Indian men are falling in love with their mirrors—and fashion brands are taking note

The new Indian man.
The new Indian man.
Image: Andamen
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In 2010, two years after its launch in India, the magazine GQ decided to make a list of the 50 best-dressed men in the country.

It was a project that met with some scepticism, editor Che Kurrien recalled, with critics asking whether there really were as many as 50 stylish Indian men worthy of being included.

“…men’s style and menswear were very, very static at the time,” Kurrien told Quartz. “What we considered a well-dressed man was probably somebody who wore a suit, maybe if he had a pocket square—you were a natty dresser if you wore a pocket square.”

Nevertheless, 50 Indian men were found, ranging from Bollywood actors (such as Hrithik Roshan and Abhay Deol) and sportsmen (Yuvraj Singh, Leander Paes) to industrialists (Ratan Tata, Anand Mahindra, and Anil Ambani) and even politicians (Manmohan Singh, Omar Abdullah, and Shashi Tharoor). The overall aesthetic, however, was the same: classic style, with a touch of flourish here and there.

Since then, the magazine has put out a list of the best-dressed every year. But of late, it’s become very clear that men’s style in India has come a long way from the old days, led by Bollywood’s experimental new generation of actors, including Ranveer Singh and Jim Sarbh, fashionable designers, and indie musicians. This year’s round-up includes men wearing everything from sequin-encrusted jackets to pineapple-print shirts to pastel-blue suits, all pretty much unthinkable even just a few years ago.

“…cut to 2017 and it’s just been a revolution,” Kurrien said. “If I look at the list that we put up in (June) 2017, what is interesting is just the range of styles that people have, the breadth and the range is incredible. It’s become far more individual.”

And this approach is trickling down to the ordinary urban shopper, too, marking a new era for India’s menswear business, which was worth Rs149,900 crore ($23.3 billion) in 2016, according to Euromonitor International. With disposable incomes on the rise and easier access to global trends, young Indian men are increasingly investing in their appearances, both in terms of grooming and style. They’re looking for unconventional options, which a number of homegrown brands are only too happy to provide.

Better style, better fit

For Siddharth and Satvika Suri, the husband-wife team behind the online-only brand Andamen, catering to the globe-trotting Indian consumer is key. Launched in March 2016 and inspired by the Andamans (with a logo featuring the islands’ last swimming elephant), the brand sells formal and casual shirts in an array of quirky prints and styles, as well as more conventional plain and checked options. Best-sellers include a shirt imprinted with tiny blue and orange rhinos, besides the solid blue- and white-coloured styles.

Overall, the aesthetic is minimalist and contemporary, Satvika Suri told Quartz. “It’s a design that an Indian will be very comfortable wearing in India (and) very comfortable wearing in London or New York,” she explained. Another priority of the brand is to upgrade the “Made in India” label, paying attention to materials and details to create shirts on par with those sold by foreign luxury brands.

Andamen’s collections take inspiration from Indian themes, including, most recently, the seals, tablets, and inscriptions of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation. The company has a no-discounts policy, and the average price of its shirts is relatively steep at around Rs4,000. But Indian shoppers don’t seem to be complaining.

“…we actually have reached a point now where we wish we had more inventory,” Suri said. While the company only sells shirts for now, it plans to roll out trousers, t-shirts, and even accessories over the next year.

Andamen is just one among a number of Indian brands that have cropped up in recent years to provide men with a wider variety of stylish and well-tailored options. But beyond minimalist designs and playful prints, Indian men are also waking up to the importance of clothes that offer the right fit, and other homegrown brands have made this their USP.

While some mainstream menswear brands, notably Van Heusen, do offer a range of fits, as well as different sleeve and trouser lengths, it’s not always easy to find clothing that suits different body types in India.

“For example, men usually when they go shopping, what happens is you like something but you’re never able to pick (it) up in your fit because the shirt may be in a slim fit, but you’re a regular guy,” Sanjay Jain, co-founder of Bengaluru-based Kaapus (meaning cotton in Marathi), explained.

To address this problem, Kaapus, founded in 2014, offers its shirts and trousers in four fits—standard, custom, slim, and extra slim. Besides the usual corporate staples, the range includes tropical prints, mandarin collars, and casual popover shirts, as well as camping shirts, all priced between Rs2,500 and Rs4,000. After being an online brand for over two years, the company launched its first store in Bengaluru last month.

The Bombay Shirt Company goes a step further: On its website, shoppers can customise their shirts down to the button and its thread after selecting from a vast variety of fabrics, including checks, stripes, and prints.

“I used to design my own shirts because I enjoyed buying fabric and putting it all together, and I liked wearing well-fitted clothes. Then people started asking me where I got my stuff from, and I realised that there might be a business for this,” said founder Akshay Narvekar, who previously worked at luxury brand BCBG Max Azria in the US before moving to the private equity business in India. 

In 2012, Narvekar decided to strike out on his own, launching the Bombay Shirt Company. Its shirts range in price from Rs1,700 to up to Rs70,000, depending on the material used, and it takes around 10 days to produce each one. Today, the brand has six stores across India, as well as an upcoming one in Dubai, and Narvekar said its sales are doubling almost every year.

“What makes us most proud is there is no typical customer. People who can afford to shop for much more expensive stuff than what we price our stuff at choose to buy with us; for many people it’s also an aspirational product so they’re buying up,” Narvekar explained.

But despite the growing interest in stylish, well-fitting clothing, these niche brands have to contend with the dominance of India’s mainstream menswear brands, as well as the growing popularity of foreign fast-fashion favourites.

Endless choice

While India’s menswear business is extremely fragmented, the largest player is the conglomerate Aditya Birla Nuvo, which holds a 4% share of the market, Euromonitor said in an April 2017 report. For most Indian men, the company’s brands, including Louis Philippe, Van Heusen, Peter England, and Allen Solly, are the key destinations for both formal and casual clothing. Future Lifestyle Fashions and Arvind, which sell Scullers and Arrow, respectively, round out the top three firms. In comparison, private labels, including Pantaloons, Shoppers Stop, and Marks & Spencer, together account for less than 1% of the market, according to Euromonitor.

However, while many of these mainstream brands have also evolved over the years to offer more casual clothing and even a few prints here and there, they’re still largely focussed on selling the staples of solids, stripes, and checks. And their collections aren’t particularly distinctive.

“When you’re looking at it as a layperson, there’s really nothing to distinguish Louis Phillipe from Van Heusen,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of Third Eyesight, a retail consultancy. “The whole point of being a brand is the customer asks for you by name. If the customer is not asking for your product by name, or looking for your product by name, then it’s a generic product, it’s a commodity,” he explained.

And that could pose a problem as competition heats up in India’s menswear business, which is expected to be worth Rs179,500 crore by 2021, growing at a compound annual rate of 4%. In recent years, foreign brands such as Gap and H&M have also set their sights on India’s booming retail market, opening up stores across the country to sell trendy and affordable options for both men and women. H&M, for one, is doing brisk business, having turned profitable within six months of launching in India.

These developments are all signs that fashion is finding fans across a larger swathe of India’s male population, which marks an improvement from way back in 2010 and beyond, when caring about how you looked was considered simply unmanly.

“…there was a general sort of suspicion about style and fashion in those days, which was, if you’re somebody who cares about these things you’re frivolous, you’re not a very serious person, you’re a lightweight, you’re maybe even a peacock…because we were in kind of a homophobic era,” GQ’s Kurrien said. Now, the definition of Indian masculinity is opening up a little, just a little, to allow for a bit of a wardrobe update.

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