Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Close Look: Luxury Epitome Of The Indian Wedding Buffet

By Ria Khan | Mumbai

Slowdown? What slowdown? It’s business as usual for fashion designers and couturiers in the Indian luxury wedding market. Sneha Kapur Manchanda got married to Delhi-based businessman Saurabh Manchanda a year ago, but she still makes it a point to attend ‘luxury wedding exhibitions’, which are mostly held in five-star hotels. “There’s a wedding in the extended family every year. 

One must be up-to-date with the latest trends, after all,” says Kapur-Manchanda. The wedding exhibitions or expos that the likes of Manchanda frequent are events where fashion designers, jewellers, home décor retailers and wedding card printers converge to lure the wealthy.
The slowdown in the economy, rising inflation and a slip-sliding rupee don’t seem to have affected the luxury wedding market in the country. In fact, it is business as usual in the wedding sector and one is tempted to label it ‘recession-proof’. t is said that the cash registers at such events start pinging within minutes of the inauguration.

Nowhere is this buoyancy more striking than in the fashion and designer garments category, where wedding wear is almost synonymous with haute couture or pricey made-to-order clothing. Established fashion designers admit to investing more than half their time and money into ‘ethnic couture’, and younger designers have been quick to follow suit. A few months ago, after focusing on western wear for over a decade, Manish Arora, India’s only export to the Paris Fashion Week, launched a line catering exclusively to Indian wedding wear.

Bridal wear = couture
The Delhi Couture Week, an annual event organised by the Fashion Design Council of India showcasing top Indian designers’ bridal collections, is testament to the link between the fashion industry and wedding wear. Designer Anju Modi, the opening act this season, says that bridal wear accounts for 70% of her business. The market for wedding wear, according to her, is “unchallenged by any other occasion, especially since we do not enjoy many high-profile events like ballets, black-tie dinners and cocktails that follow a dress code.” The sheer number of events that lead up to an Indian wedding and newer trends such as ‘destination weddings’ and theme-based functions, says Modi, call for “a wider range of ensembles and pieces”.

Senior couturier JJ Valaya, who opened India Bridal Week earlier this year, says that the wedding wear industry is “clearly the champion” when it comes to couture in India. “Anyone who is serious about lasting long here will have to get into bridal wear,” says Valaya. The designer’s two main collections, which are released every year, have an 80% ‘ethnic couture’ component. “This is the DNA of Indian haute couture; it cannot be confused with the French concept. There are only a handful of couturiers in Europe, and their designs are worn by only a few hundred women around the world. India, however, is the only country that creates and consumes couture with equal fervour. We do not produce bespoke, extravagant outfits out of a mere love of fashion; we do it due to a real need,” says Valaya.

Varun Bahl, who is known for his stunning wedding wear collections, says that the immaculately finished bridal wear is similar to haute couture. “A lot of emotions are involved, so immense attention is given to details,” he says. The lehengas designed by Bahl cost upwards of Rs 1.5 lakh, but he says that his expansion strategy will keep in mind the Rs 200,000 crore Indian wedding market and that his garments will soon be made available in tier 2 cities at more affordable prices.

Challenges of intricacy
The key strengths of Indian fashion — craft and craftsmanship — are also its biggest challenges. “Getting the correct fit and finish is a challenge as the entire process is very complex,” says Tarun Tahiliani. The designer has close to 900 employees across 54 points of sale in the country and his bridal ensembles cost between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 20 lakh. Tahiliani admits he “was pushed” into designing bridal-wear soon after his debut, in 1990, due to the high demand.

Manish Malhotra, costume designer and wedding couturier to actors such as Kareena Kapoor, recently converted his existing Mumbai store into an exclusive bridal studio and has launched a new flagship store in Delhi that will stock “lighter luxe and wedding wear all under one roof”. Malhotra says that he faces two major challenges when it comes to catering to the wedding wear market: the time required to create not just “glamour”, but also intricate craftsmanship in a market in which demand always exceeds supply, and the high inventory and sampling cost. The designer’s bridal garments start at Rs 2.5 lakh and can go up to Rs 14 lakh.

