It seemed like a spot of misplaced nostalgia, the large Mickey Mouse ears on mannequins in a store window for Only, a fast fashion brand. On closer inspection, the garments in colours of maroon, grey and blue threw up an unexpected surprise—Mickey Mouse motifs. Some were instantly recognizable, like a black and white mugshot of the most loved mouse in the world on a shirt dress, others only alluded to it with references like “Mickey Made Me Do It".

Known for selling toys, stationery, party hats, bedsheets and furniture for kids, the consumer products division of Disney India is training its sights on the adults segment with its apparel range, and not for the first time. In 2008, designer Manish Arora put out a range of Disney-inspired clothing titled “Warrior Mickey", with sequinned garments priced at over $200 apiece in colours of midnight blue, yellow, silver and gold. In 2012, designers Shilpa Chavan and Nitin Bal Chauhan put out Disney-inspired collections for the Lakme Fashion Week, featuring apparel and accessories for men and women. In 2014, the company tied up with designer Masaba Gupta for sarees, tunics, scarves and bags under the Satya Paul label. But these associations, though few and far between, are mostly to test whether the market is ready for a broader range of cartoon character-inspired adult merchandise, a segment which was so far a challenge in India.

But things are beginning to change. “There is a generation shift. The Cartoon Network generation that grew up on animated content when the channel launched its 24-hour offering, are now first jobbers. This is why we now see a shift of interest in animated content consumption and merchandise sales," explains Jiggy George, founder and chief executive of Dream Theatre Pvt. Ltd, which represents popular animation brands such as Angry Birds, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Pokémon, among others, for licensing and merchandising in India and South Asia. Riding on the success of Pokémon Go, the hugely popular mobile phone game, the firm has entered into a dozen-odd deals for products focused on young adults.

From a business perspective, this push into the adult apparel segment is a crucial way for Disney’s consumer products division, valued at 1,500 crore in retail sales, to grow the business. The company started making inroads into the adult apparel market only in 2012, after tying up with retail stores such as Cotton World. “Five years ago, this category did not exist. Today, a third of our total fashion business comes from the adult category," says Abhishek Maheshwari, vice-president and head at Disney Consumer Products.

There are several reasons for it. To begin with, the company now has more properties which resonate with this audience, from its classic animated characters to those under Marvel (Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man, etc.) and Lucas Films (Star Wars, etc). It also has a dedicated team which designs products that appeal to this audience.

Design pushes boundaries. It’s not uncommon to see collections that shun the classic bright red, blues and yellows, offering instead subtle versions of grey, deep blue, black and maroon. Or even designs that substitute the recognizable logo and imagery, for something more understated, yet nostalgic. For instance, the Only collection has a maroon top with a minute print of Mickey’s gloved hands, no ears or face in sight.

Disney India also plans a tie-up with fashion brand Vero Moda to launch a classic, Bambi-inspired range of clothing for women this October.

Dream Theatre pegs the market for character-based adult apparel at approximately 200-250 crore in retail, growing at a rate of 25% each year. “In more mature markets, Hollywood studios have built a thriving business around character-based merchandise aimed purely at adults. So, while the market is still niche in India, it has the potential to grow substantially, even though the base is still very small," says Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd, a retail consultancy.

E-commerce adds ripples to this tide, unlike toy stores of the past. “Today, you have e-commerce sites which can actually host the entire range, and offer real-time intelligence in terms of what people want and how the content trend is translating into consumption," says Disney’s Maheshwari.

Companies are also exploring the possibility of finding a market for premium products aimed at adults—miniatures, limited edition collectibles and the like, the kind of stuff that will look good on a work desk or a bar.