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Why Aditya Birla Fashion is buying stakes in high-end designer brands

Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL) has bought significant stakes in luxury couture businesses of fashion designers Sabyasachi and Tarun Tahiliani. What is the business rationale? Read on

March 11, 2021 / 08:17 AM IST
The opportunity in Indian wear, or ethnic wear as it is often called, has come to the attention of corporate and private equity investors over the last few years. (Image:

The opportunity in Indian wear, or ethnic wear as it is often called, has come to the attention of corporate and private equity investors over the last few years. (Image:

To up for an occasion, women can get away with a beautiful saree, kajal, and flowers, said Tarun Tahiliani. Most men, in his view, have to choose from contrasting options such as western shirts or 'maharaja' glad rags. “There is a lovely space in between, a kind of contemporary Indian style, which has not reached them yet.”

The couturier—known for pairing Indian silhouettes with modern construction and layering—intends to fill that gap on the racks with a new ready-to-wear brand of celebration wear for men. “The pieces themselves will be toned down and elegant so they can be styled as needed.”

This foray into retail is through a recent Rs 67 crore deal with Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFRL), which Tahiliani describes as the yang to his yin. The partners expect to build a business worth Rs 500 crore in the next five years with 250 stores, the first of which will open in September.

The Mumbai-based designer’s pret menswear typically brings in anywhere from Rs 40,000 to Rs 4 lakh a piece. The unnamed new brand, where he will hold a 20 percent stake while the corporate partner will own the remaining 80 percent, will be in the more affordable bridge-to-luxury category. ABFRL also acquired 33.5 percent of Tahiliani’s existing couture label.

Big Bets

For ABFRL, this is the latest in a series of bets on Indian wear by celebrity designers. It bought a 51 percent stake in Sabyasachi for Rs 398 crore in January, and in 2019, it struck a partnership with designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil. “Acquisitions of majority stakes with designers allows the group to tap into the designer’s creative steam and goodwill, while providing the financial and organisational muscle of a large corporate,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy Third Eyesight. “The challenge will be ensuring that each of the brands maintains its distinctive identity and handwriting, while deriving the benefits of being part of a larger group.”

The opportunity in Indian wear, or ethnic wear as it is often called, has come to the attention of corporate and private equity investors over the last few years. It is a US$19 billion market as of 2020, according to Technopak Advisors. By most accounts, at least 70 percent of it still remains unorganised, dominated by unbranded stores and tailors.

The premium-end of the market is growing at 10 percent, Technopak notes. “Given ethnic wear sees no competition from global brands, it is a natural choice for investments,” points out Abha Agarwal who co-heads the consumer vertical at Avendus Capital. Where the majority of Indian wear offerings are aimed at women, men’s wear remains a smaller piece, so far dominated by brands like Manyavar. Various religious festivals and even Republic Day and Independence Day — in a nationalism-charged environment — are viewed as fresh occasions for marketing Indian wear.

Importantly, weddings becoming bigger and fatter has boosted growth and acceptance of the segment. “Each wedding is 2-3 days long now and you need different outfits for all the events — mehendi, sangeet, the vows,” explained Yash Dongre, business head for House of Anita Dongre. “So Indian designer wear is finally being looked at as a serious business.” Anita Dongre, who popularised gota patti-embellished lehengas and jackets, was among the first Indian couturiers to scale up and raise institutional funds.

Thriving Business

Apart from her eponymous label, the company launched ethnic fusion wear brand Global Desi and AND-branded western wear with investments from retailer Future Group and private equity firm General Atlantic.

With Indian wear accounting for 60 percent of its offerings, House of Anita Dongre says it is growing about 20-25 percent year on year. Beyond bespoke bridal outfits, which take time to make, half its collections are kurtas, tunics and sarees that are picked up anywhere between Rs 12,000 and Rs 70,000 apiece.

After Sabyasachi deal, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail announces strategic partnership with designer Tarun Tahiliani

The company plans to grow those offerings especially in its online business, which it hopes to double over the next months. Dongre paints the expansion of more players as both competition and an advantage. Noting the example of districts like Delhi’s Mehrauli or Banjara Hills in Hyderabad, he says, “Established and emerging designers have set up shop there and that generates traffic for everyone in the area. This will only get everyone to up their game.”

For designers, translating high fashion for a mass retail format without diluting their brand’s ethos can be a delicate dance. “I am conscious about the environment so I was clear about no compromises like using polyester,” said Anju Modi. She chose to partner with handloom-friendly chain Biba, which has about 255 stores countrywide, creating designs with 'ikat', 'bandhini' and block-printed cottons which are easy to reproduce in large numbers. “In my atelier, all our time and money is focused on developing products with a scientific attention to detail. So to market and distribute at scale I knew I needed to collaborate.”

Why Partnerships Make Sense

Buoyed by demand, more designers are seeking partners to share the high spends involved in marketing and opening stores. “Although my brand was among the first to have an online shop, I took a conservative approach to store openings,” said couturier Neeta Lulla, well-known for draping Bollywood stars.

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“I see the market and scalability today, and am open to experimenting and restructuring.”

Not just within India, she said top traditional wear designers have a big market in NRIs who are buying online.

There are challenges in the segment, however. The unorganised part of the Indian wear market is still huge, especially in the low to mid-value, noted Technopak’s Amit Gugnani. Further, demand is not uniform as the preferred colours and fabrics vary from region to region. “There is so much heterogeneity in the way India is geographically, you may need product differentiation or else remain in niche geographies,” he added.

The pandemic too brings a note of caution to future plans. Raymond, which launched its Ethnix brand in 2017, says it saw double-digit sales growth except in 2020. The disruption of the last 10-12 months has meant expansion of that ready-to-wear chain, with 32 stores currently, is currently on hold.

Tahiliani said the initial store rollout will be slow and steady as the two partners work on production, marketing campaigns, an online store, and testing customer reaction. But the designer is convinced the future is in retailing. “No one has the time or energy to choose fabrics and go to the tailor. People want to see, they want to try, and then buy. That’s the way of the world now.”

Ranjita Ganesan is a journalist and researcher based in Mumbai.