From Indus Valley civilization to colonization to present day, here’s an overview of fashion and the evolution of the Indian fashion industry. Discover the statistics, and what our predictions of its future are.
Indian history is so ancient and rich, that the concept of Indian fashion is thousands of years old. The Indian fashion styles started evolving right in the Indus Valley civilization. However, the Indian fashion industry didn’t evolve for many centuries due to an unexpected reason – the caste system. Just like in any other country, the history, culture and weather are some of the important factors that influence the Indian fashion industry. Let’s take a look at the how the industry began, evolved and what lies ahead for it.
Pre-Colonization Era: Origins of the Industry
Some of the earliest records of Indian garments can be found in the sculptures of Indus Valley civilization (3300–1700 BC). Records of saree-style drapery date back to the art from Maurya Empire ( 322–187 BCE).
Despite Indian fashion styles being ancient, it didn’t see any evolution as an industry until the British rule.
Before colonization, fashion was just for the royalty. The Indian society was divided into different castes, which decided their professions. And fashion had to be practical for everyone, since the majority of the population was poor. The peasants wore cotton dhotis or sarees, and the warriors wore armor. Nobody within the majority of the population either had the means or requirement for vanity.
Moreover, the common-folk wove their own cotton and hand-stitched the hems to create their own dhotis and sarees. Clothing in India was still meant to be mostly wrapped around the body, rather than stitched. The lack of disposable income among the population made the fashion industry virtually nonexistent.
Fashion vs. Textiles
Before the fashion industry in India even began to take shape, the Indian textile industry had already evolved. Trade happened in pre-colonization India, which was mostly limited to silk imports and cotton exports. According to silkroadfoundation.org, India discovered the closely-guarded secret of how to make silk from the Chinese, somewhere around 300CE. Before long, silk became the fabric of choice among Indian royalty. Parts of India such as Cochin, Gujarat, Malwa, Varanasi and Delhi became centers of sericulture and brocade weaving.
The Mughals enhanced the colors and art in silks, introducing paisley and buti motifs. So fashion remained the exclusive rights of the riches. They wore intricate jewelry, accessories, silk sarees, lehengas and sherwanis, replete with hours worth of embellishments.
Colonization Era: Introduction of European Styles
While the East India company introduced Anglo fashion styles, such as skirts, trousers, suits, achkan and blouses. These styles weren’t adopted, but were enforced upon the Indian British employees. European fashion inspirations evolved the Indian clothing among the nobility and upper classes.
Fashion is always a representation of the society we live in. During much of colonization, Indian fashion became an expression of awe and oppression, both literally and stylistically. For the common man, fashion was just a form of injustice. Again along with their poverty, it became another factor that kept the Indian fashion industry from growing or evolving.
Post-Independence: Beginnings of the Indian Fashion Industry
For a couple of decades after Indian independence, the Indian economy struggled and fashion was a low priority for Indians. The educated Indian population formed the upper classes and still preferred western clothing, especially for going out or social situations. However, economic growth and partition finally led to a development of Indian fashion industry. As inter-state trade evolved, fashion styles were exchanged and Indo-western fashion developed.
The Influence of Bollywood: Major Turning Point
There has been no greater force in the growth and development of Indian fashion industry than Bollywood. In the late 1950s, color in Indian cinema became popular. And this brought along a revolution in the Indian fashion industry. People began to take notice of the colorful costumes and lifestyle presented in the movies.
The golden age of cinema, from 1940s to 1960s, brought many films to the limelight. Some of them truly showed Indian fashion in all its glory, a mix of historic and British influences. Actors like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, and actresses like Nargis and Madhubala became the first modern influencers that moved the Indian fashion industry forward. People began to get inspired by their clothing styles for their daily fashion choices.
Despite the rising popularity of fashion, Indian fashion industry remained largely unorganized. A lack of popular brands and designers made sure that people had to rely on bazaars, local tailors and their own sewing skills to diversify their clothing styles.
Growth of the Dashion Industry: 1980s – 1990s
From then on there was no stopping the Indian fashion industry. The Indian cinema boom after the 1970s, when superstars such as Amitabh Bachchan, ZeenatAman, Dimple Kapadia and Jackie Shroff made different styles of fashion popular among the masses. Every Bollywood star had to have their own personal style, which inspired all strata of society.
A lot of western fashion influences also came to India, such as the bell-bottom pants of the 70s, the denim trends and the workout fashion of the 80s. The growing demand finally led to the evolution of the Indian fashion industry.
1980s: An Expanding Wallet
Many homegrown fashion brands became popular in the 1980s, especially among the growing middle-class population. These included Lakme, Louis Philippe, Raymond, Flying Machine and Park Avenue.
