Who made the high street so hip?

Hip, trendy clothes are now on the racks of what used to be mom and pop shops. They’re cheaper, colourful and fit better too
Updated on May 24, 2015 02:23 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByAastha Atray Banan
If you’ve flipped through recent fashion magazines, you’ll know that Aztec prints are in. They’ve been seen in Versace collections and have trickled down to Western high street brands like River Island and Forever 21. Man sandals (women’s shoes with chunky soles and broad straps) have been on the runway and stocked by the dozen at stores like Zara. The international fashion chains are clearly on trend.

Today, however, all you have to do is walk to the closest Pantaloons or Reliance Trends or log on to Jabong or Myntra to look like you’ve stepped off a runway yourself. You’ll end up with more colours to choose from, get a better fit (try finding a skater dress for a thick waist at a foreign brand) and pay significantly less too.

As fast-fashion stores find favour with style-conscious (and higher spending) shoppers, the Indian high street is stepping up its game. Indian high street stores now put out on-trend items like checks, floral prints, ripped jeans and embroidered peasant tops alongside safer office shirts, beige trousers, salwars and basics.

And most online stores have in-house labels dedicated to lace dresses, peplum tops, military prints and polyester jumpsuits at made-in-India prices. And here’s why you will love them better.

Doing It Desi

Most international fast-fashion brands excel at making runway hits speedily available at lower prices. But they’re also designed for Western bodies (taller frames, trimmer midsections) and colour palettes (neutrals, sedate prints, lots of black). This is where Indian department stores come in – they’ve long known what India wants: not just roomier cuts and bright colours but more conservative styles too.

So that imported red lace dress for Rs 4,000, which was too tight at the waist and ended mid-thigh will have an Indian cousin. It will be cinched under the bust, come in blue, fuchsia and purple and will stop at the knee. And it will cost you Rs 1,999. In addition, an Indian store today will stock kurtis shaped like an A-line or skater dress so you can wear it with a churidaar, tights or just by itself.

When Forever 21 launched their owl motif in 2011, it appeared on practically everything: bags, necklaces, compact mirrors. Every Indian high street brand took notice – they put owls on tops, dresses, iPad cases and stoles. Maxis (ankle-length straight-cut dresses) looked stellar on tall and willowy models and storefront mannequins when they debuted late 2013.

But last year, the maxi became desi as Indian stores offered versions that were roomier on the bust to fall better, came colour-blocked (to offer a slimmer look) and with block prints.

Meghna Sharma, 30, a media professional, mother and online shopping fanatic is all praises for this development. She’d been looking for the perfect maxi and finally found one on a local site late last year. "I have become fearless about wearing a maxi, because this one fits me so well and is on trend."

How they keep up
Myntra’s business head Abhishek Verma says the company decides what is trendy based on many parameters. They look at international trends and what’s showing on the runway, what will appeal to Web-savvy Indian customers, and what will fit the budget of the middle-class spender.

“Each month, Indian customers get more demanding,” he says. “They know what is trending globally. They now have a more exhaustive ‘silhouette’ vocabulary.” They will ask for maxis, bodycon dresses, asymmetrical hemlines (also known as mullet dresses). “All those styles are on the website.”

Verma adds that getting the fit and pricing right is the key to success in the new world of mass fashion for India. Jabong founder and CEO Arun Chandra, on the other hand, believes that hiring the right team to style and design your goods is essential.

“We have a team in Spain and London, who is influenced by the street style there. And that reflects in our clothes,” he says. The clothes, however, are for those who spend in rupees, not euros. That’s why they manufacture in China.

Indian retailers are employing other strategies to keep up with trends. Pantaloons is part of the Worth Global Style Network, a trend-forecasting company that informs all retailers about the latest in accessories, shoes, bags and clothes, since 2006. “It’s a very expensive website to subscribe to, but it helps our designers,” says Nagesh C, head of design and visual merchandising at the brand.

“We also attend trade fairs such as Première Vision in Paris and keep abreast of the competition. Our designers walk into high street stores in London to know what they are doing. And we keep an eye on the runways. There is a lot of market intelligence that goes into designing products now.”

Nagesh also explains how they design for the Indian woman. “Whatever designs we adapt, we try and be modest with lengths, arm holes and necklines. We have learnt through our interactions with them that Indian customers put comfort first. Our designers visit the store every three months and talk to customers about what they love and hate. It’s all about consumer synchronicity.”

Does it fit India?
As Indian brands invest time, resources and precious floor space to in-today-out-tomorrow styles, customers have started to take note. But several challenges remain. It’s still considered low-brow to shop at the Indian high street, or as die-hard shopaholic Afrin Khan says, “I am just scared that I will be wearing what everyone else is wearing, as many people now pick up trendy stuff at places like Westside rather than Zara.”

The Indian stores admit they still have a long way to go before they’re considered the first port of call for high-street fashion.

To speed the process along, Jabong partnered with stylish actress Alia Bhatt last year and got her to curate a fashion line. Many online stores are partnering with fashion weeks across the country to ensure their offerings are straight off the runway.

Stores like Reliance trends have also collaborated with designers Shantanu & Nikhil last year for their show at Lakmé Fashion Week. And Pantaloons engaged in a tie-up with the Hrithik Roshan starrer Bang Bang, and retailed a line inspired by the movie.

"We have a two-pronged strategy," says Pradeep Ramachandran, head of marketing at Reliance Trends. "First, our designers attend all fashion weeks across the world, as well as trade shows. They travel to places like Shanghai to get more know-how. This is done so that they have the knowledge of what the trends are.

Second, we invest in the latest technology for our designers – like the different kinds of treatment fabrics are put through now." Ramachandran says that once the designers have a handle on what works, they break it down to figure how it will work in the Indian context.

"What is fashionable in Mumbai is not considered fashionable in Chennai. So our stores keep clothes that cater to specific cities." The metros stock the bolder picks, the other cities take it slower.

It all means that for you, the customer, being fashionable is no longer a function of your size or the size of your wallet.

It’s time to give the retail snob in you a break and head to the nearest Indian fast fashion store for that trend you saw in that fashion magazine. They may just surprise you.

Follow @aastha82 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, May 24
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