Home >Companies >Retailers do a rethink on formal wear for women

Bangalore: When Van Heusen, a premium apparel brand, launched a new line of its women’s Western wear last year, it added its version of the little black dress because it knew from experience the limitations of an exclusive corporate-wear line.

“When we launched women’s wear (in end-2006), it was everyday couture comprising formals at premium pricing. We changed that last year and formals are only 30% of the entire collection because women are always looking beyond office formals," said Shital Mehta, chief operating officer, Van Heusen.

Changing strategy: A Van Heusen store in Connaught Place, New Delhi. Analysts say the market is still evolving; some women say the formal, Western wear available is both expensive and unsuitable. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Over the past five years, brands such as Provogue, Scullers, Indian Terrain and Arrow, which traditionally sold men’s garments, have started retailing women’s Western wear, a term that refers to formal dresses, pants, shirts, skirts and suits. But a lukewarm response has forced many of them to either roll back their lines or overhaul them in an effort to expand the customer base.

Analysts say it’s difficult to estimate the market size for a segment that’s still evolving in India. And some women say the formal, branded Western wear available in the country is expensive, not made with the bodies of Indian women in mind, or both.

Nilanjana Ghosh, 32, says she finds it hard to fit into most of the formal wear available in stores. “There is very little choice and I don’t want to pay Rs1,200 for a shirt that I wear to work," says Ghosh, who used to work for a UK-based retail chain in the city.

Some companies too seem to have decided it just isn’t worth the effort.

In July, Indian Terrain, the retail brand of Chennai-based export firm Celebrity Fashions Pvt. Ltd, downscaled plans for its women’s line a little after a year of its launch. “We are not going to expand our women’s portfolio and will only focus on men’s wear," said Surya Narayanan, executive director, Celebrity Fashions.

Allen Solly, one of the earliest brands to start selling Western wear for women, completely revamped its collection six months back. “We made it more casual, added more lines to bring younger customers to the stores, and there has been a marked improvement in response since then," said Ashish Dikshit, president (lifestyle), Madura Garments, which also owns the Van Heusen brand here.

Provogue India Ltd says purely Western formal wear for women doesn’t work. “We are looking at casual and fusion wear now to do volumes," said a senior official at Provogue, who asked not to be named citing company policy.

Following the economic downturn that spelt a death knell for several retailers as consumers stayed away, companies and brands are now getting back to addressing women buyers with a new strategy and new lines, said Ashish Dhir, associate vice-president, KSA Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd, a retail consultancy.

“There is also a need for a formal wear brand in the value segment for women. It is largely, a fragmented market in India and even stores that are exclusively for ethnic wear haven’t been doing well," said Dhir.

Some companies too think the price card will help.

Scullers, the retail brand of Indus-League Clothing Ltd, part of the Future Group has reduced entry prices by Rs100 to Rs799 for its new corporate line for women. The range is priced at Rs799-1,099, lower than the Rs899-1,299 range for its previous lines. “The real acid test will be once the current end-of-season sale ends and regular buyers trickle in," said Asha Shridhar, brand manager, Scullers.

Arrow, Arvind Ltd’s brand that stopped production of women’s wear two years ago is more optimistic. It is relaunching its women’s line in September because it sees demand returning and expects the market to be ready for the concept of Western wear for women now.

“The women’s wear market is growing now and we also want to cater to buyers who come with their spouses to shop at our stores," said J. Suresh, chief executive of Arvind Ltd’s brands and retail divisions.

Still, Arrow is taking no chances. “Of course, we are going beyond the formal this time and there will be a lot of regular fashion wear," added Suresh.

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