is exchanged at weddings in India each year, making it the single largest component of the Indian wedding market, worth around $25 billion a year, about 60 percent of the total wedding market.

“Gold is a natural hedge against inflation. It is a luxury product. It is an expression of self in terms of what a bride wants to express as her own identity. And, it also has a religious connotation to it and is auspicious,” explains  Sharma. “But above all, it is a store of wealth. It’s the wealth that gets accumulated during weddings, passed down from generation to generation.”

The sheer scale of gold jewellery at Indian weddings boggles the mind. The bride’s jewellery at an average high-end wedding in India will have pieces which are $10,000 to $40,000 each, with an overall budget of about $200,000 spent on jewellery alone. “If you go to the weddings of ultra high net worth individuals, jewellery pieces of $500,000 or $1 million would not be surprising,” adds  Sharma.

Likewise, the clothing budget alone for a high-end Indian wedding can easily surpass $500,000, with scores of people to dress from the families of both the bride and the groom for multiple events that can span more than a week. A top-end, heavily-encrusted bridal lengha alone can cost up to $100,000, putting it in the same league as haute couture prices in Paris.

“If you go to the top fifty designers in India, and you look at the main contributors of their business, you will find that sixty to eighty percent of their business is in bridal couture,” says  Singh.

Here in India, there are hundreds of bridal designers and tens of thousands of tailors and seamstresses working with families on wedding outfits at any given time. But there are only a handful of top designers who operate at the couture level, serving the ultra high net worth individuals who make the phrase “big fat Indian wedding” seem like an understatement.

Couture-Level Designers
There is the elusive and exclusive duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, who tend to work only with the very top Bollywood stars and business moguls and, reportedly, do not reveal the prices of their garments until after they have been delivered. Then, there is the thoughtful and principled Anamika Khanna, who approaches her work like an artist, which has made her something of the Indian designers’ designer. And we must not forget Manish Malhotra, the go-to guy for many of Bollywood’s leading names.

But the three very biggest stars of India’s bridal business are undoubtedly Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, whose very involvement can add serious cachet to a high-end wedding. They are so famous in India that they are treated like veritable rock stars — and each has his own signature style and business model for tapping into the $38 billion domestic wedding market.

 Bal, a native of Kashmir, is known for using age-old Indian village crafts and other traditional techniques to create some of the most spectacular and beautiful garments I have ever seen, anywhere in the world.

Although he declined to reveal his prices, he did say they “are the most expensive in the country,” attributing this to the craftsmanship and bespoke nature of his clothing. The day before we spoke, as part of India Bridal Fashion Week,  Bal showed an intricate collection of brightly-hued shibori tie-dye caftans with hundreds of individual panels and transformed the purest of Indian muslin into mastercraft, pairing it with antique gold kasab embroidery from Kashmir.

“I don’t do anything off–the-rack. When a bride or groom or their families come to us, we make it just for them. It takes about thirty or forty people about three or four months to make an outfit for a bride or a groom,” he explains.

Though the word “couture” is often misused, it’s certainly true that the amount of skill, handwork and time that goes into these incredible Indian garments puts them in the same league as the very best garments from haute couture houses in Europe, albeit with very different aesthetics and silhouettes.

 Bal’s show, of course, ended with the traditional Indian showstopper: the appearance of a major Bollywood star — in this case, the stunning Sonam Kapoor, who is possibly the only Bollywood star to have a sense of style and credibility that translates on a global level. As she shimmied down the runway in a signature Rohit Bal bridal lengha to the sounds of “Aa jaane jaan” from a 1969 Hindi film, the crowd exploded with delight.

“I’ve sold that lengha about 25 times already,” reports  Bal, acknowledging the power of Bollywood to sell fashion in this country. “And it doesn’t have even one millimeter of bling. It is all dull, beaten, gold tilla from Kashmir. I surrounded it with two very blingy outfits, because people should know I can do that too. But for me, what Sonam was wearing — that is who I am.”

A few days later, I sat down with Tarun Tahiliani, another of the industry’s biggest stars, at the Mumbai edition of his annual bridal exposition, held at the Four Seasons Hotel. So expansive and successful is his business that global companies, including DeBeers, the World Gold Council and Johnnie Walker had also set up booths at the event, in order to engage with the elite clientele that  Tahliani is able to draw.

“People don’t dress up for the day at all,” explains  Tahliani, when asked about the Indian craze for weddings. “They only dress up to go the parties or to weddings — and the wedding is the big thing,” he continues. “It encompasses the black tie event, the museum opening, the gala benefit — all in one. All of the things that people would wear couture or evening gowns to abroad only happens around the wedding. There is nothing else [that compares].”

What’s more, women who might normally dress in the latest Western fashions usually adopt a more conservative, Indian style when it comes to their wedding, something that Sabyasachi Mukherjee has specifically targeted with his use of colours, silhouettes and embellishments which harken back to tradition.

“We have schizophrenic brides who come to our store in [Western] leather skirts,” says  Mukherjee. “But on the day of their wedding they say, ‘No, I want to wear the full-sleeve blouse with my head covered.’ It’s role play in a way, but they like that role play.”