Young guns
The wedding-wear industry is not completely dominated by the older, established designer set. Nearly 90% of her creations can be classified as wedding wear, says Ridhi Mehra. The 23-year-old was in the news earlier this year after her ornate jumpsuits debuted on stylist-designer Pernia Qureshi’s popular fashion portal Pernia’s Pop-Up Shop. Mehra is already retailing from multi-designer stores in several countries and is a regular at wedding exhibitions. The designer says that innovation is key in a crowded market. “Sabyasachi [Mukherjee] and Anamika [Khanna] aren’t just pricey labels; they are labels because they offer really good products,” she points out.

Quality and contemporariness also characterise Gaurav Gupta’s work. Gupta introduced his unique sari-and-lehenga gowns about five years ago and has already begun retailing them in several tier 2 cities. Wedding wear, he says, contributes about 70% to his turnover. “My garments aren’t entirely ‘Indian’. But Indian customers are now more open to wearing cocktail gowns even for major wedding events, so there’s huge scope in this segment,” Gupta points out.

Innovation has also driven the first wedding wear line to emerge from Bollywood. Last month, Mumbai-based Yash Raj Films launched Diva’ni, a new fashion line, in collaboration with the Delhi-based KBSH Group. Headed by Sanya Dhir, the line will offer a ‘360-degree ethnic-wear solution’ for weddings and garments with a ‘cinematic’ feel. Diva’ni’s offerings will cost between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10 lakh. Bridal wear accounts for about half the turnover of KBSH, a third-generation sari wholesaler and retailer, and it has big hopes pinned on its first branded, global bridal line. “The slowdown hasn’t affected this part of our business,” says Dhir, “but, with this line, we want to make the industry more organised and structured.”

In a highly disorganised industry, jewellery makers such as Jaipur’s Amrapali often have to deal with plagiarisation of designs. “Due to ‘copy-pasting’ off the Internet, designs that were traditionally made in one part of the country are now being made everywhere. This is leading to a loss of originality and an undermining of authentic techniques,” says Tarang Arora, designer and head of international operations at Amrapali. But Amrapali, which has over 2,000 employees and 35 points of sale across five countries, claims to have seen a constant, moderate growth since the slowdown in 2008.

Inbound traffic
It’s not just Indian players who are cashing in. The past few years have seen Italian brands such as Canali create a Nehru-style ‘Nawab jacket’, while French brand Hermès made us a sari. Minauderie designer Judith Leiber has Ganesha- and ‘Maharaja Elephant’-embellished clutches and has also tied up with couturier Suneet Varma. Shoemaker Christian Louboutin now offers a special Indian bridal range, and Austrian firm Swarovski made its foray into the Indian bridal market with its Fall/Winter 2013 collection that features the India-inspired Vaiata range of jewellery and includes a maang tikka. The company’s fashion jewellery is positioned as a ‘stylish and viable’ alternative to gold and diamond jewellery traditionally favoured in India. “I do feel the market will brave the recessed economy to provide room for sales growth and employment opportunities,” says Sukanya Dutta Roy, managing director, Swarovski CGB.

Clearly, the writing is on the banquet wall. “We have stayed relevant for 21 years by focusing on our wedding wear,” says Valaya. “You need to believe in India.”

India Bound Major international wedding planners are now setting up their India operations.

Quintessentially Events and Weddings: The London-based group, which has a global presence, recently roped in Liza Verma, former model, actress and fashion choreographer, to head its India operations. “In a high net worth society, everyone wants to outdo the other,” says Verma. Her clients, she says, spend upwards of Rs 1 crore on a wedding and are very demanding when it comes to seamless coordination. “They check on every detail, including fabric for upholstery, chandeliers, floral arrangements and invitation cards.”

Preston Bailey: Acclaimed American wedding designer Preston Bailey has catered to several celebrity clients, from royal families and Hollywood stars to CEOs and millionaire athletes. Famed for his ability to create jaw-dropping backdrops, Bailey has tied up with Vikaas Gutgutia’s Ferns N Petals, India’s largest floral décor company. “I have had the privilege of doing weddings and events all over the world, but nothing compares to weddings in India. It’s a great platform to explore new 
technologies,” says Bailey.

Sarah Haywood: The UK-based luxury wedding planner and wedding bible author has always been interested in the Indian wedding market. “Most of our clients are ‘international’, in that they, perhaps, have homes and business interests across the globe,” says Haywood, who plans for weddings that cost between half a million to several million dollars. “The worldwide luxury wedding market is becoming fused. Cultural elements are crossing continents and budgets are larger and the celebrations more lavish. The challenge is to ensure that the meaning and significance of the event is not lost or overshadowed.”

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