NEW DELHI, India — Here in India, there are hundreds of bridal designers and tens of thousands of tailors and seamstresses working with families on wedding outfits at any given time. But there are only a handful of top designers who operate at the couture level, serving the ultra high net worth individuals who make the phrase “big fat Indian wedding” seem like an understatement.
There is the elusive and exclusive duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, who tend to work only with the very top Bollywood stars and business moguls and, reportedly, do not reveal the prices of their garments until after they have been delivered. Then, there is the thoughtful and principled Anamika Khanna, who approaches her work like an artist, which has made her something of the Indian designers’ designer. And we must not forget Manish Malhotra, the go-to guy for many of Bollywood's leading names.
But the three very biggest stars of India’s bridal business are undoubtedly Rohit Bal, Tarun Tahiliani and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, whose very involvement can add serious cachet to a high-end wedding. They are so famous in India that they are treated like veritable rock stars — and each has his own signature style and business model for tapping into the $38 billion domestic wedding market.
Mr Bal, a native of Kashmir, is known for using age-old Indian village crafts and other traditional techniques to create some of the most spectacular and beautiful garments I have ever seen, anywhere in the world.
Although he declined to reveal his prices, he did say they “are the most expensive in the country,” attributing this to the craftsmanship and bespoke nature of his clothing. The day before we spoke, as part of India Bridal Fashion Week, Mr Bal showed an intricate collection of brightly-hued shibori tie-dye caftans with hundreds of individual panels and transformed the purest of Indian muslin into mastercraft, pairing it with antique gold kasab embroidery from Kashmir.
“I don’t do anything off–the-rack. When a bride or groom or their families come to us, we make it just for them. It takes about thirty or forty people about three or four months to make an outfit for a bride or a groom,” he explains.
Though the word “couture” is often misused, it’s certainly true that the amount of skill, handwork and time that goes into these incredible Indian garments puts them in the same league as the very best garments from haute couture houses in Europe, albeit with very different aesthetics and silhouettes.
Mr Bal’s show, of course, ended with the traditional Indian showstopper: the appearance of a major Bollywood star — in this case, the stunning Sonam Kapoor, who is possibly the only Bollywood star to have a sense of style and credibility that translates on a global level. As she shimmied down the runway in a signature Rohit Bal bridal lengha to the sounds of “Aa jaane jaan" from a 1969 Hindi film, the crowd exploded with delight.
“I’ve sold that lengha about 25 times already,” reports Mr Bal, acknowledging the power of Bollywood to sell fashion in this country. “And it doesn’t have even one millimeter of bling. It is all dull, beaten, gold tilla from Kashmir. I surrounded it with two very blingy outfits, because people should know I can do that too. But for me, what Sonam was wearing — that is who I am.”
A few days later, I sat down with Tarun Tahiliani, another of the industry’s biggest stars, at the Mumbai edition of his annual bridal exposition, held at the Four Seasons Hotel. So expansive and successful is his business that global companies, including DeBeers, the World Gold Council and Johnnie Walker had also set up booths at the event, in order to engage with the elite clientele that Mr Tahliani is able to draw.
“People don’t dress up for the day at all,” explains Mr Tahliani, when asked about the Indian craze for weddings. “They only dress up to go the parties or to weddings — and the wedding is the big thing,” he continues. “It encompasses the black tie event, the museum opening, the gala benefit — all in one. All of the things that people would wear couture or evening gowns to abroad only happens around the wedding. There is nothing else [that compares].”
What's more, women who might normally dress in the latest Western fashions usually adopt a more conservative, Indian style when it comes to their wedding, something that Sabyasachi Mukherjee has specifically targeted with his use of colours, silhouettes and embellishments which harken back to tradition.
“We have schizophrenic brides who come to our store in [Western] leather skirts,” says Mr Mukherjee. “But on the day of their wedding they say, ‘No, I want to wear the full-sleeve blouse with my head covered.’ It’s role play in a way, but they like that role play.”
And finally, there are the boys. “Men in India are also suddenly realising the importance of being Indian on special occasions. They are not ready to wear a bandhgala with trousers any more, they want to wear them with a churidhar. They want to wear achkans and adhrakaz,” says Mr Mukherjee, referring to traditional Indian garments.
Raghavendra Rathore, one of India’s leading menswear designers, is known for his elegant bandhgala blazers and traditional jodhpuri trousers for the male side of the wedding party. At a big wedding, Mr Rathore can create up to 60 outfits for the groom, his brothers, and friends. And for the most demanding customers, he offers customised diamond, emerald and ruby buttons and bejeweled turbans and swords.