And finally, there are the boys. “Men in India are also suddenly realising the importance of being Indian on special occasions. They are not ready to wear a bandhgala with trousers any more, they want to wear them with a churidhar. They want to wear achkans and adhrakaz,” says  Mukherjee, referring to traditional Indian garments.

Raghavendra Rathore, one of India’s leading menswear designers, is known for his elegant bandhgala blazers and traditional jodhpuri trousers for the male side of the wedding party. At a big wedding,  Rathore can create up to 60 outfits for the groom, his brothers, and friends. And for the most demanding customers, he offers customised diamond, emerald and ruby buttons and bejeweled turbans and swords.

Opportunities for International Luxury Brands
The Indian luxury market — and, in particular, the market for traditional outfits for weddings and religious holidays — has been notoriously difficult for international brands to crack, in part because of the choke-hold that local players have.

“What’s working for [international brands] is trousseau and accessories, but they’ve still not really been able to make a dent in the Indian bridal market,” says  Mukherjee. “India is so steeped in culture and tradition, that no amount of Western influence is going to completely eradicate it.”

 Bal agrees. “It would be like taking coal to the castle,” he quips. “There is nothing they can do that we can’t do better here. I don’t think any Western designer can make Indian clothes for an Indian bride.”

But modern brides are also breaking out of traditional moulds. “The modern Indian bride is more discerning and a custodian of her own wedding,” says Alex Kuruvilla, president of Condé Nast India. “She is well informed and aware of the international trends and luxury brands. While the basic traditional outfit and jewellery on the wedding days stays true to Indian origin, a modern bride gets to personalise and customise her trousseau, as well as the gifts that are given to her family.”

Some international brands are making a go of it — and succeeding — in particular by collaborating with local players, or offering customisation and personalisation services, which are expected in a culture where everyone has a tailor and everyone has custom-made clothes.

American accessories designer Judith Leiber teamed up with well known bridal designer Suneet Verma to create bejewelled clutches for brides to pair with his signature sequin-covered saris and lenghas. Meanwhile, Jimmy Choo now allows Indian brides to customise their shoes. MAC cosmetics has also started selling special make-up kits for Indian brides-to-be.

A Market Shift Away From Opulence?
The rise of the modern bride is also contributing to an incipient, but noticable shift away from opulence and excess, something that many of the players I spoke to acknowledged. If it gains momentum, this shift poses potential challenges for many of India’s top designers, who have built their businesses on the country’s bridal market and who have become accustomed to charging whatever price they fancy

“We are feeding on greed, because we know we have a market we can prey on, but slowly this will all change,” says  Mukherjee. “Whenever there is overabundance, there will always be a group of people who are influencers or social leaders who will go against the grain to start a new anti-trend that in ten years will become mainstream. Right now, the fringe trend is doing non-ostentatious weddings which are cultural; which are classy. Not inviting 5,000 people, and just calling 10 or 15 people.”

“Demand for very, very expensive clothes is slowly thinning out, for many reasons,” he continues. “The younger Indian is far more socially aware and responsible than their parents, so now they have started making smart choices. They are not as blinded by society at large as their parents are. This is one of the reasons why we are looking at price point corrections in the wedding market” in response to a growing sophistication and taste.

My friend Shaana Levy, a recent bride herself, concurs. “Our generation and the generations to come are definitely more aware of the wastage and costs that often go into the more traditional ‘big fat indian wedding,’” she says. “They would much rather spend that money on an amazing honeymoon, a new home, a new business venture, donate towards a good cause,” she continues. “Uraaz and I consciously decided to have a more intimate wedding surrounded only by the people who we loved and adored rather than base our guest list on business associates and distant extended family we never see.”

This is consistent with evolving consumer behaviour in other developing markets, like Brazil and China, where luxury customers are also growing in confidence, taste, culture, refinement and education levels.

“A lot of us, as designers, got carried away with this idea of bling, and crystal, and diamond and diamante and lost track of a certain serenity, calmness,” says Rohit Bal. “Understated elegance is forgotten in India. It’s very easy to put a million crystals on a garment, and make it look blingy, but not nice. It’s very difficult to make a garment look as spectacular without the bling.”

“Today, you can make a great bridal business by just being obnoxiously expensive,” agrees  Mukherjee. “It’s going to be hell for us. When [consumers] become more and more confident, it will become harder for us to peddle our wares. But it has to eventually happen,” he asserts. “You never know. Fabindia might one day be the biggest player in the wedding market,” he says, jokingly, referring to the country’s fast-growing purveyor of simple, Indian clothing made of cotton and linen.

Then again,  Mukherjee’s 1.4 million rupee lengha, made with real silver zardozi, was also the very first piece to sell at the inaugural Vogue Wedding Show, held earlier this year. And for the parents and grandparents, who are heavily involved in wedding planning, old standards prevail. “In the wedding market, there are two parameters: one is weight, and one is price. People judge quality and aesthetic value by virtue of how much it costs and how much it physically weighs,” says Mukherjee. “Mothers will come in and say, ‘It’s not heavy enough.’”

Indeed, it seems that while early adopters are shifting away from the excess of traditional high-end Indian weddings, a market correction is still some ways off. As long as family elders are in charge of planning (and paying the bills for) extravangant weddings, they will also be key decision-makers when it comes to selecting outfits. And, for now, the Indian luxury bridal market looks likely to boom for the forseeable future.