Unfamiliar Territory for Indian Bridal Industry

Unfamiliar Territory for Indian Bridal Industry

When the Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee debuted his fine jewelry at Bergdorf Goodman in January, he had big plans for promoting his collection. But the coronavirus outbreak forced him and the luxury department-store chain to make some big adjustments.

Social-distancing rules in New York, for example, meant browsing at the Fifth Avenue store had to be relegated to the outside entrance instead of inside the plush jewelry salon for a soon-to-be-engaged couple. And Mr. Mukherjee couldn’t talk about his work in person. His appearance came via a video call in early June from his home in Kolkata, India.

“The launch pop-up had to be cut short because of the pandemic,” he said. “But it was surreal to see wedding jewelry being sold on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue!”

The New Delhi-based designer Tarun Tahiliani also has had to conduct business in a different way. He had his first Zoom fitting in June with a bride from Hyderabad, who after postponing her extravagant April wedding, opted for an intimate ceremony at home.

The hunt for that dream wedding outfit — running your fingers over the gilded embroidery, twirling in front of the mirror during trials and shedding a happy tear when you find “the one” — is a sacrosanct ritual for the Indian bride. Touching and feeling are the very essence of this world. Flagship stores are designed for the tactile experience as meticulously as the handcrafted collections they house. Every turn is a sensory treat, not mere window dressing, but a stage for a rite of passage to unfold.

“The in-store experience will be even more valued after the pandemic,” said Mr. Mukherjee, who plans to open his flagship New York store next year. “Consumer expectations for beautiful, experiential retail stores will continue to rise.”

Mr. Tahiliani also feels that this luxury need not go away. He believes a circumspect approach, with strict adherence to hygiene, safety and an appointments-only policy will do the trick. “The lightness of our bridal pieces defines our brand,” he said. “It’s the bulk of what we stand for. A client cannot gauge the weight of the garment until they try it on. One just cannot duplicate that experience.”

In July 2016, Mr. Mukherjee had skipped the traditional runway shows in favor of showing his collection on social media. So he is no stranger to using his Instagram page as a pseudo-storefront, particularly for his overseas clientele (one-third of his business comes from the United States). The brand is now encouraging the same purchasing pathway in India during the pandemic, complemented by partnerships with select online stores. “Technology and e-commerce will play an increasingly important role in the luxury bridal wear segment,” he said. “But not as a replacement for the in-store experience, rather as an adjunct to it.”

Other designers, however, are placing more serious bets on their online presence as the way forward. Brands have hastened the start of their e-shops, a need made more urgent in the face of waning opportunities to draw prospective brides to stores. Payal Singhal, a Mumbai-based bridal designer, has had to cancel her summer pop-ups and trunk shows in London, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey and Vancouver, British Columbia. “The virtual experience is going to be more important than ever before,” she said. “In 2013, we were one of the first Indian brands to launch an e-commerce platform. We have revamped the front- and back-end, and introduced more products lines during this lockdown. New pieces are now being uploaded every week.”

Mr. Mishra, whose e-store opened on July 7 to coincide with his couture fall 2020-21 release, is emphasizing emotional storytelling to make up for the absence of the original tactile experience. This includes documenting production processes and capturing the journey of a design that could eventually become someone’s wedding outfit. “We are also working with interactive communication tools like intricate illustrations and imagery to highlight those minute aspects of a garment that can otherwise be missed when you’re looking at it through a screen,” he added.

Ms. Dongre and Mr. Tahiliani both say that brides have adapted to online shopping and virtual consultations with relative ease. “People in India are not used to buying expensive things online, unless there is a proper customer interface with a couture team or certain store managers,” Mr. Tahiliani said. “Our sales team has quickly adapted to this need of the hour.”

Most labels have two bridal collections a year, with seven to 75 designs in each line. But the last half of 2020 will be different. The plan for many is to reintroduce Spring-Summer ’20 collections that did not receive the usual spotlight they might have had.

Ms. Dongre and Mr. Mukherjee will stick to their made-to-measure model, but probably require longer lead time. That’s not to say that bespoke will be relegated to bottom-drawer status. Mr. Mishra predicts shoppers being more enthusiastic about artisanal value, seeking their own customization.

Mr. Tahiliani’s bridal wear is divided into ready-to-wear and couture. For the latter, he showcases 10 to 12 samples annually along with archival swatches and panels, all of which can be fully customized. With weddings trending smaller, he said, he is confident brides will choose more subtle looks over blingy ones.

“We can now give brides more refined thread work and exquisite detailing that can be appreciated up close rather than under the harsh lights of banquet halls where bigger weddings usually took place,” he said. “So, I expect our couture to be much finer than ever before.”

The Legacy of Craft

The Indian textile and apparel industry employs 45 million people directly and 60 million indirectly, making it the country’s second largest employment-generator after agriculture. Karigars (or craftsmen) at the grass root level are the backbone of this business — handmade and labor-intensive bridal wear is heavily dependent on their specialized skills in Indigenous crafts.

But faced with the current crisis, scores of migrant workers have chosen to return to their villages, leaving ateliers with skeletal staff to fill orders. Mr. Tahiliani’s in-house work force of 500 has been reduced to less than half its strength, so he is now organizing new centers in rural sectors with his old craftsmen. This decentralization of operations has allowed Mr. Mishra to resume production with 70 percent of his team (he says he employs about 1,000 artisans directly or indirectly). The designer championed “reverse migration” six years ago, urging his embroiderers to move back to their villages, while still working with them continually. “We now employ many such craft clusters around the country, which consist of communities working from their homes in their villages,” he said.

Some in the industry say there may be a shift in Indian celebrations.

“Weddings might just go back to what they were meant to be — more sober and toned-down, which will have a different symbolism than the great big fat Indian wedding,” Mr. Tahiliani said. “The luxury clothing sector will be affected more than we can imagine, and fashion must readjust its outlook. This is not the time for frothy celebrations.”

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Posted by Krin Rodriquez

Passionate for technology and social media, ex Silicon Valley insider.