In the 80s, fashion designing became a viable profession, as the first wave of Indian fashion designers gained popularity, including Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla, Tarun Tahiliani and Satya Paul. Along with them, many foreign brands also entered the market. This competition and demand also created a segregation in the Indian bazaars. Local shops created collections inspired by western brands. Boutiques sold clothes inspired by Bollywood and fashion designers and appealed to the younger generation.
Fashion education began with the opening of NIFT. Indian fashion evolved much more in these two decades than it had in the previous thousand years. In the late 80s, superhit films like Maine Pyar Kiya and Chandni made fashion an obsession for not just the high income groups, but even for the low income, and for all genders.
1990s: The Recognition of Couture
In the 1990s, fashion finally became something for everyone. TV became a part of a high number of Indian households, and the younger generation got access to a growing disposable income. So everyone began to take notice of Indian fashion designers like Rohit Bal and Manish Malhotra, as more and more films began to keep fashion as a focus. Some examples are Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dil to Pagal Hai. Further reading: Indian Bollywood Fashion Through Decades: 1960s to Present
Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen winning the international beauty pageants in 1994 and Indians traveling abroad meant that western fashion trends penetrated India within a matter of months. Furthermore, fashion and Bollywood magazines also contributed to people’s exposure to fashion trends.
The upper and middle classes began to devote more and more of their income towards fashion. Social occasions such as kitty parties, festivals or family outings gave people a reason to purchase new clothing. Similarly, getting custom-made wedding wear became common. Indian fashion got segregated into three parts: affordable, premium and designer.
2000s: The Internet Era in Indian Fashion Industry
Not just the fashion industry, but by the new millennium, cosmetics, hair and skincare industry had also grown a lot. Demand for kids wear and clothing for different occasions, fashion industry boomed.
In the 21st century, a couple of factors influenced the further growth of Indian fashion industry:
- Indian weddings had become large lavish affairs, and expensive wedding wear became a big part of them, for all high earning families.
- Women became independent, earning members of the family. This meant that they could spend more of their disposable income on fashion, and fashion became a way of expression of her personal style, identity and freedom.
- More foreign fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Zara, Aldo, had penetrated the Indian market in the 2000s. This increased exposure to trends increased demand, and also created employment for more fashion designers, buyers and merchandisers.
- Growth of shopping malls ensured shopping became not just a way to fulfill clothing or self esteem need, but also a way of passing free time and socialization.
- Internet increased the exposure of international fashion trends and brands. And the common Indian could now access foreign fashion trends within seconds of their inception, by watching fashion shows happening in Milan or Paris.
The 2010s Boom in Indian Fashion Industry
As smartphones got popular in the 2010s, a wave of Indian e-commerce startups continued to grow the Indian fashion industry, along with foreign shopping websites. Websites like Amazon, Myntra, Flipkart and others gave all regions of India the access to latest fashion trends, as well as created more fashion jobs. Read more: 15 Best Online Shopping Sites in India for Clothes.
The e-commerce industry has been a major factor that gave Indian fashion industry a growth spurt in 2010s. Popular fashion became no longer limited to the metropolitan cities that had the shopping malls. Shopping websites also gave local designers and small sellers the opportunity to increase their reach. This increased competition forced shopping websites to push fashion brands to give 15-20% discounts.
According to a 2015 report by Economic Times Retail, fashion brands “claim to be paying 30-40% commission to e-commerce platforms.” This, according to Arvind Singhal, chairman of retail consultancy firm Technopak Advisors, is similar to the 40-45% margins brands pay to run a physical retail store. Fashion clothing retailers usually make 10-15% profit after covering operating costs.
How big is the fashion industry in India?
Factors including internet & smartphone penetration, fashion media, growing middle class, e-commerce sales grew the Indian apparel market from $38 billion in 2012, according to according to Technopak’s estimates, to $67 billion in 2017, as told by Rahul Mehta, President, Clothing Manufacturers’ Association of India (CMAI).
Luxury, Premium & Affordable Fashion
These online sales quickly blurred the lines between premium and affordable fashion, even though price range still demarcates these sections of fashion.
For example, designer brands like Louis Vuitton that has three stores in India is considered very exclusive. Their store representative in Bangalore spoke to ShilpaAhuja.com in an interview, saying “Bags range from ₹69,000 to ₹21 lacs, depending on the leather and design. Shoes start from ₹46K and clothing ranges from ₹38K for t-shirts and goes up to ₹4.5 lacs for dresses that could be made with exotic leather.”
Some of the top Indian designer boutiques also make up the luxury fashion industry, including Sabyasachi. His bridal lehengas have been popularized hugely in this decade after being worn by A-list celebrities like Anushka Sharma, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone. Ready-to wear Sabyasachi pieces start from ₹50,000, with around ₹7 lacs being a mid-range. His couture bridal lehengas go up to ₹25 lacs.
