Q&A With Darshan Mehta: Why Is Global Fashion Tilting Eastwards?

The South Asian bridal industry is one significant part of the Asian fashion story. The whole of the Asian fashion scene, however, is rapidly becoming a focus for the international fashion industry.

As demographics change and traditional economies struggle to maintain growth, the axis of the fashion world is tilting eastwards to where the demographics are providing the strongest market. Darshan Mehta is the President and CEO of Reliance Brands Ltd, the Fashion and Lifestyle division of the Reliance Industries Group. South Asia’s top fashion event, Lakme Fashion Week is conducted under the aegis of the Reliance group. The event is organized and managed in India by Reliance group entity, IMG Reliance. For Lakme Fashion Week, Mehta works closely with his counterpart, Sundar Raman, CEO of Reliance-Sports who is developing high profile sporting events in India with IMG Worldwide, the sports marketing and Management Company.

The 2016 Lakme Fashion Week is now only a couple of months away, so before Mehta got completely immersed in this year’s occasion I wanted his take on what is happening on the style scene in India. He also touched on Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Why is fashion’s centre of gravity moving eastwards?

Darshan Mehta: The supply side started moving eastwards – initially to east Europe and then to Asia – pursuing the availability of cheap and skilled labor, cotton and leather raw materials, etc. This started happening in the 1970s and 1980s. The consumption centre of gravity found a whole new genre of consumers in the Japanese in the 80s and 90s, in the Chinese starting the turn of the century, and then in India towards the latter part of the last decade. This was largely driven by a young demography and new wealth. First generation consumers who are moving to discretionary spends in their wallet beyond the non-discretionary spends and the savings. The smaller in size but powerful smaller geographies like South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand – altogether add up to a substantial pie. And then, of course, there’s Australia.

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How are changing demographics affecting the way the fashion industry conducts its business?

DM: One of the challenges of the western world is the collapse of the middle class. The collapse of the baby boomers. This is where Asian markets like India score. We are amongst the world’s youngest demographics. A middle class bigger than the population of the USA who are consuming brands as if they are going to soon become extinct. This generation is confident about its future. There is positivity in their mindsets. All this is leading to a virtuous cycle of trading up consumption.

How do fashion events fit into this virtual cycle?

DM: Fashion events such as Fashion Weeks, Fashion Weekends, Fashion Shows, Fashion Contests, etc. draw footfalls. The amplification of these events through media creates eyeballs. All this, in turn, increases the fashion decibel leading to consumers getting more engaged in this category and trading up. The more they consume, the more lucrative are the events which in turn leads to media proliferation covering these events…… and thus the cycle builds.

There are South Asian fashion events happening in major cities around the world most months. Why is this?

DM: Fashion weeks in Bombay, Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, etc. are increasingly attracting more digital and media interest. This is largely driven by the fact that the two largest internet user populations lie in India and China.

Your company, Reliance Brands Ltd., is one of the few compilers of market research on the fashion sector in India. Whys is it so challenging to locate regular authoritative research reports on topic?

DM: Unlike the involved and sophisticated world of luxury suppliers in Europe and the US, the players in this part of the world are very loosely connected. Thus there is neither a trade body nor government agencies that come up with any reliable and robust market data. Periodically media and association with consulting companies and wealth management financial companies come up with reports.

So what are the South Asian macro-trends you’re noticing?

DM: Fusion and intelligent assimilation is the biggest trend. No one buys the mannequin! Remember we are living in a very narcissist age, driven by selfies. Thus self-expression is the key. Everyone wants to belong to one or more cohorts and communities. But everyone wants to stand out within that cohort. Thus accessorising, footwear, hair, handheld jewellery (the mobile phone), the belt, the bag, the watch and the expression on your face are the key.

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