Today, every store you go to stacks by style: Rachna Aggarwal

Indus League CEO Rachna Aggarwal on introducing Friday dressing in India in 1993, and how the apparel consumer has changed since then

Rachna Aggarwal says women’s category is growing faster than men’s because men shifted to ready-to-wear earlier but women are still shifting. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Rachna Aggarwal says women’s category is growing faster than men’s because men shifted to ready-to-wear earlier but women are still shifting. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: In Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, alumna, Rachna Aggarwal is the Bengaluru-based chief executive officer of Indus League, the brands division of Future Lifestyle Fashions Ltd. Best-known for introducing Indian men to the concept of Friday dressing with the launch of Allen Solly at Madura Garments in 1993, Aggarwal has been steering Future Group’s branded apparel business since 2008 after the Kishore Biyani company acquired Indus League Clothing in 2005, the venture capital funded brand marketing firm she co-promoted along with seven colleagues. Indus League was known for brands such as Scullers and Indigo Nation, and was set up in 1999.

Today, Future Lifestyle Fashions has 19 brands in its portfolio, including Indigo Nation, Scullers, Urbana, John Miller, Jealous 21, Urban Yoga, Giovani and Mother Earth, among others. With fashion in her DNA, Aggarwal spoke of the company’s expansion plans and changing consumer tastes in fashion. Edited excerpts:

How big is Future Lifestyle Fashions’ brands business?

Under Future Group you have Future Retail, Future Enterprises and there is Future Lifestyle Fashions. This has two divisions, the brand division which has all of our brands and the other part is the retail division where we have formats like Central, the large format department store, and Brand Factory. Future Lifestyle Fashions—both retail and brands—would be about Rs.3,500 crore. This year it would touch Rs.5,000 crore. About 30-40% of this would be the brands business.

Which are the fastest growing brands in your portfolio?

All of them, actually. We are looking at very aggressive growth from Champion, Umbro, Converse and Urban Yoga because everybody is into health and fitness these days. It is a big category. Champion is one of America’s largest “at leisure” brand. We are a licensee for that. Umbro is a soccer brand from Manchester. Converse is a lifestyle sneaker brand while Urban Yoga is a self-created, niche brand for yoga. Overall, the casual and “at leisure” segment is growing faster than other segments as people want clothes to lounge in—the idea is “be your real self”.

Besides, women’s category is growing faster than men’s because men shifted to ready-to-wear earlier but women are still shifting. More women are working and they are out more. Even if they are not working, they have a sense of fashion and spend on clothes.

But your portfolio is largely for men.

It was a men-centric portfolio. Not anymore. We have worked very hard to get into women’s wear. Jealous 21 was the first women’s wear brand we acquired. At Scullers we launched Scullers for women before Indus League got acquired by Future Group. Jealous 21 was a Rs.1 crore brand based in Mumbai when we bought it, it’s a Rs.250 crore brand today. We made it aspirational by signing up brand ambassadors like Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and, more recently, the current Miss Universe.

We also have Mohr—our prêt designer brand for women with designers like Priyadarshini Rao, Kiran Uttam Ghosh and Anand Kabra. Mother Earth is also for women. It’s a grass-roots development brand where production happens with women self-help groups. We do a lot of export to IKEA as it is not just apparel. We do a lot of home furnishings.

Which are your strongest markets?

The brands are very strong in the south—Kerala, Karnataka, even Andhra Pradesh and Telengana. They sell in towns like Rajahmundry, Warangal, Vijayanagaram. We are strong in Gujarat as well as in cities like Raipur, Nagpur and Indore. In Bengaluru, everyone knows Indigo or Scullers. We have 30 stores there. In Kerala I run 35 exclusive brand stores for Indigo, Scullers, Jealous 21.

We are actually weaker in the north. Here people do not know these brands.

But now we are in Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Jaipur. We’ve started in Rajasthan as well. But we still have to crack Delhi and Punjab. It is a different market.

What’s different?

India is very different in its fashion sensibilities. For south you are not doing much winter wear. In Delhi you cannot do without it. One has to look at all of that. But now we’re eyeing this market—it is such a large market.

Is there a specific issue with Delhi?

Two or three things, actually, it was always a more seasonal market compared to the rest of the places. It was also a much more brand-conscious market, wanting a lot more international brands and labels. Here, labels make a lot more difference than just a good product. Besides, we have also been based in Bengaluru.

But now slowly we’re expanding here and have stores at several malls.

How and why did you introduce Friday dressing in India?

When we started at Madura Garments with brands like Louis Philippe and Van Heusen, men were just shifting from tailored shirts to ready-to-wear shirts. I joined the company in 1992, but the shirts had launched in 1990. At that time, men were moving away from shirt pieces. However, they were still getting their trousers tailored.

Allen Solly was the first company that actually launched a smart casual shirt. Before that you had formal shirts like Zodiac, Park Avenue, etc. The first washed casual shirt was Allen Solly when we launched it with the concept of Friday dressing. For the very first time we intro duced the concept that there was a day to dress down. It was a big trend in America and we lifted the international concept.

Why we did it? We were bored of selling the white shirt and the blue striped shirt to men. That is all that was selling then. So we brought in washed denim shirts and cotton trousers.

Earlier, if you went to a shirt shop—there was a counter with a man behind the counter. He would sell by size. If you said size 40, he would open a box and show you a shirt. Allen Solly was the first store in the country where we removed the counter, we launched self-service and we started stacking by style. Earlier everybody stacked by size. Today every store you go to stacks by style. And all the sizes are together.

How has the apparel consumer changed?

When men moved to ready-to-wear clothing, women were still getting stuff tailored. Then the youth shifted to denims and T-shirts. However, in the last 10 years, women have shifted to buying ethnic ready-to-wear. Then even the more mature women started buying Western ready-to-wear such as shirts.

Amazingly, in the last two years, there’s been a surge in dresses. Dresses were not there even two years ago. Now even the mature women wear dresses. When I go to a party, I see 40-50-year-old women in dresses.

The consumer has definitely evolved. There is exposure and fashion is global. Everything is available at the click of a button. There’s television and Internet. It doesn’t matter whether you are travelling or not. You are seeing everything. Besides, international brands have come in. Initially, what came in were the premium and luxury brands. In the last three-four years, the brands that are coming in are actually “on trend”, low priced brands—Zara, H&M, Forever 21. These are mass brands but “on trend”. Fashion sensibilities have evolved. But there is still a long way to go. The Indian consumer is not buying anywhere near the number of garments that people buy internationally. No chance.

What is your personal style?

It depends on the occasion. I wear Indian, Western, casual and formal. You dress in what you think is appropriate for the occasion. You not only want to look good but want to be comfortable. If you look good, you are confident.

Where do you shop?

Everywhere. Actually, I don’t shop much. I am seeing clothes all the time—walking in the mall, checking our stores. I am doing this as my job. I don’t want to go back again and do it on a holiday.