Opportunities for International Luxury Brands
The Indian luxury market — and, in particular, the market for traditional outfits for weddings and religious holidays — has been notoriously difficult for international brands to crack, in part because of the choke-hold that local players have.
“What’s working for [international brands] is trousseau and accessories, but they’ve still not really been able to make a dent in the Indian bridal market,” says Mr Mukherjee. “India is so steeped in culture and tradition, that no amount of Western influence is going to completely eradicate it.”
Mr Bal agrees. “It would be like taking coal to the castle,” he quips. “There is nothing they can do that we can’t do better here. I don’t think any Western designer can make Indian clothes for an Indian bride.”
But modern brides are also breaking out of traditional moulds. “The modern Indian bride is more discerning and a custodian of her own wedding,” says Alex Kuruvilla, president of Condé Nast India. “She is well informed and aware of the international trends and luxury brands. While the basic traditional outfit and jewellery on the wedding days stays true to Indian origin, a modern bride gets to personalise and customise her trousseau, as well as the gifts that are given to her family.”
Some international brands are making a go of it — and succeeding — in particular by collaborating with local players, or offering customisation and personalisation services, which are expected in a culture where everyone has a tailor and everyone has custom-made clothes.
American accessories designer Judith Leiber teamed up with well known bridal designer Suneet Verma to create bejewelled clutches for brides to pair with his signature sequin-covered saris and lenghas. Meanwhile, Jimmy Choo now allows Indian brides to customise their shoes. MAC cosmetics has also started selling special make-up kits for Indian brides-to-be.
A Market Shift Away From Opulence?
The rise of the modern bride is also contributing to an incipient, but noticable shift away from opulence and excess, something that many of the players I spoke to acknowledged. If it gains momentum, this shift poses potential challenges for many of India’s top designers, who have built their businesses on the country’s bridal market and who have become accustomed to charging whatever price they fancy
“We are feeding on greed, because we know we have a market we can prey on, but slowly this will all change,” says Mr Mukherjee. “Whenever there is overabundance, there will always be a group of people who are influencers or social leaders who will go against the grain to start a new anti-trend that in ten years will become mainstream. Right now, the fringe trend is doing non-ostentatious weddings which are cultural; which are classy. Not inviting 5,000 people, and just calling 10 or 15 people.”
“Demand for very, very expensive clothes is slowly thinning out, for many reasons,” he continues. “The younger Indian is far more socially aware and responsible than their parents, so now they have started making smart choices. They are not as blinded by society at large as their parents are. This is one of the reasons why we are looking at price point corrections in the wedding market” in response to a growing sophistication and taste.
My friend Shaana Levy, a recent bride herself, concurs. “Our generation and the generations to come are definitely more aware of the wastage and costs that often go into the more traditional ‘big fat indian wedding,’” she says. “They would much rather spend that money on an amazing honeymoon, a new home, a new business venture, donate towards a good cause,” she continues. “Uraaz and I consciously decided to have a more intimate wedding surrounded only by the people who we loved and adored rather than base our guest list on business associates and distant extended family we never see.”
This is consistent with evolving consumer behaviour in other developing markets, like Brazil and China, where luxury customers are also growing in confidence, taste, culture, refinement and education levels.
“A lot of us, as designers, got carried away with this idea of bling, and crystal, and diamond and diamante and lost track of a certain serenity, calmness,” says Rohit Bal. “Understated elegance is forgotten in India. It’s very easy to put a million crystals on a garment, and make it look blingy, but not nice. It’s very difficult to make a garment look as spectacular without the bling.”
“Today, you can make a great bridal business by just being obnoxiously expensive,” agrees Mr Mukherjee. “It’s going to be hell for us. When [consumers] become more and more confident, it will become harder for us to peddle our wares. But it has to eventually happen,” he asserts. “You never know. Fabindia might one day be the biggest player in the wedding market,” he says, jokingly, referring to the country’s fast-growing purveyor of simple, Indian clothing made of cotton and linen.
Then again, Mr Mukherjee’s 1.4 million rupee lengha, made with real silver zardozi, was also the very first piece to sell at the inaugural Vogue Wedding Show, held earlier this year. And for the parents and grandparents, who are heavily involved in wedding planning, old standards prevail. “In the wedding market, there are two parameters: one is weight, and one is price. People judge quality and aesthetic value by virtue of how much it costs and how much it physically weighs,” says Mukherjee. “Mothers will come in and say, ‘It’s not heavy enough.’”
Indeed, it seems that while early adopters are shifting away from the excess of traditional high-end Indian weddings, a market correction is still some ways off. As long as family elders are in charge of planning (and paying the bills for) extravangant weddings, they will also be key decision-makers when it comes to selecting outfits. And, for now, the Indian luxury bridal market looks likely to boom for the forseeable future.