For the Indian fashion designers, wedding fashion still remains a big focus, since that’s where the demand of the wealthy Indians is.
Similarly, a brand like Zara is considered premium. Zara has many boutiques all over India in shopping malls. A quick search on their website reveals that their products start from ₹790 (accessories) and go upto ₹9990 (dresses and outerwear). Read more: Top Western Wear Brands in India from Retail to Online
Affordable fashion brands are aplenty on online fashion websites and in markets. For example, Miss Chase has thousand+ products on sale on fashion app, Myntra, with women’s clothing ranging
From ₹275 to ₹1850. Read more about Top Indian Fashion Brands.
An Unorganized Industry
The fashion industry still remains largely unorganized, with formal retail accounting for just 35 percent of sales in 2016, according to McKinsey. Local stores and boutiques make up for a majority of sales. As such, illegal street vendors and semi-permanent shops in markets like Sarojini Nagar in New Delhi and Fashion Street Mumbai still remain a go-to choice for the low to mid income group, especially for those who don’t like to shop online.
Digital Media & the New Influencers
With high speed internet, fashion media gained even more popularity in the 2010s decade, with the advent of fashion bloggers and digital fashion magazines like Vogue.in and ShilpaAhuja.com. The main modes of marketing changed from print magazines and newspapers to online media such as blogs and videos.
Today, the online fashion and lifestyle media plays a big role in increasing the demand for clothing, skincare, makeup and accessories, since everyone has access to the latest trends, what to buy and ideas on how to wear it. Fashion influencers are not limited to Bollywood celebrities and nowadays, anyone who loves fashion has the opportunity to express their personal style on social media.
Moreover, the changing face of Hindi cinema has encouraged even Bollywood celebrities to partner with Indian brands to create clothing lines, such as Deepika Padukone with Van Heusen or Karan Johar with Vero Moda.
The Future of Indian Fashion Industry
McKinsey predicts that the Indian apparel market is set to become the sixth largest in the world by 2022. The fashion retail industry in India is expected to expand to US$115 billion by 2026, according to Forbes India.
Here are the major reasons for this growth: India’s middle class is expected to grow by 1.4 percent a year by then, along with increasing internet access in rural parts and Tier II and III cities, like Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Lucknow, will grow the Indian fashion industry. Additionally, a GDP growth of 8 percent a year will give Indians a greater disposable income.
Going into the 2020s decade, I expect the industry to become more organized, as increased competition will lead to acquisitions in the fashion e-tail market. Smaller, unknown brands that won’t be able to survive the challenges will give way to conglomerates and larger consolidated brands. McKinsey reports that more than 300 international fashion brands are expected to open stores in India in the next two years.
Additionally, I can foresee India also following the path of the western countries, where more celebrities, fashion influencers and top bloggers to venture out and start their own fashion brands. Similarly, instead of catering to just the high income groups, I predict that some of the top Indian fashion designers will start their own premium fashion brands. Anita Dongre has already done that many years ago, and to cater to the growing middle class’s demands, I can foresee other designers following suit.
Future of the Needs of Indian Consumers
These homegrown brands will be able to fill in the market gaps that the Indian population will see in the 2020s, such as smart/hi-tech fashion, trendy adult-inspired children’s wear or international fashion-week-inspired garments that are eco-friendly and high-quality.
Likewise, I also predict that more business-savvy Indian fashion entrepreneurs and designers will create fashion brands that can also cater to the international fashion needs in emerging markets, much like Zara and H&M have done in the west. To do this, brands will have to understand the growing trends in the global fashion industry, such as:
- Increased customization through artificial intelligence
- Diversity in fashion needs such as different body sizes, genders and sexual orientations
- Low-maintenance, comfortable fabrics that can work in the hot climates of the emerging markets such as Brazil, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Mexico.
Clearly, going forward, Indian brands will have to be smart about their quality, and understanding Indian consumers’ needs. These needs are evolving as quickly as the fashion industry. Whether they will or will not, only time will tell, but I have a good feeling about it.
Shilpa Ahuja the editor-in-chief of ShilpaAhuja.com, which she founded with the goal of inspiring confidence in the modern working woman through fashion. Other than defining the direction of the magazine, she also writes about fashion & beauty trend forecasts, industry analysis, and opinions.
Shilpa’s work has been published in the University of Fashion blog and Jet Airways magazine. She is also an artist, illustrator and cartoonist. She is also the creator of Audrey O., a comic series that represents the lifestyle of millennial women. She enjoys creative writing and world travel. Her art has been exhibited at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Aroma Hotel, Chandigarh and been published in Chandigarh Times.
Originally from Chandigarh, Shilpa also has a degree in architecture and has worked in interior project management. She is also the author of the book “Designing a Chinese Cultural Center in India”. Shilpa has a Masters in Design Studies degree from Harvard University.
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