When I was growing up, there was this neighbourhood grocery store that displayed a board next to the formica veneer money-drawer. It said: ‘Udhaarwale khisko, cashwale disco’. Well, I guess it was Mr Grocer’s version of a Jerry Maguire ‘Show me the money’ moment for customers who crawled in hoping for buy-now-pay-later favours. I had almost forgotten the bald grocer until Gautam Kotamraju, senior vice-president for new initiatives at Myntra, reminded me of how our generation shopped once upon a time.
Well, that ‘once upon a time’ is really not that long ago, though it may seem like a different era. In the age of technology, 10 years is a millennium, and two feel like last night’s hangover. This is the period of instant gratification. Do you want a lehenga? Yes. With lace or sequins? Sequins. When do you want it? In two days. For my friend’s sangeet. And a little black dress for cocktails as well, please.
Ten years ago, that would mean taking out your car or hailing a taxi, driving miles on a day off from work to a ‘clothing store’ to buy whatever was hanging on the rack. If you didn’t like it, the journey would continue to another store, only to eventually end with buying what came close to what you desired, with ample fruitless assistance from a uninterested salesgirl. Or going to a tailor after the ordeal of buying the fabric, a sample usually torn out of a celebrity or lifestyle magazine and then begging the great ‘masterji’ to accommodate this special favour for one last time.
A model poses in a Rahul Mishra creation
I still recall, as a youngster, how I would impatiently wait for the postman to bring home the Bloomingdales catalogue that was my window to world fashion. I would pore over all the gorgeous collections and draw little stars on every dress, skirt, shorts that I wanted to buy. I was allowed to order one ‘item’ from it, which was my fashion quota for the month as decided by my parents. For all the nostalgia, it’s of course great that era is over. There’s new real estate that has evolved and grown right in my living room. The World Wide Web, and along came the fashion portals. Flush down the catalogues and bring on asos.com (As Seen On Screen), which, by the way, gave the pioneer net-a-porter.com a run for its money.
Its iconic co-founder Lord Waheed Alli, who had exited Asos, was in India recently to start a new fashion portal called Koovs. “I’m here not to recreate another Asos but to be a part of the Indian fashion industry. Koovs is not about selling just sourced brands, but we have creative directors who will create a trend book suitable for customers here, because India is not England,” he says. He believes there is only one philosophy in online shopping: know your customer, because your customers already know their fashion.
Today, every portal worth its server has a fashion vertical. It is a war of clicks. And all you and I have to do is sit back and enjoy the bloodshed as designers, fashion portals and verticals vie for our finger to click on that ‘Buy Now’ button. The onslaught of online shopping sites—both homegrown and global conglomerates—has changed the rules of the game. You can make or break a designer or a fashion portal with nothing more than the click of a button. The power is in your hands, literally (and, it might be added, virtually).
Imagine, all that you do now is up pick up your smartphone, search for the lehenga or the LBD on your favourite site while watching the next episode of Narcos on Netflix and click the ‘Buy Now’ button. Before Mr Grocer can say ‘Show me the money’, your lehenga will be at your doorstep, packed nice and proper, tied up in a bow. If you shop from boutique fashion sites such as Etsy or perniaspopupstore, you will even get a personal note thanking you for shopping with them, or a little freebie.
Pernia Qureshi, of the eponymous website, says, “When you give a little extra to the customer, they are yours forever. The important aspect of it all is to make sure that your back-end is perfect so that Arti Mehra, the doctor working in Lucknow, gets her beige gown exactly when she wants it.” ‘When’ for Generation I means ‘Now’, and later is not an option. It is the generation of I, me, myself, for whom life changes at the click of a button. Because Now is Here. Talk to any player in the online fashion game and you will hear the words ‘my consumer’ twice in every sentence. Yes, the world is about the ‘I’ in you and smart online sites have heard you loud and clear. So has the world of fashion. It’s full focus on the customer. Those who dismissed online shopping as an impersonal experience can eat crow.
