The Sabyasachi store in New Delhi is packed with brides-to-be. It is standing-room only with eager family members scouring the racks for the perfect lehnga for their princess’ special day. The two changing rooms at the end of the store are constantly occupied, and every few minutes a beautiful girl emerges, kitted out in one exquisite piece after another, standing apprehensively in front of the mirror, a trial bride reviewing her new status. Onlookers gasp. Shop assistants hover around, helping drape the chunni on her head, the final step in the transformation.

And in the middle of this tense chaotic scene, the designer, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, himself moves calmly, floating like a cloud from room to room, making pronouncements—“this pink will work beautifully with your skin tone" or “the red lehnga is too heavy on your slim frame"—a master whose nod of approval every girl in the room yearns for.

Standing in that store, with the crush of brides around you, you would think Indian designer brands in the luxury segment have hit the jackpot. Indeed, the larger environment colludes to reaffirm that thought—there are fashion shows galore, bridal wear exhibitions every week, high-end malls like Emporio are buzzing with shoppers, the Bollywood and high- fashion nexus is constantly paraded in the media, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has got himself a designer. Boom time, you conclude.

The Dior store at DLF Emporio, New Delhi, Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
The Dior store at DLF Emporio, New Delhi, Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

As perspective, some of the top luxury brands rake in global revenue in the billions—Louis Vuitton $9.4 billion, Gucci $4.7 billion, Hermès $4.5 billion, Chanel $4.4 billion, Prada $3.4 billion, Burberry $3 billion (estimates by Forbes, 2013). Even “first-generation" brands, where the designer still helms the business, can have massive scale—Ralph Lauren Corp. revenue for 2013 was $6.4 billion, Giorgio Armani for the same period did $3 billion.

So the big question is: What will it take to create an Indian Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani? Will we ever see a 1,000-crore “made in India" luxury brand?

There are three essential ingredients required to change the game: 1) focus on the business aspect of fashion; 2) grow artisanal bandwidth; and 3) play the branding game.

Focus on the business aspect of fashion

Most designers who have caught the limelight have enviable creative talent—the Sabyasachi lehngas were like works of art, beautifully conceived and impeccably finished. Or walk the higher floors of Emporio Mall, and the product in the stores is gorgeous—Tarun Tahiliani, Varun Bahl, Suneet Varma, Rohit Bal, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna, Anju Modi, the list goes on.

The problem lies in the business aspect—most brands lack the financial muscle and managerial skills to grow their companies into the big league. For example, size is a function of number of stores—but each new store needs a hefty investment, which they simply don’t have the funds for. Or take the way production is planned and managed—even with the best of intentions, a highly creative person is rarely good at managing a factory or workforce.

While international brands outsource production all over the world—leading to cost advantages—our designers are tiring themselves out trying to do it all on their own. Fashion is just a business like any other, but you will rarely come across seasoned professional managers running the show.

Grow artisanal bandwidth

Unlike the West, the route that Indian luxury has taken is very dependent on specialized “hand work"—embroidery, appliqué, sequins, etc. That is what our designers use copiously and that is what our consumers value highly. The catch is that these require specialized craftsmen, and some skills are so super-specialized that they exist only within certain families.

 Do the math—if brands are to multiply in size, the pool of skilled craftsmen needs to multiply as well. This is not something that any single brand can do—there needs to be a collective effort to nurture and grow this pool of skilled workers. Otherwise, it is going to be a bottleneck to growth.

Play the branding game

Strong and explicit branding—a logo, a symbol, a pattern, a colour, some distinct visual marker—has been a major driver of growth for international luxury brands. The logic is simple: Consumers, especially those new to luxury, spend big bucks on items that others can instantly recognize. A recent example is Tory Burch—the iconic double “T" logo has played a big role in the brand’s success; the company is barely 10 years old, and slated to post $1 billion in revenue in 2014.

Few Indian designers have fully harnessed the power of branding. Some have a distinct aesthetic that marks them out, but for the most part you can’t tell one brand’s product from another’s. Sabyasachi is an exception—he has developed a signature visual code (the plaited trimming on the borders, for example) that you can identify at a glance, and that has certainly contributed to his rapid growth.

I asked designer Rahul Khanna (of the duo Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna—I am a big fan of their clothes), if he were given a magic wand, what would be the one thing he would change that would dramatically influence his business? He mulled over a few options, but the answer was telling: “If I could be a ‘design house’ and not so much a ‘production house’, that would be great."

Great design talent working together with great business talent will unlock the true potential of Indian luxury brands.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

Also Read Radha’s previous Lounge columns

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