Strong Indian appetite for Western fashion

High street stores such as Gap from the US are zooming into India to tap the growing middle class and one of the youngest populations in the world.
High street stores such as Gap from the US are zooming into India to tap the growing middle class and one of the youngest populations in the world. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW DELHI • Rifling through sweaters in India's first Gap store in a glitzy New Delhi mall, 21-year-old Ridhi Goel says her grandmother does not mind how she dresses, as long as it is not too revealing.

"She's fine with me wearing Western clothes such as a shirt, but not jeans and a cropped top," said the journalism student, her grey leggings contrasting sharply with her mother's colourful kurta. "All my family members wear Indian clothes, but I find them too uncomfortable. I think maybe there is a generational divide."

Most women in India still wear traditional dress such as saris or salwar kameez, but the picture is changing and on city streets, dazzling silks mingle with logoed T-shirts and jeans.

Young people's appetite for Western clothes has led a fresh flurry of foreign brands to open stores in India in the past few months, including American chain Gap and Sweden's H&M.

Others are expanding fast, including popular Spanish retailer Zara and British high-street staple Marks & Spencer, which last month opened its 50th shop in India, its biggest market outside Britain.

Urbanisation, a growing middle class, rising disposable incomes and one of the youngest populations in the world make India hard to ignore.

"The time has come for Western wear to have exponential growth," Mr J. Suresh, managing director of textile group Arvind Lifestyle Brands, Gap's partner in India, said. "If you look at any girl born after 1990, she will be wearing Western wear. That is the generation coming into college, their first job. They will be completely in Western wear."

While globally, women are the biggest shoppers, in India, men's clothing dominates, with 42 per cent of the US$38-billion (S$54billion) market last year, according to consultancy Technopak.

Shoppers are also younger - the average customer targeted by Gap in its US stores is 35 years old, but his Indian counterpart is five to 10 years younger, Mr Suresh said.

Gap had a head start in India, thanks to Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, whose ubiquitous orange hoodie in 1990s hit Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens) handed the brand a ready- made following.

But it is young Indian women, increasingly affluent and joining the workforce in expanding numbers, who are driving change, with data showing sales of womenswear growing faster than menswear.

And while Western clothes make up only about a quarter of Indian womenswear, their sales are outpacing those of traditional dress.

A Marks & Spencer spokesman cited its Indigo denim range and lingerie as two of its best-performing lines in India, with more than 300,000 bras sold in 2014 - 2015.

Mr Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a retail consultancy in Delhi, said: "As an increasing number of women move into white-collar and blue-collar roles, they are also adopting Western attire."

More negatively, media stereotypes of overseas fashion as a proxy for "a modern thought process" and conversely, Indian clothing as "backward or repressive, certainly are an important influencer", he added.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is famous for wearing a short- sleeved kurta, he is in the minority among India's men. They already dress predominantly in Western clothes, as do children, whose parents see it as a practical choice for school uniforms.

For foreign brands, fast-growing India is a welcome change from sluggish markets such as Britain and a loosening of foreign direct investment laws has made it easier to open shops.

Yet the retail landscape in India is hard to navigate, leading some entrants, including British department store Debenhams, to pull out.

Foreign newcomers also face competition from Indian-owned, Western-style brands such as Allen Solly or Louis Philippe, which are more familiar with the nuances of the market.

The successful ones adapt their ranges - Marks & Spencer "stretches" its seasons to cater for the long Indian summer and offers polo shirts in four times as many colours as in Britain.

Others aggressively cut prices. In a country where the average monthly wage is US$215, according to 2012 figures from the International Labour Organization, brands that are mid-market in Europe or the US become much higher end in India.

Dressed in a pink polo shirt and jeans in the capital's new H&M store, airline officer Sunil Bassi, 49, says he is "not fussy" about his clothes and came to shop for his wife.

"Obviously, Western fashion is very popular. How many people in here do you see wearing Indian clothes?" he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'Strong Indian appetite for Western fashion'. Print Edition | Subscribe