Designer Rahul Mishra, who has been creating a line for Myntra for the last two years, says, “Sites such as Moda Operandi and stores like Collette in Paris attend fashion weeks and take on pre-booking orders. Today, the fashion-conscious buyer, regardless of age, is well aware of global trends, thanks to the internet and live streaming of fashion week shows by big international brands. Everyone has a front-row seat now. They are watching you real time and have already decided what they want. Once the collection hits the market, they fly off the online shelf and the store. In case you forget that you pre-ordered, the stores will send you reminders before they unleash your order to open buying.” Nobody wants to miss the look of the season, after all.
As the fashion industry takes a fresh turn, embracing technology, the portals are evolving at a fast and furious pace, perfecting their back-end supply chain to keep up the promise of on-time delivery. So, the question really is: is fashion changing in the face of online shopping or is the online world changing in the age of internet fashion? My guess is that it works both ways and it is a symbiotic relationship. Neither can quite survive without the other anymore.
Didier Grumbach, former president of Chambre Syndicale de la Mode, who has seen fashion grow, evolve, devolve and grow and evolve again for over 40 years across fashion capitals, says, “The entire gamut of fashion—designers, stores, portals, everyone—all of them have to embrace technology and art to become a new entity. Unfortunately, it is a world that does not give us pause. When the mall boom happened, we thought our prayers had finally been answered. Now tell me, do you want to walk and browse through ten malls for that striped skirt?”
Maybe not. Most of us would rather pick up our iPad, click and find one online and move it to the wishlist till we browse for another five minutes for the silk blouse to go with it. And then it is just the power of the click. With the portals making payment pretty much as you wish—pay now or on delivery or on EMI—whatever your choice may be, you can rest assured that your look for the Saturday dinner is set. Says Anjali Shah, a 24-year-old advertising professional who lives in Ahmedabad, “I am an avid online shopper not because it is convenient, which is a given, but largely because they are prompt on delivery, and if I don’t like something I can return it with no questions asked. Besides, I can sit in my office and buy the exact brand, style and colour I want. What more could you ask for?”
Fern Mallis, founder of New York Fashion Week and former executive director, Council of Fashion designers of America, says, “It is natural for fashion to evolve and change in the face of e-commerce. For one, maintaining a brick-and-mortar is becoming irrelevant when you can easily show your collection on the web. Designers who are well-established have realised that having an online presence is imperative to survival. Take the example of net-a-porter.com. They had the pulse of the audience and gave their customers the experience of easy shopping. They tied up with luxury brands as well as pret lines giving a range for everyone. It worked and the world followed.”
Indian designers and e-commerce sites (even those that were only selling books or gadgets) were quick to latch on and added fashion verticals to their sites. Fashion designers followed the cue. While some designers preferred to open their own websites, the smart ones migrated to existing portals with fashion verticals. The smarter ones chose sites specific to fashion, such as Myntra, Koovs, Max Fashion and niche luxury boutique sites like exclusivity.in.
Soon enough, the big daddies of online world—Amazon and eBay—came along with experience and, importantly, deep pockets. They were already masters of the online universe. All they had to do was tap into the Indian psyche. They did and opened separate fashion verticals, hired fashion-educated teams, tied up with the big brands of India and perfected their back-end supply chain.
Amazon, for instance, nabbed designer Narendra Kumar (Nari) as its creative director, the first move of its kind in the market. Says Nari, “There is absolutely no doubt that online shopping has changed fashion across the world and especially in India. It has democratised fashion. At one point, style and fashion was the prerogative of the rich and famous in the metros. Today, anyone with a phone, no matter where they are, can order what they may have seen on television or a magazine. The biggest achievement is that fashion has now become accessible in real terms to everyone at whatever price points they want.”
Nari claims Amazon reaches each and every pincode in India and has a range from Rs 500 onwards. This makes Sunil Sethi, president, Fashion Design Council of India, a happy man. He says, “These are early days, but I am going to take a narrow view of the whole movement for now. One of the big complaints of designers across the board was that there was no corporate support for Indian fashion to grow and to be taken seriously globally. At least with biggies like Amazon entering the industry—be it online or offline—our designers can now travel distances that was once unthinkable. Let us be honest: it is good business when money comes in.”
