Inside India’s Big Fat $38 Billion Wedding Market, Part 1

On a recent trip to India to explore the country’s sizable wedding market, BoF editor-in-chief Imran 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.

A bridal look by Tarun Tahiliani | Source: Tarun Tahiliani

NEW DELHI, India — 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 Mr 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.”

“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.”

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 Mr 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. Mr 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 Mr 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. Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Singh.

Tomorrow, in part two of “Inside India’s Big Fat $38 Billion Wedding Market,” we examine the top designers that cater to the country’s bridal market, the opportunities for international luxury brands and the forces set to shape the market in the years to come.