Everybody loves money. Be it a multi-billion-dollar giant such as Amazon or eBay or homegrown ones such as Myntra, Jabong, Koovs or Max Fashion, small boutique stores like perniaspopupstore or exclusivity.in, it is a win-all proposition. And everyone wants a bit of it, especially in India, where fashion-shopping on the internet is still in its nascent stage. As they say, catch ’em young! “We are all new in the business of fashion compared to the west. The good news is, we are moving in the right direction. Our challenge is not the infrastructure or the reach. Indians are still a bit wary of buying online, but that is changing faster than we expected,” says Nari of Amazon.
The intimidation of online buying was partly solved by the first-movers like Flipkart, which started by selling books. It was a test of faith for the consumer and the portal. But once consumers realised that buying online is not just easy but safe as well, they moved on to accessories such as bags and shoes. “The next step was naturally clothes, and here only portals that can provide detailed sizing charts can make a dent,” adds Nari. Whoever said size matters clearly knew his business.
There is no doubt online fashion is in a good place: a marriage of convenience between designers, consumers and websites. Says Ritu Kumar, who creates a special line for Myntra under Label, “You cannot ignore the growth of online buying, and certainly, the fashion industry can grow only if designers understand that you cannot reach every corner of the country. The economy of scale will not make sense. You cannot have a store in every city or town.” Online fashion became the answer to this conundrum. Clearly, being on the web can take you places, provide you the kind of reach that can turn your label truly global. Someone sitting in California can reach you as easily as someone in Calicut. Says Fern Mallis, “At the end of the day, it is about being clever with your money while increasing your consumer base. Also, the myth that online selling dilutes the brand value is absolute rubbish. We know the price points at which online selling works, and designers create entirely new lines for online stores while keeping the DNA of the brand intact. The portals are selling the bridge lines of big designers. If you want the mainline or couture, you go to their store.”
The pricing strategy makes sure of that. On an average, the online pricing range is Rs 500-20,000, and designers selling online create separate lines within this price point. Simply put: the consumer gets her lehenga and the LBD without stepping out of the door and at an affordable price, and designers get a fresh platform to give their collection an outing with minimum investment. And social networking sites help with the Selfie Effect. Says Sakshi Gulati, “The minute I get my order delivered, I wear them and do a selfie for Instagram and Facebook and wait for the likes and comments.” Yes, maybe the days when we wore our new clothes and showed it to our friends and asked for their opinion over coffee is over. But the social interaction isn’t—just that technology has once again made it easier. Better still, your selfie style may well become the “look” if you get lots of likes and hearts on your Instagram!
Pooja Walawalkar of Mumbai shows off a dress from her wardrobe
Which is exactly what Gautam Kotamraju is counting on. He has an entire cell dedicated to creating a community for the selfie effect. His tech team does not just monitor buyer behaviour, which all online portals do, he has worked on technology that keeps a tab on the number of likes and loves his products get on social networking sites. It may sound creepy—Big Brother watching and all that. He bails out with an explanation: “We have about 4 million visitors on our site every day. Of this, 60 per cent are men and 40 per cent women. Many are browsing our collection, some moving items to their wishlist while others go on and buy.”
So his job is to analyse and understand what exactly is the customer looking for. Why might they have moved it to the wishlist? How can the site help them complete their look? Gautam says, “And these answers come from the data we collect and the idea is to create a community so as to make the buying experience personal. For instance, we keep a keen eye on returns and if there happens to be a sizing issue, we resize it for them, complete with a pick-and-drop facility. Again, it is about making the consumer feel completely at ease. Just because he ordered a pair of jeans online does not mean he is a faceless guy somewhere.”
Vikram Raizada, retail and luxury consultant, explains the phenomenon. “While I was working with MTV during 1999-2006, we began studying the behaviour of our viewers, especially the younger 18 to 25 group, we caught on how gradually the generation is turning more individualistic. They were beginning to pay attention to how they present themselves, how they look and the image they portray started to matter. We saw the emergence of how important ‘individual identity’ was becoming for everyone,” he says. What we see today in the fashion industry is an extension of that individual expression. And online fashion makes it easier and accessible. Yes, online fashion has changed fashion in one way for sure: it has put the ‘I’ back in ‘You’.